Audrey Hepburn: The Secret WW2 History of a Dutch Resistance Spy

Audrey Hepburn is one of the most iconic movie stars of the 20th century, yet her experience with both the Dutch resistance and Nazis in World War II is largely forgotten.

In stories of doomed World War II gallantry, little is as romanticized as Operation Market Garden. A technical failure by the Allied Powers to defeat the Nazis in 1944, this invasion of the Netherlands left British paratroopers stranded around a bridge in Arnhem, far too removed from their tanks to hold the line. Nevertheless, the bravery of those Airborne “Red Devils” has lived on in pop culture, as have the Dutch resistance fighters who sheltered them. What has been largely forgotten is that among those courageous souls was… a teenaged Audrey Hepburn? For about a week, in fact, the future movie star kept a Red Devil hidden in the cellar.

This image, of wartorn tenacity, is hardly the type associated with Hepburn in the popular imagination. To this day, she’s remembered as the ultimate Givenchy girl, an ethereal presence who took her breakfasts at Tiffany’s, and always in a little black dress. Even when she was heartbreaking on screen, she was luminous—a woman who appeared to glide through a charmed, effervescent life.

That illusion had little to do with the real-life fires which forged her identity, or the experiences of a Second World War spent almost entirely under Nazi occupation. In the autumn of 1944, she and her family kept a British paratrooper in their basement, the latest act in a series of defiances (after initial appeasement). By the following winter, they too would be living down there, wary to even crawl out of “bed” as the bombs fell on their small Dutch village of Velp.

Remarkably, much of that story’s been omitted from history, not to mention the books written about Hepburn and mid-20th century Hollywood. Not until the recent publication of biographer Robert Matzen’s Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II did the Hepburn family lore about the Red Devil even become public knowledge. But then not many were asking.

“I was researching my book on Jimmy Stewart in the Eighth Air Force, and I was in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, and saw a couple of things about Audrey Hepburn spending the war there,” Matzen tells us. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s very interesting.’ So when I came back here, I was poking around on the internet, trying to find things about that, investigating what happened to her during the war in Arnhem, and I couldn’t find anything. It had not been well-documented.” That’s now changed.

Audrey Hepburn in Arnhem 1942
Audrey sits in the hilly Sonsbeek section of Arnhem in February 1942. Courtesy of Robert Matzen / Audrey Hepburn Estate Collection

Why Audrey Hepburn’s Past Stayed Hidden

Throughout the decades, biographers who wrote about Hepburn used what little she would tell the press of her childhood for background—about the horror of the day the Nazis arrived in the Netherlands, destroying a bridge she’d recently crossed, and the elation that came on the April morning when Canadian forces liberated Velp (it was the first time Audrey had a cigarette)—but other than the general knowledge that deprivations in the “Hunger Winter” contributed to Hepburn’s thin frame, the events of World War II have gone largely overlooked. This included Hepburn’s contributions to the Dutch resistance as a message courier for downed British pilots, as well as the less romantic fact that while studying to be a ballerina in the early years of the occupation, she danced for fascists.

There are many reasons these details became lost, but most of them have to do with Hepburn’s own personal choice of what to share from those harrowing days.

“She would say certain things that were not controversial, and I mined every single word of hers about the war,” Matzen says. “But she wouldn’t go to certain places, because they were controversial. She spent the war in Arnhem, which is occupied by the Nazis, and she was a ballerina who danced, at times, for the Nazis. It wasn’t that she supported the Germans at all, but if you wanted to dance in public, there were going to be Germans in the audience. After the war, how do you justify that in the press? It could easily be spun.”

Perhaps, more importantly, there was the uncomfortable fact of her parents’ politics prior to the invasion.

Says Matzen, “Her mother and father were pro-German, pro-Nazi supporters up to and through the invasion of the Netherlands. Audrey could never reconcile herself to what her parents represented. It was her darkest secret, really, one that could contaminate the press about her. It could contaminate her career and kill it.”

