On 26 January 2017 the exhibition Moederliefde. Ella & Audrey was opened in the Airborne Museum by Audrey Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti. The exhibition is about the beginning of the career of the young British actress Audrey Hepburn and the role of her mother Ella van Heemstra.
Simultaneous with the exhibition is the publication of Het geheim van Audrey H, a gripping, psychological novel by Miriam Guensberg, who also describes Audrey Hepburn’s youth from the perspective of this ‘other’ past.
Most of the biographies about Audrey Hepburn focus on her Hollywood career. The Second World War in general and the Battle of Arnhem in particular are merely footnotes. But they were the subjects of the in-depth study done by the researchers of the Airborne Museum. By combining various national and international archives, they discovered new facts.
Mother as driving force
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Audrey, who had spent her youth at a British boarding school, travelled to the Netherlands. In Arnhem, she was reunited with her mother and two step-brothers. After two failed marriages, Audrey’s mother now had to raise her three children by herself. Research has shown that, from that moment on, Ella van Heemstra became the driving force behind her daughter’s career. Starting in Arnhem in 1940, Ella’s wide network, partly from the period when she was a member of a fascist party, together with Audrey’s dance talent opened the doors to Audrey’s international career.
Previously unknown image
The exhibition was created in close cooperation with Audrey Hepburn’s sons, Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Luca Dotti. Dotti and Ferrer have lent the Airborne Museum special youth photos and drawings by their mother as well as objects belonging to their mother and their grandmother. The Airborne Museum is very proud to be able to show these photos and objects to the public and is honoured to be allowed to tell this story, one that has been the source of much pain in the Van Heemstra-Hepburn family.
Immediately after the war, the Van Heemstra family was publicly disgraced because of Ella’s fascist past. With this story, the Airborne Museum wants to show that, for the majority of Dutch people during the Second World War, daily life went on as usual and that the population did not consist only of collaborators or resistance fighters. The exhibition Moederliefde is about the core values of citizens who were under pressure at that time. The story line shows how a Dutch mother tried to find a moral compass in a chaotic world, but also how she was sometimes led by opportunistic motives to offer her daughter the chances that she herself had never enjoyed. The exhibition is not intended to show good or bad but, in accordance with the theory of historians such as Chris van der Heijden and Ad van Liempt – to disclose the grey area in between.
In connection with the exhibition Moederliefde, Luca Dotti quoted his mother: ‘Another of my mother's favourite quotes is: "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone."’ And he continued: ‘Fittingly so, this too is the mission of the Airborne Museum, which, with the same amount of love and determination, restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, redeemed and finally revealed the story behind the seed that was planted during the occupation of the Netherlands.’
Audrey and her mother Ella van Heemstra. 1930-1935
Miriam Guensberg’s novel: Het geheim van Audrey H.
Miriam Guensberg (author of Poolse tranen and Ooit) was so inspired by the museum’s research that she wrote Het geheim van Audrey H., a novel partly based on historical facts. The novel is about the idyllic youth, the hardships of the war and the difficult family circumstances that shaped Audrey Hepburn. Guensberg: ‘The narrator of my novel is an old psychiatrist who was not only a friend of the young Audrey but also very much in love with her. The complex mother-daughter relationship, the moral implications of the choices that people are forced to make in wartime and the vulnerability of war children form the essence of my story. That the icon Hepburn, who could look back on an illustrious career, only discovered herself in her work for Unicef is the apotheosis of my novel.’
Het geheim van Audrey H. was presented at the opening of the exhibition in the Airborne Museum on 26 January. The first copy of the novel was given to Paul van Vliet, a cabaret artist and a former Unicef colleague of Audrey Hepburn. The book, which will be published by Uitgeverij De Kring, is available in bookshops as of 27 January 2017 for €18.50.
The exhibition Moederliefde. Ella & Audrey can be seen from 27 January 2017 until 20 August in Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’.