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Constance Keane brushes her lustrous honey-blond hair. Undated photo. ca. 1940

Constance Keane brushes her lustrous honey-blond hair. Undated photo. ca. 1940

Constance Keane, 19, was sure she had blown her Paramount screen test. It was August of 1941 and the film was “I Wanted Wings.” Keane auditioned to portray a nightclub singer:

“We did a scene in which I was supposed to be tipsy at a table in a small nightclub. Things were going nicely until I leaned my elbows on the edge of the table….My right elbow slipped off the table edge sending my long blonde hair falling over my left eye. I spent the next few minutes trying to continue with the scene as I kept shaking my head to get the hair out of my eyes.” (1)

She knew she had lost the chance to play the part and left the studio sobbing. But then came the phone call from the picture’s director. He wanted her for the part. Her acting may not have been perfect, but she had a magnetism on film and, the biggest surprise of all, her hair had been a smash! He liked the eye-hiding gimmick of it. The picture was going to be a hit, he said, and that would make her Connie a star. A star, however needed both a gimmick and a good name. He hated the name Constance Keane so he rechristened her “Veronica Lake,” borrowing the “Veronica” bit from his secretary and adding the last name “Lake” because “her eyes are calm and blue like a lake.”

Veronica Lake liked to say that she didn't do cheesecake shots like Betty Grable but, rather, used her hair for sex appeal. Photo undated, ca. 1942

Veronica Lake liked to say that she didn’t do cheesecake shots like Betty Grable but, rather, used her hair for sex appeal. Photo undated, ca. 1942

“I Wanted Wings” was indeed a runaway success. It was the biggest picture of 1941 and Veronica Lake’s breakthrough hit. Veronica Lake (1922-1973) , all 4’11” and 90 lbs of her, became a big star overnight.

To get an idea of how tiny Veronica Lake was, she is shown here to the left of actress Dorothy Lamour. Undated photo, ca. 1942

To get an idea of how tiny Veronica Lake was, she is shown here with fellow film stars Paulette Goddard (l) and Dorothy Lamour (center). Lake is at our far right. From movie, “Star-Spangled Rhythm,” 1942.

The public loved her playful yet seductive, one-eyed look.

The poster for Paramount’s 1941 film, “I Wanted Wings” launched Veronica Lake’s career and her trademark peekaboo hairdo.

Lake’s honey-blonde hair – flat on top because women wore hats in the forties – was worn with a deep side parting and swept over to the opposite side. Soft waves draped her cheek and a single S-curl fell seductively over one eye. Long and loose, flowing over the shoulders and down the back, the hairstyle known as the “peekaboo” became a fashion must-have.

Veronica Lake at her most iconic. Ca. 1942

Veronica Lake at her most iconic. Ca. 1942

Women flocked to beauty salons all across the nation to get “The Lake Look.” The Fuller Brush Company advertised that Lake gave her hair fifteen minutes of stroking every day with one of their brushes.

Veronica Lake wore looser curls than actresses of the day. Photo undated, ca. 1942

Veronica Lake wore looser curls than actresses of the day. Photo undated, ca. 1942

Life magazine devoted an article to her hair and the sensation it caused, divulging such personal information as

“the fact that my head had 150,000 hairs, each measuring about 0.0024 inches in cross-section….[B]ecause Hollywood’s water was so hard, I rinsed [my hair] in vinegar,” wrote Lake. (1)

Veronica Lake at the height of her beauty and fame. Photo ca. 1942

Veronica Lake at the height of her beauty and fame. Photo ca. 1942

For the next several years, Lake’s hair would have the tendency to droop over one eye.

Veronica Lake was a great beauty. Ca. 1942

Veronica Lake was a great beauty. Ca. 1942

Her role in her next picture, “Sullivan’s Travels,” (1942), costarring Joel McCrea, won her both popular and critical acclaim. It was straight comedy and Lake proved to be very good at it.

Note the doodle in the bottom left of the poster. It is instantly recognizable as Veronica Lake.

Note the doodle in the bottom left of the poster. It is instantly recognizable as Veronica Lake.

Her next film, “This Gun for Hire” (1942), a film noir, was the first of seven she made with Alan Ladd. Both Lake and Ladd were short – Ladd was only 5’5″ – golden-haired, attractive, and aloof. The public loved the Ladd/Lake pairing (and Ladd didn’t have to stand in a pit when filming scenes with his leading lady).

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in the film, "This Gun for Hire." 1942

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in the film, “This Gun for Hire.” 1942

In “I Married a Witch” (1942), a romantic fantasy comedy, Lake is cast as a witch whose plans for revenge against costarring mortal Frederic March are foiled. Her characterization is a funky combination of kittenish allure and goofiness. The film was wildly popular and later sparked the creation of the TV series, “Bewitched” in 1964.