That knowledge—as well as a lifelong modesty bred into her about never boasting or complaining—caused her to omit those sordid details, as well as stories of her dancing later in private gatherings to raise funds to hide and feed Jewish neighbors as the Holocaust marched on. Both aspects of her youth, her parents’ mistakes and her family’s later resistance, have thus become greatly diminished.

Her parents were indeed fascist sympathizers, with Matzen even calling Audrey’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, a fangirl and “Hitler-chaser” who managed to meet the Fuhrer face-to-face in the Nazis’ Munich headquarters in 1935. Not that Audrey was aware of any of this. In ‘35, Audrey (or Adriaantje as her family then called her) was six-years-old. A year later, the Brussels-born child would be sent to a boarding school in Kent, England, away from both parents. The only meaningful interaction she really had with her father was when he drove her to the last proverbial plane out of Britain before the war started. It was December 1939, and Audrey was a shy 10-year-old who didn’t speak Dutch. After arriving in Amsterdam, her mother had one immediate command: “Now be Dutch.”

The Execution of Uncle Otto

In those early years, what brought Audrey out of her shell were dance lessons; and what brought her mother back to reality was being around her decidedly anti-fascist family, including her father the Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra, and her brother-in-law, Otto Ernst Gelder van Limburg Stirum. In fact, it was the fate of Otto which became a turning point for the entire family, not to mention Holland. Because when Uncle Otto, along with four other Dutchmen from prominent backgrounds, was driven to a forest and executed in a shallow grave, the Germans provoked the exact opposite reaction they intended: mass resistance.

It was Aug. 15, 1942 when Otto was lined up before a firing squad. Audrey was 13.

“Otto van Limburg Stirum was a mysterious character that I had to go find out about, because he was lost to history, and he was lost to Audrey’s history,” Matzen says. “She would talk about this uncle who was shot, this uncle who was a judge, but he was really [more] like an assistant DA. The fact that she would not talk about him at all, except to say ‘my uncle was shot’ really strikes me as proof of how significant he was in her life as a father figure, because her father was gone. She had two replacement fathers, Uncle Otto, and her grandfather, the Baron. Suddenly, Otto is taken away. He’s imprisoned by the Germans and sort of held hostage in case something bad happened.”

When a then-fledgling resistance did invariably do something bad from the Germans’ perspective, Otto and other figures with anti-fascist sympathies were executed.

Says Matzen, “It was a national event, and I think it was highly traumatic for the core members of the van Heemstra family, of which Audrey was a member, and something that deeply affected her, because once again, just like when her father left, now another father figure has been taken away, and it deepened her insecurity, a lifelong insecurity.”

Matzen also describes it as the final straw for Ella van Heemstra’s fascist sympathies.

“She had already become disillusioned by 1942,” Matzen says, “but even as late as the holidays in 1941, she was still staging pro-German events in Arnhem. But when Otto was shot, Ella took Audrey and moved in with Otto’s wife, who was Ella’s sister, Meisje, in Velp… Meisje and Otto were supposed to move in with their grandfather. Otto never actually got to move there because he was arrested and detained, right before that. The house always felt empty because of this.”


The war crime that left Aunt Meisje a widow also forced the van Heemstras to be more active in resisting their occupiers. Audrey would speak, on brief occasions, about dancing for the Dutch resistance and raising funds that contributed to sabotaging German operations. What she didn’t talk about was her acting as personal assistant and gopher to the local doctor who organized the operations. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of Dutch Girl is how Matzen does what the Nazis never could: reconstruct the resistance network in Velp and the larger Arnhem area.

“I was sitting with some contemporaries of Audrey’s,” Matzens says of his time on the ground in Velp, “and they were young girls during the war. In one case, one of the daughters of this man, who turned out to be the resistance leader [Dr. Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft], was just a year younger than Audrey… and they casually mention, ‘Oh yeah, our father, the doctor, was the resistance leader in the town, and he used to say, ‘Oh, Audrey was my assistant.’ I almost spit out my lunch.”

Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft, was an enigmatic figure, brazen enough to personally steal a German officer’s motorcycle and talk his way out of it, and also shrewdly adept at rallying all the family doctors in the region into his underground efforts. Visser ‘t Hooft knew medical experts were a precious commodity in wartime, even to Nazi occupiers, just as he knew the Germans paid children no mind.

“The Dutch were crafty enough that they gave the children the messages to run from house to house,” Matzen says. “They gave children supplies, medicine, to take here, to take there. Audrey in particular was running messages and food to downed pilots, because Audrey had spent years in England and when she comes back she’s fluent in English, whereas the other children are not, generally.”

Throughout the war, Audrey would have a series of run-ins with fighters on both sides of the conflict. Some were positive, such as the time a German soldier shoved her under a tank in Velp as a British plane opened fire on the street, killing Germans and civilians alike. It saved Audrey’s life. But others were less ambiguous, such as when she was nearly captured by the German green police and dragged to Germany (a fate her brother did not escape).

“In retaliation for another act of resistance, Audrey was [randomly] rounded up with other girls, to be taken to Germany, to work in kitchens,” says Matzen. “She escaped from that and basically went into hiding after that, because it was too dangerous out on the street.”

Audrey Hepburn in 1943
Audrey at 13 in 1943. Courtesy of Robert Matzen / Audrey Hepburn Estate Collection


By the time German V2 rockets were malfunctioning over Holland and falling from the sky on civilians, or Allied planes passed overhead with itchy trigger fingers, the van Heemstra family was in the same cellar that once housed their Red Devil guest. And slowly, Audrey began to starve. After what was left of their food was depleted, they ate tulip bulbs. When those were gone, they ate the weeds. Like so many Dutch children in this period, Audrey became anemic and edema set in.

The depravations would haunt Audrey the rest of her days, informing her svelte frame and, Matzen argues, possibly her early death from appendiceal cancer. Despite these hardships, she nor many other children living under occupation forgot the jubilation they felt for the Allies, even as stray bombs fell.

“That battle destroyed Central Arnhem, it destroyed the dance studio where she danced, it destroyed relatives’ home, it was a devastating battle,” Matzen says. “But it didn’t matter, because those were the liberators. They were the knights in shining armor, who came to free the Dutch…. and it was the Canadians who liberated Velp, and it was just pandemonium. They saved so many lives by bringing food, bringing relief.”

Given the recent need for historical reexamination of all war efforts, including the Allies, it might surprise some that the same Dutch girl who needed to be pushed under a German tank to avoid British air fire would delight in eating Canadian chocolate until she threw up. But modern eyes didn’t live through an occupation.

“I think history has lost the intensity of that experience, just because of time,” Matzen says. “Time heals all wounds, and we move on. But I thought it was important in the book to reconstruct what they went through, using diaries… It was such a vivid all-encompassing experience that if you talk to these people today, those who lived through it, their memories are undimmed.”

Audrey’s never were.

Audrey HEpburn with Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank
Audrey meets Fritzi and Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, in 1957. Courtesy of Robert Matzen / Anne Frank House

A Roman Holiday After the War 

To Hepburn, Hollywood stardom was a fortuitous turn of events, almost a consolation prize for a dance career that never materialized after the war’s hardships derailed her plans and training. Luca Dotti, Hepburn’s second son by as many marriages, even related to Matzen that when his mother wished to impart wisdom to her children, it was always via the experiences she suffered through during the war—never her brief, glamorous Hollywood career. Yet some argue, including Matzen, that the role which brought her to Hollywood and made her an international star was directly informed by those wartime experiences.

Roman Holiday (1953), Hepburn’s first American movie for which she’d go on to win the Oscar, is very much a postwar fairy tale in which a beguiling princess named Ann goes rogue during a trip to Italy, escaping her royal escort and spending a whirlwind 24 hours in the still ravaged Italian capital. A sheltered princess who’s never lived without personal servants seems a far cry removed from the girl starving in a cellar, but they’re one in the same to her biographer.

