The world remembers Audrey Hepburn as the epitome of grace. It’s how she appeared in the movies, after all: wrapped in Givenchy, perfectly posed beneath large sunglasses, pressed delicately cheek to cheek with a lovestruck movie star. In reality, she was more of a rebel.
When Hepburn died in 1993, most of the details about her wild past were completely unknown. The true risks the future movie star took to serve the Allies during World War II were kept a total secret — until now.
In 1929, a British subject and a Dutch noblewoman welcomed their daughter, Audrey Hepburn, in Belgium. She was bound to live a uniquely European experience. You’d think her childhood would be sheltered, prim, free of concern.
Her trademark elegance wasn’t learned in finishing school. Initially, she enjoyed all the privileges of a well connected international family — language lessons, travel, money — but World War II shifted the foundation and future of her family.
Audrey Hepburn Estate Collection
Given her father Joseph’s prominent position in the community, he was targeted for recruitment by the British Union of Fascists. He made a quick convert, but his dedication to their cause derailed his entire life. He left his wife and daughter unceremoniously for the Fascist Party in 1935.
In her own right, Audrey’s mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, shared Nazi sympathies before the start of the war. At one point she met Hitler, even singing his praises in fascist publications. But life under German occupation opened her eyes to the horrors of her past political affiliations.
Audrey Hepburn Estate Collection
Their divorce was finalized at the beginning of the war, leaving young Audrey devastated. The New York Post quoted her opinion on divorce: “It tortures a child beyond measure,” she said. “Children need two parents for their emotional equilibrium in life.”
The Vintage News
Hoping to shield her daughter from the impact of the war, Ella moved them back to Arnhem in the Netherlands. Naively, she believed the Dutch would remain neutral, untouched by the conflict. But within months, Germany invaded; the war had begun.
Ella regretted bringing her daughter back to the Netherlands. Audrey recalled, “Had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week…six months…next year…that’s how we got through.”
“The first few months, we didn’t know quite what had happened,” Audrey said. “I just went to school.” The telltale signs of Nazi invasion cropped up all around her: swastikas plastered the city, German signs were posted, even in school, math equations centered on bomb droppings.
Times of Israel
Audrey adopted a less English sounding name, Edda van Heemstra, using her mother’s maiden name. She was forbidden from speaking English in public to avoid negative suspicions about her British citizenship. The only place she felt free of the oppressive clenched fist of war was on the dancefloor.
Trained in ballet during her boarding school years, Audrey continued her lessons in the Arnhem Conservatory. Her talent was obvious, and she was a favorite of her teacher, Winja Marova.
The Vintage News
Her bubble of escapism burst in 1942 with the death of her uncle Otto. In the family’s attempts to fly under the radar, avoiding any resistance activity, they still suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Otto van Limburg Strium faced death as a punishment for rebellious acts he had no part in. Chosen solely as a message to others, he was executed for his high social standing. Kidnapped, made to lift the shovel over and over, digging his own grave until he ultimately was executed at the stake.
This trauma, along with the fact that her half brother Ian was abducted and forced into a German labor camp, led the family to flee to the neighboring village of Velp. Taking refuge in the house of her grandfather, a Dutch Baron, Audrey plotted to help the resistance.
Both Audrey and her mother became fully committed to the Allied forces. Making use of her talents, Audrey performed at secret events as a dancer for Dr. Hendrik Visser Hooft’s underground resistance.
Times of Israel
While they had titles, Audrey’s family was deeply impoverished. She remembered, “My mother didn’t have a dime.” Citywide, people were starving. Audrey and her friends, weak from malnutrition, rattled off the foods that haunted their dreams, then went home to dine on tulip bulb flour.
Dutch Network War Collection
Teen Audrey blended into the crowd, delivering the Oranjekrant resistance newspapers. “I stuffed them in my woolen socks in my wooden shoes, got on my bike and delivered them,” she said. Paper was in short supply, so each edition was printed on a small pocket-sized napkin.
In her own small ways, Audrey worked against the Nazi party. Visser Hooft, who later went on to be the 1st secretary general for the World Council of Churches, noted her advanced skill with English language. Her foreign education had paid off, and he tasked her with a special job.
The 15-year-old future star slipped into an area of downed Allied pilots, passing messages and bearing food packages. Her age and ability to speak English made her uniquely qualified to avoid suspicion.
Since the murder of her brother, and after watching friends, neighbors, and children get carried off to concentration camps, Audrey’s mother deeply regretted her past association with the fascist party. So, she took a risk for the resistance that put them all in danger.
Ella followed in her daughter’s diligent footsteps and harbored an enemy pilot. The details of his stay are murky, but Audrey’s son, Luca, remembered his mother lighting up at the mention of their secret guest. Luckily, the English pilot whose craft was shot down escaped undetected.
Relief came at last in the spring of 1945. Allied troops marched into the city, but when they reached the doors of the Hepburn’s house, their guns remained raised. Audrey’s English prowess came in handy once again, as her cries stopped them from ambushing the family.
“Not only have we liberated a town; we have liberated an English girl,” the soldiers hollered out, letting their weapons fall. That was the end of the war, but the memories of the hunger, violence, and palpable uncertainty of survival stayed with Audrey forever.
Once out from the grips of German occupancy, Audrey went on to blossom into one of the most iconic actresses of all time. Her former sheepish nature, a handy tool for espionage, became one of her best-remembered charms.
