The untold story of Audrey Hepburn: Hollywood actress whose parents flirted with Hitler

A new biography charts the life of actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn. Twenty-five years after her death, Audrey Hepburn remains among the most popular of all Hollywood stars. Several biographies have chronicled her stardom, but none has covered her intense experiences through five years of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands.

Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston, future shining Hollywood star, entered the world under a different kind of star, a dark one, on May 4, 1929. Her mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra, was a strong-willed, plain-speaking, high-spirited colt of a woman who at age twenty-eight still felt the need to sow wild oats, despite the fact she was now the mother of three, counting sons Alexander and Ian from her first marriage.

In Ella’s veins—in the veins of all the van Heemstras — raced Frisian blood. Frisia, known as Friesland to the Dutch, is a unique province in the far north of the Netherlands.

Even today many Frisians bristle at being referred to as Dutch at all—they’re too unique and independent for such a common classification.

That Audrey Hepburn should one day become an accomplished personage known around the world isn’t surprising considering her bloodlines among Frisian nobility.

By 1900 van Heemstra had become a family name of national honour in Holland.

The path to wealth for Dutchmen cut through the East Indies, but Aarnoud Jan Anne Aleid — or A.J.A.A., Baron van Heemstra — went his own way and obtained a doctorate of law in 1896, the same year he married Elbrig Willem-ina Henriette, Baroness van Asbeck.

Aarnoud set up practice as a prosecuting attorney and then became a judge in the prosperous city of Arnhem on the Rhine, capital of the province of Gelderland, forty miles west of the German border.

Audrey's flakey father Joseph Ruston
Audrey’s flakey father Joseph Ruston (Image: Dotti Collection)

As he pursued his practice, the Baroness van Asbeck produced babies—Wilhelmina Cornelia (1897), Geraldine Caroline (1898), Ella (1900), Marianne Jacqueline (1903), Willem Hendrik (1907), and Arnoudina Johanna (1911).

By now the father of six had become burgemeester, or mayor, of Arnhem, a position he held for ten years until 1920.

The family lived in a beautiful villa beside the Lauwersgracht, a lake that was all that remained of a moat that once encircled the ancient walled city of Arnhem.

The van Heemstra home was one of three in the “Paad-je van Bleckmann,” villas owned by a wealthy local family named Bleckmann.

Another of these villas, known as de Nijenburgh, was occupied by Cornelia, Countess van Limburg Stirum.

The baron’s daughter Wilhelmina married the countess’s nephew, Otto Ernst Gelder, Count van Limburg Stirum, in 1918, meaning that the van Heemstra family presence was both strong and close in Arnhem Centraal, overlooking the Rhine.

In another twenty-six years these three grand villas of the van Heemstra and van Limburg Stirum families would be soaked in blood and destroyed in the most romanticised battle of the Second World War.

Audrey aged 15 in February 1944

Audrey aged 15 in February 1944 (Image: Dotti Collection)

Under Burgemeester van Heemstra’s direction, Arnhem prospered.

The land development association Nederlandsche Heidemaatschappij chose the city for its headquarters, the soon-to-be-famous Openlucht Museum and Burgers’ Zoo were established, and affordable housing became prevalent.

In March 1920, Aarnoud gave his daughter Ella’s hand in marriage to Hendrik Gustaaf Adolf Quarles van Ufford of Oosterbeek, the next town over.

Hendrik was a former horse cavalryman and now an oil executive assigned to the Dutch East Indies.

After the nuptials the couple set sail for the Far East to begin a new life together.

Later that same year Burgemeester van Heemstra, who was something of a penny-pincher, suddenly relinquished his office in a squabble with the city over money.

He stated that “the meager salary does not allow me to continue to do my job properly.”

Audrey returns to Velp for a 25 April 1946 dance recital to raise money for the Red Cross

Audrey returns to Velp for a 25 April 1946 dance recital to raise money for the Red Cross (Image: Dotti Collection)

He returned to law but not for long.

The Netherlands’ Queen Wilhelmina of the House of Oranje appointed Aarnoud to be governor of the Dutch territory of Suriname on the northeast coast of South America, so the baron, baroness, and three of the van Heemstra children set sail for what would become a tumultuous eight years in the far-flung Suriname capital, Paramaribo.

Aarnoud was a charismatic aristocrat.

Ella described her father as “about the most handsome man I ever saw. They say he is brilliantly clever. He forms his witty remarks in a French way. On Sundays he looks subdued but bubbling over with mischief. His teeth look very white behind a small black moustache.”

The new governor of Suriname had spent his life among northern Europeans and now had to deal with a South American melting pot that included native Indians and escaped slaves, called Maroons, who had formed their own independent villages in the abundant rain forests of the interior.

Audrey in 1943

Audrey in 1943 (Image: Dotti Collection)

Administering this wild area meant keeping bauxite mines producing aluminium and also ensuring the stability of rice and banana crops, and all three required lots of muscle from either free men or indentured servants.

Prior governors had been figureheads, but not Governor van Heemstra, who undertook several expeditions deep into the interior — places where white Europeans rarely were seen.

He took an active interest because the baron was a visionary who saw the economic potential of Suriname.

He pushed hard for financial independence at the expense of a Netherlands government that he correctly labelled as disinterested in this “unimportant” piece of real estate — the real money was to be made in thriving Dutch East Indies enterprises that produced coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, and rubber.

Governor van Heemstra remained a progressive who worked tirelessly on behalf of his colony.

His work ethic would be seen a generation later in his young granddaughter.

In 1922, van Heemstra welcomed the Aluminium Company of America, better known as Alcoa, into the Moengo forest to mine bauxite.

But the honeymoon between the governor and Alcoa was short-lived: He realised almost at once that danger lurked in this US company monopolising Suriname resources.

His worries during these years weren’t just political.

His wife’s health was in decline, and then he learned that his third daughter on the other side of the world, Ella, had decided to divorce her husband of five years, Hendrik Quarles van Ufford, after producing two sons.

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