Says Matzen, “Audrey does come from an aristocratic background, and she brought that to the princess role. But she was also at that time a young girl and, in some ways, very immature and sheltered from the world because of her upbringing and because of her focus on dance at the expense of really her social development. She was all about dance, then she was stuck in her cellar… so in those ways, she really was very Princess Ann-like when Ann escapes from the palace and starts to explore Rome. She’s a babe in the woods, just like Audrey was.

He adds, “That ingenuous quality of Ann that Audrey brought to it made that performance so real, because Audrey didn’t have formal acting training at all, really. [She was] acting on instinct and bringing her own life experience to the part.”

It would also be the closest her on screen persona came to the war. Hepburn played a variety of women in her short career, from the ultimate good time girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the cockney Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. But she never made World War II dramas. Most remarkably, she even reluctantly turned down Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank who personally wanted to meet with Hepburn in the 1950s to play his daughter on screen. Audrey related too much to the fellow Dutch girl, who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp for her Jewish heritage, to ever be able to “play” Anne. It was a story Audrey had been deeply affected by well before Roman Holiday, too.

“After the war, Audrey and her mother moved to Amsterdam so Audrey could resume her dance career,” Matzen says. “And they happened to move into an apartment [where] below them lived the editor who was working on Anne Frank’s Diary. And this editor knew of Audrey’s experiences, love of dance, how she had been caught by the green police at one point and said, ‘You know what? This story might really interest you.’ So Audrey read the galleys for the Frank diary before it was published.” It destroyed her.

“This girl was born six weeks after Audrey. Anne Frank came from Frankfurt, Germany; Audrey came from Brussels, Belgium. They both became Dutch girls, and they spent the war 60 miles apart in the Netherlands. They shared the same war being under occupation and fearing the Germans every day. Of course Anne Frank’s diary stops in the beginning of August 1944… Audrey survived, and she didn’t use the word ‘survivor’s guilt’ but she felt it.”

Hepburn politely refused Anne’s father. Hepburn never wanted to make money off the story. In fact, she didn’t openly discuss her kinship with the material until years after her Hollywood career as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. The new duties allowed Hepburn to do public readings of Anne Frank’s Diary at galas—and also travel into war-torn countries and raise awareness for starving children: a horror Hepburn knew too much about from her own youth.

The Princess and the Warrior

That story of Hepburn as the late-in-life UNICEF humanitarian is also the subject of Matzen’s next book, Warrior. And it was Hepburn’s son, Luca Dotti, who convinced him to write it.


“Luca said, ‘When UNICEF signed my mother they thought they were going to get a pretty princess to raise money at galas,’” Matzen recalls. “‘And what they really got was a badass soldier.’ I then got goosebumps.”

The images from Hepburn’s time in UNICEF were those of her in impoverished regions holding starving children. However, what was not shown were the struggles getting to these places, or the war zones she had to evade.

“The first night she spent in Ethiopia was in a hotel in a city under siege,” Matzen says. “There was no running water in the hotel. It had been knocked out by bombs. The only way she was safe with her contingent was because there were armed guards all around the lobby of the hotel. That’s not what you think about with Audrey.”

Indeed, much like her experiences with her own war in the 1940s, it’s a million miles away from the Hollywood fashion icon. Perhaps though the inability to fully reconcile these two sides of Audrey—the princess and what Matzen calls the warrior—is what informed a screen presence unlike any other.

“She was kind of a chameleon, which I find very interesting, because I don’t understand it in some ways,” Matzen says. “She went straight from Quito, Ecuador where she had just been in this incredibly poverty-ridden situation, straight to a Givenchy retrospective in Los Angeles where her dress was brought in by taxi with an hour to spare. Then she all of a sudden would be the princess again.”

When someone asked at the event how she could go from one world to the other, she responded, “I don’t consider it two different worlds. It’s all my life.”

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