Get inspired by Robert Matzen’s new book ‘Warrior: Audrey Hepburn’
You’re probably a fan of Audrey Hepburn. Who isn’t? That said, even if you’ve seen every single one of her iconic films, you’re only getting a small piece of the actress’s real story. Outside of her acting career, Hepburn was a humanitarian and activist who improved the lives of thousands of people all over the world.
Now her story is being told in an astounding new book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, available now on Amazon. Author Robert Matzen collaborated with Hepburn’s younger son Luca Dotti, to uncover the details of Hepburn’s decades of humanitarian work. The story is profound & insightful for all readers, but especially so for fans of Hepburn’s acting career.
We were lucky enough to speak with Robert Matzen about the book, his previous work, and Audrey Hepburn’s incredible legacy.
You penned the book Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II in 2019. Did the research for Dutch Girl serve as the impetus for the new book, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn?
Research from the writing of Dutch Girl proved critical to understanding Audrey’s mindset and motivations later in life. All she had experienced became context for an understanding of the situation faced by civilians who were starving in war zones. But Warrior required new research into her later years and how each UNICEF mission played out. That research yielded surprise after surprise.
Can you describe the core differences between Dutch Girl and Warrior as they pertain to Hepburn’s life?
Dutch Girl tells the previously unknown story of Audrey’s life basically during the Adolf Hitler years in Europe—from 1935 through 1945 and liberation of the Netherlands. Warrior does some flashing back to experiences in the war but tells the story of Audrey as a fearless warrior for children. As in literally fearless, charging into war zones and facing off against dictators. Luca encouraged me to write Warrior because he considered his mother a “badass soldier” and I set off on a quest to learn what he meant. Basically the theme of the book is that all UNICEF wanted was another Peter Ustinov, a focus for fundraising. Instead they got this crusader who had already lived through bombings, machine guns, tanks, and starvation, so she would let nothing stop her in war zones. All of which meant that UNICEF leaders realized that they were holding a tiger by the tail.
Do you consider Warrior to be a companion piece of sorts to your first Hepburn book or do you consider the two works to be completely separate?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the two books are. One is an epic history of the war in Europe and Audrey’s experience of it. The other is Audrey in charge of her life and her decisions and letting nothing stand in her way on the quest to help children and mothers in need—“giving voice to the voiceless,” as she called it.
You conducted hundreds of interviews with Hepburn’s surviving friends and family members. Were there any notable interviews you sought but were unable to get?
Yes! When I stumbled into the UNICEF representative who had arranged Audrey’s secret mission into southern Sudan in 1989, I couldn’t believe the luck. The Muslim government of Sudan had ordered Audrey and her UNICEF team out of Sudan because it was supposedly too dangerous to visit the Christian rebels in the south. So she seemed to comply but instead flew to Kenya, chartered a private plane, and flew back over the border at night. I found the man who arranged that trip, negotiated with rebels not to shoot the plane down, and even pushed cows out of the pasture where the plane landed at night. Thanks to this man, Detlef Palm, the full story of Audrey in Sudan is told in Warrior for the first time.
How closely did you work with Hepburn’s son, Luca Dotti, during the research process?
Luca and I had a standing work session every Friday for about a year going over his memories of growing up with Audrey and witnessing the UNICEF years.
Did any of the anecdotes you collected stand out as particularly impressive?
Audrey’s down-to-earth nature, her sense of humor, and her fearlessness all come through from my exploration with Luca and Audrey’s other friends. I feel like this is the closest we’ll ever get to climbing into Audrey Hepburn’s skin and seeing the world through her eyes.
In comparison to earlier books like Dutch Girl or Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Flight to Europe (2016), did you find that your previous experience with the subject matter made the writing process particularly easy?
I’m very comfortable writing about World War II after working on three consecutive books about that time period. But Warrior is more contemporary, basically covering the period from 1986-1993. You’d think that would be easier and I lived through those years, but there’s quite a grounding process involved in understanding the world at that time—especially since Audrey insisted on visiting all the hot-spots.
You’ve alluded to the fact that Hepburn’s UNICEF years were nearly lost to time. How were they nearly lost and were any details you were unable to recover?
As with Dutch Girl, much of the history is oral history, the memories of people who were just doing a job and so they didn’t write down their day-to-day experiences in the field. Plus Doris Brynner, Audrey’s best friend, had a lot of memories that needed to be pulled out after so many years. Luca was the same for that matter. It’s always a 1,000-piece puzzle, all these little memories, that become a big picture when they’re put in place.
Hepburn’s demure screen persona is far more known (and celebrated) than the heroic and daring acts she performed in her personal life. Do you feel this book will help to bring these facets of Hepburn to the forefront?
Audrey the Warrior, Audrey the badass soldier, is the woman Luca is so proud of and wants and needs to share with the world. Now I understand why. I’m hoping the message of this book, the—I guess—aggressive compassion if that’s even a term, this drive to help others of Audrey Hepburn, will provide a positive message in a troubled world and inspire others to want to live by her example.
Were you tempted to incorporate elements of Hepburn’s Hollywood career into the book at any point?
There’s reference to her glamorous other life back in Hollywood when she’d visit or give out an Oscar or receive an award. And there’s some context for how she approached her preparation for making films and the people she made them with. I wanted there to be touchpoints for those who already love Audrey.
Warrior details Hepburn’s UNICEF work, and the strain that it put on her as she battled cancer. How much do you feel the strain of her activism contributed to her premature death?
I feel the last mission to Somalia shortened her life. She was dead of natural causes just four months after powering through a visit to what she called “hell on earth.” Luca and Sean both said it was one mission too many, her bridge too far, and that it broke her spirit.
Given Hepburn’s passion for social issues like racism and poverty, do you find the material in Warrior to be more relevant than ever?
Audrey was an empath. She saw the impact of colonialism on what she called the Developing World—exploit the land and the people and then walk away. She railed against it. She was a color-blind advocate for all people in peril, as she proved in all corners of the world. She was at the forefront of refugee crises in many war zones and did her best to call attention to civilians displaced by conflict. She sympathized with those seeking nothing more than a peaceful place to live.
Was there any material that failed to make the book? If so, would you consider penning a third book on the actress?
Everything’s in there. I have no ambition to write a third book about Audrey Hepburn—but then I didn’t imagine I’d write a second.
Has Hepburn altered your own outlook on life? How has the writing of Warrior changed you as a person?
Oh heck yeah. I’m always thinking, WWAHD? What would Audrey Hepburn do in this or that situation. As I was writing Dutch Girl, I knew she would expect me to give a portion of the proceeds to the causes she espoused and so I did. Getting to know Audrey and her story has made me a more compassionate and generous person, I like to think.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Warrior?
I would like readers to achieve a new understanding of what an extraordinary person this really was, so much more than a movie star with a unique look and way of wearing clothes. In a sense that’s the least interesting aspect of the force of nature known as Audrey Hepburn.