In filming "I Married a Witch," Veronica Lake played tricks on Frederic March, because she hated him, like kneeing him in the groin during a tender scene while the cameras were rolling.

On the set of “I Married a Witch,” Veronica Lake made Frederic March miserable because, in real life, she hated him. In one tender scene, the camera is filming Frederic March from the neck up while Lake is kneeing him in the groin. That was not in the script and March kept a poker face despite excruciating pain.

In "I Married A Witch," Veronica Lake plays a witch burned in the Salem witch trials, out to seek revenge.

In “I Married A Witch,” Veronica Lake plays a witch burned in the Salem witch trials, out to seek revenge.

In 1943, Veronica Lake was as popular as ever with the movie-going public. She was on a roll. She was one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars.

Unfortunately, Miss Lake’s rise to fame coincided with America going to war (World War II, 1941-1945). Men left for the battlefield and women went to work in war industry factories.

Women were invaluable in the war effort. Soldiers without Guns poster, Office of War Information, ca. 1944. (National Archives)

Women were invaluable in the war effort. Soldiers without Guns poster, Office of War Information, ca. 1944. (National Archives)

Some of these factory workers wore their hair down in the factories, peekaboo style. Their drooping locks began to present a safety issue. The U.S. government intervened, asking the one-eyed beauty Veronica Lake not to wear her hair down for the duration of the war. She obliged, putting her hair up, and was praised widely for her patriotism, giving up her peekaboo look for the war effort.

In this Life magazine photo, movie star Veronica Lake illustrates the danger of loose hair for female factory workers. Her hair is tangled in machinery. Photo Undated. Ca. 1943

In this Life magazine photo, movie star Veronica Lake illustrates the danger of loose hair for female factory workers. Her hair is tangled in machinery. Photo Undated. Ca. 1943

Here is the public service announcement, “Safety Styles” she made to urge women to follow her example:

At the end of the “Safety Styles” video, the announcer says that, with her new updo, Veronica Lake’s “hair is out of the way and combed in a simple and becoming fashion.” That fashion was called a “victory roll,” making a “V” shape when seen from the back and a “victory” because of the gesture of choosing country over vanity. In the 1943 film, “So Proudly We Hail!” (1943), Lake wears her hair in a “victory roll” in her portrayal of Lieutenant Olivia D’Arcy. The movie was a success.

Veronica Lake in "So Proudly We Hail" (1943)

Veronica Lake in “So Proudly We Hail” (1943)

Veronica Lake shows her "victory roll" hairdo. 1942-43

Veronica Lake shows her “victory roll” hairdo. 1942-43

In 1944,  Lake’s career faltered with her unsympathetic role as Nazi spy Dora Bruckman in “The Hour Before the Dawn” (1944). The movie was a flop. Again, Lake is wearing her hair up in a severe style, as the war is still in progress.

"The Hour Before the Dawn" (1944) with Veronica Lake.

“The Hour Before the Dawn” (1944) with Veronica Lake.

Veronica Lake would make 26 pictures. By 1950, however, her career in films was effectively over. Some biographers say that abandoning her classic peekaboo hairstyle damaged her box office appeal. In truth, though, it was Lake’s heavy drinking and her devilish behavior that undid her hard-earned success. From the beginning, she was difficult to work with; she made enemies on every movie set, often running off and disappearing in the middle of filming. No one wanted to work with her. The studio stopped giving her plum roles.

Eddie Bracken, her co-star in “Star Spangled Rhythm” (in which Lake appeared in a musical number) was quoted as saying,

“She was known as ‘The B—h’ and she deserved the title.”

Joel McCrea, her co-star in “Sullivan’s Travels,” reportedly turned down the co-starring role in “I Married a Witch,” saying,

“Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

(However, McCrea did co-star with Lake again in 1947 in the western, “Ramrod.”)

In Ramrod, Veronica Lake can let her hair down once again, as the war has been over for 2 years.

In Ramrod, Veronica Lake can let her hair down once again, as the war has been over for 2 years.

During filming of the film “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), screenwriter Raymond Chandler referred to her as “Moronica Lake”.

Lake’s romantic entanglements were a disaster. She grew tired of her children. Her mother claimed that Veronica had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen and that she took her to Hollywood to study acting as therapy. Few people trust her mother’s words since she later sued Veronica Lake, wanting part of her estate. Nevertheless, Veronica Lake had a complex and volatile nature.

By 1948, her movies had become flops. Paramount Pictures did not renew her contract.

