Three stars for a fascinating, enlightening work of war biography that suffers from dry writing and a flawed premise.
Twenty-five years after her passing, Audrey Hepburn remains the most beloved of all Hollywood stars, known as much for her role as UNICEF ambassador as for films like Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Several biographies have chronicled her stardom, but none has covered her intense experiences through five years of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. According to her son, Luca Dotti, “The war made my mother who she was.” Audrey Hepburn’s war included participation in the Dutch Resistance, working as a doctor’s assistant during the “Bridge Too Far” battle of Arnhem, the brutal execution of her uncle, and the ordeal of the Hunger Winter of 1944. She also had to contend with the fact that her father was a Nazi agent and her mother was pro-Nazi for the first two years of the occupation. But the war years also brought triumphs as Audrey became Arnhem’s most famous young ballerina.
Audrey’s own reminiscences, new interviews with people who knew her in the war, wartime diaries, and research in classified Dutch archives shed light on the riveting, untold story of Audrey Hepburn under fire in World War II. Also included is a section of color and black-and-white photos. Many of these images are from Audrey’s personal collection and are published here for the first time.
This is a troublesome little book.
Matzen explains in the introduction that very little has been written about Audrey Hepburn’s years in the Netherlands during WWII, largely because there are few fruitful sources. Hepburn herself rarely spoke of that time in her life, and of course, by the time Matzen is writing, first-person sources have all but died out. Matzen assures the reader he has set out to fill this void in the biographical record.
To some extent, he has. Matzen goes into great detail about (his best guesses at) Hepburn’s involvement with the Dutch resistance and her family’s entanglement with Nazis. I was particularly struck by his examination of the effect Hepburn’s early adolescence had on her relationship with food for the rest of her life, which certainly complicates our image of an effortlessly chic, fashionably thin young woman.
However, even with the power of the internet and a great deal of legwork, Matzen still runs up against the source limitations of previous biographers. Without enough information to go on about Hepburn herself, he pads the book with details about the war itself (of which we have a mountain of sources and scholarship). In this way, the book is less a biography than it is a survey of certain aspects of WWII, framed around the life of one person.
I didn’t find the writing compelling at all. Matzen’s style is very dry and lifeless, but it doesn’t have the academic rigor I’d expect to get in exchange for lack of enjoyability. All together, a perfectly fine three-star read.
I received an eARC of this title from the publisher through Netgalley with the expectation of an honest review. All opinions my own.