The Breakfast at Tiffany’s actress had that certain quiet courage perfectly suited for undercover missions, something she shared with another famously dignified woman of notoriety — Julia Child.
Radcliffe Institute Harvard University
Before she became a household name, Julia Child was called Julia McWilliams. Back then, her grand ambitions simmered like a beautiful bouillabaisse, yet they had absolutely nothing to do with food. Suggesting a career as a chef to a tenacious young Julia would have resulted in a dismissive snort.
From high school, Julia, a bright pupil, went straight to Smith College, the largest of the prestigious Seven Sisters women’s colleges. There, she studied history and was an active member of the Student Council and a competitor on the basketball court. But things were about to change for her — and for the nation.
Smith College / Twitter
Right when the tumult of World War II was growing, Julia heard the call to fight for her country. She decided to join the military, and her branches of choice were the Women’s Army Corps or the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services. However, her dream to serve came to a halt fairly fast.
Julia exceeded the height requirements, as she stood at 6′ 2″. In fact, Julia’s particular reason for rejection from the armed services inspired a song. Acapella group The Bobs penned their song “Julia’s Too Tall” about culinary master’s life. As the lyrics tell it, “She’s too tall to be a spy, but not too tall to bake a pie…”
Julia didn’t dwell on the military denial for long. She took her talents elsewhere by volunteering for the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS for short. Sitting down with the future famed chef, they recognized her potential, documenting in her interview notes, “Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall.”
The OSS was a brand new organization, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Julia was in the thick of it all during the formative years of the lofty organization and saw a wide variety of sensitive projects throughout her tenure.
Among the 4,500 women who served in the OSS, Julia held a particularly important role. Working at the headquarters in Washington DC, her job reported directly to General William J. Donovan, the man appointed by FDR to head the OSS.
United States Army Special Operations Command
Every day Julia would sit at her OSS Headquarters desk, clacking away at a typewriter. Her job, a research assistant for the division of Secret Intelligence, involved keeping track of the thousands of names of each member of the armed services.
At first, she was riding an undeniably boring desk job. However, after months of monotony, higher-ups took notice of Julia’s sharp mind. Thrilled to escaped her typist work, she climbed the ranks of various departments, working with top officials.
Transferred from her first role, Julia moved on to the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, or ERE, where she was set with a particularly specific request. During WWII, besides having to cope with the harrowing realities of war, soldiers on the seas were facing a more ferocious predator who didn’t discriminate in its attacks.
While navigating salty waters on military missions, Naval Officers were vulnerable to sharks. As more soldiers flocked to the shark-infested waters, the problem became too gruesome to ignore. In fact, there were over 20 documented cases of military men attacked by the ocean’s gnarliest meat-eaters in less than 18 months.
That Was History / YouTube
Sharks threatened the safety of individual sailors but also had the potential to sink larger military missions. The curious creatures would occasionally swim head-on into explosives intended for German U-boats, resulting in a huge waste of time, money, and sea life.
Joint Chiefs of Staff, frustrated by this unforeseen complication, wanted to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible. There were, figuratively, bigger fish to fry. So, they tasked the Office of Strategic Services with developing a strategy to solve the shark situation.
So, just a month after the agency’s inception, the OSS started a project worthy of Adam West’s Batman — shark repellent. The ERE, lead by Dr. Henry Field of the Field Museum of Natural History, and from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Captain Harold J. Coolidge, began trial-and-error testing various lethal poisons.
Julia worked directly with Coolidge as his Executive Assistant while they tested their anti-shark recipes. Unfortunately, her hands were not yet trained in the culinary arts, so Julia couldn’t offer ingredient suggestions. Though, admittedly, Julia’s additions would probably involve clarified butter and squeeze of lemon.
In a book penned by fellow OSS Officer Betty McIntosh, Julia reflected on the project, “I must say we had lots of fun. We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment — strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
Eventually, they settled on a mixture of copper acetate and black dye. Formed into a noxious little cake, it was released into waters and emitted a powerful odor of dead shark.
When the shark project finished, Julia was promoted yet again, this time to Chief of the OSS Registry. She packed her suitcase and set off for Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Eventually, she was restationed in Kunming, China, where she’d been given the top level of security clearance and oversaw every bit of intelligence in her department.
Asked about her duties, Julia downplayed her position, saying she was merely a clerk. Her husband, Paul Child, set the record straight. Julia was responsible for highly classified documents, including the orders of the invasion of the Malay Peninsula.
Of course, the details were hush-hush, but Paul had a good idea of Julia’s duties because he too was an OSS Officer. The couple met during Julia’s two-year stint as Chief of Registry. In her off hours from overseeing top-secret communications, Julia was falling in love with both her future husband and his passion for fine French cuisine.
Food and Wine
Yep, it was through her husband that Julia discovered her fascination with cookery and food. By her own admission, she was a disaster in the kitchen up until that point. Growing up, her family had a cook prepare their meals, so she didn’t fall for food by watching her parents mill about the kitchen.
The lovebirds were married in 1946. Two years later, Paul was reassigned to the U.S. Information Agency in France, so they relocated to the hub of fine dining. It was then, that Julia buttoned her chef’s coat and began the journey to becoming one of the culinary world’s most cherished icons.