Book Review--Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II


Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Robert Matzen
GoodKnight Books, 2019

While it is well known among classic film fans that Audrey Hepburn endured many hardships during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, there has been little firm detail about what the actress went through. The only certainty: the troubles she endured colored the rest of her life and affected everything from the way she ate and lived to the work she did. In a new book, Robert Matzen tells that story, revealing all the details that a traumatized Hepburn was reluctant to share in later years.

Dutch Girl is the third of Matzen’s “Hollywood in World War II” trilogy. While I missed the second book of the series, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, I found Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 to be a fascinating, if devastating account of the actress’ death by plane crash and those were were on the flight with her (reviewed here). This final entry is even more haunting than the Lombard book, encapsulating not just the terror that shaped the life of one of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses, but of the Dutch people in general.

Matzen begins with the years directly before the war, when her parent’s divorced and her father essentially disappeared from her life, leaving her with feelings of abandonment that would stay with her forever. Audrey was shuttled off to an English boarding school while her mother, the Baroness Ella Van Heemstra settled in Arnhem. While the young girl was lonely and anxious, she developed a love for dance that nurtured her.

As the inevitability of war grew, the Baroness decided it best to have her daughter with her. Barely making it to Arnhem, Audrey spent the rest of the war with her emotionally cold, but fundamentally supportive mother, dancing as much as she could and sometimes struggling to survive. 

The story that follows is brutal and not for more sensitive tastes, but it is an important document of civilian life in war. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the story is that the middle class Van Heemstra’s made out relatively well: losing some family, but never starving or suffering assault from German soldiers, and still suffered the fallout from those times for the rest of their lives. It makes you realize how unbearably horrifying it must have been for those with fewer resources.

Dutch Girl is the most revealing account I’ve read of the life of the Baroness Van Heemstra. Matzen details her pre and early wartime devotion to the Nazi party and Hitler, who she met before the war. It’s an admiration that she was later ashamed to have had and which Audrey occasionally feared would become a scandal when she became famous.

Aside from this unfortunate idolatry, Matzen reveals a complicated woman, who, while being emotionally cold with her children, had craved physical affection as a child herself, but never received it or learned how to give it. The Baroness may have had a complicated relationship with her daughter, but she drew upon considerable strength to keep her safe throughout the war, including lifting her spirits by encouraging her interest in dance.

Matzen effectively describes the terror young Audrey must have felt as German soldiers marched into Arnhem, the horror of her beloved uncle and much treasured father figure being held hostage and eventually executed, and the helpless feeling of being forced to cower in a shelter while Allied planes bombed the city above. He captures great detail via interviews with locals who experienced many of the same things Hepburn did during this time. It is easy to envision the environment she lived in, where she could hear prisoners being tortured from the street and there was no guarantee that a loved one wouldn’t be whisked away in the night or that she could even lose her own life.

I was especially interested to learn the extent of Hepburn’s work for the resistance. Via a family friend, she formed an alliance with a group of doctors who provided not only care, but forged documents and sanctuary for citizens in danger. In raising money with dance recitals and bringing food to downed pilots and other resistors hiding in the woods, she put herself at risk, but she was compelled to do everything she could to help.

The book touches lightly on Hepburn's film career, occasionally weaving it into the narrative. I was stunned to realize how close she was to this trauma when she found widespread fame starring as a princess in Roman Holiday (1953). Less than a decade after ducking German soldiers and Allied bombs, she was cradling an Oscar and celebrated by the world. What strength it must have taken to traverse those different worlds and build a life.

Before reading this book, I never fully understood how deeply Hepburn’s wartime experience had impacted her life. She was truly haunted by what she saw and endured. It was fascinating, if difficult to learn about this one story of many in a generation that was permanently altered by World War II.


Many thanks to GoodKnight Books for sending a copy of the book for review.

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