Veronica Lake  (1970)

Veronica Lake (1970)

Veronica Lake’s decline in mental health and descent into full-blown alcoholism was both severe and dramatically rapid. Her beauty faded; her health crumbled. In 1973, after years of ill health, menial jobs largely in hotels and bars, loneliness, numerous brushes with the law for public intoxication and disorderly conduct, and poverty due to untreated alcoholism, Veronica Lake, 51, died of cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis in a Vermont hospital.

Veronica Lake’s iconic look is still copied today. Countless Youtube tutorials teach how to achieve the peekaboo look, a classic style, a relic of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when Veronica Lake reigned.

How to get that retro look of tumbling waves.

How to get that retro look of tumbling waves.

Source:

(1) Lake, Veronica with Bain, Donald. Veronica. New York: The Citadel Press, 1969.

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Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney gaze at one another in "Rings on Her Fingers" (1942)

Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney (1920-1991) gaze at one another in “Rings on Her Fingers” (1942)

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, actress Gene Tierney, age 21, and film star Henry Fonda were filming “Rings on Her Fingers” on Catalina Island, 22 miles off the southern California coast.

The cameras were getting ready to roll when a man came running down the beach screaming:

“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor! “

Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii, just west across the Pacific from Catalina. Catalina was a dangerous place to be. No one knew exactly what was happening – or what would happen next – just as Americans felt as the events of 9/11 unfolded. Everyone had to get off that island. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor had come without warning and a formal declaration of war by the Japanese, the American people were in shock. They expected more attacks, possibly on California.

Gene Tierney, her husband Oleg Cassini, costar Henry Fonda and the rest of the film’s cast and crew piled into a boat and sailed hurriedly for the mainland. It was a nervous crossing. Rumors flew that the waters had been sabotaged with mines.

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On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four being sunk. All but one (Arizona) were later raised, and six of the eight battleships were returned to service and went on to fight in the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded. (2)

The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Overnight, the United States was plunged into war in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

The U.S. government enlisted the help of Hollywood stars to aid the war effort by boosting morale at home. Americans were urged to plant backyard “victory gardens” – vegetable patches – to help feed civilians at home. Suddenly, farm production was heavily burdened by having to feed millions of military personnel, as well as coping with fewer men on the farms.

War is expensive. The U.S. government encouraged people to buy War Bonds. You could purchase a $25 War Bond for $18.75. The government used that money to help pay for tanks, planes, ships, uniforms, weapons, medicine, food, and for the military.  Ten years from the time you purchased your War Bond you could redeem it and get $25.

Gene Tierney did her part for the war effort, whether it was planting a “victory garden,” promoting war bonds, or entertaining the troops.

Gene T tends her own "victory garden," in Fort Riley, Kansas, where her husband is stationed in the army.  She is pregnant with her first child, Daria. 1943. (photo courtesy Lou and Mary Jo Mari)

Gene Tierney tends her own “victory garden,” in Fort Riley, Kansas, where her husband is stationed. 1943. (photo courtesy Lou and Mary Jo Mari)

Gene Tierney encouraged Americans to buy war bonds.

Gene Tierney appeared in posters and went on campaign drives to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.

Gene Tierney took time to entertain the troops at the Hollywood Canteen. From 1942-45, three million service personnel on leave – men and women, black and white – would pass through the doors of that converted barn to rub elbows with the stars. On any given night, Bob Hope might be on the stage cracking jokes while Rita Hayworth made sandwiches, Harry James played trumpet, or Hedy Lamarr danced with the soldiers.

Film star Shirley Temple gives cookies to the soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen. Ca. 1942-45.

Shirley Temple passes out cookies at the Hollywood Canteen. Ca. 1942-45.

During the war years, Gene Tierney was at the height of her popularity. Her image graced countless magazine covers.Gene T Life Mag Nov. 10, 1941 Shanghai Gesture wardrobe gene-tierney-movie-stars-parade-magazine-cover-1940-s_i-G-54-5494-2D3WG00Z March 1946 mag cover tierney april 1943

Gene Tierney smiles broadly while husband, Oleg Cassini, looks away. ca. 1945

Gene Tierney smiles broadly while husband, Oleg Cassini, looks away. ca. 1945

Gene’s best pictures were made in the forties. Her beauty was extraordinary then. Her presence on screen was fresh and captivating. She had expressive green eyes, high cheekbones, lustrous, dark hair, and a sensual full mouth that revealed, when parted, an unexpected yet terribly endearing overbite. (Her contract with 24th Century Fox forbid her from correcting the crooked teeth.)

American film actress Gene Tierney. ca. 1941

American film actress Gene Tierney. ca. 1941

And she could act. She was only 23 when she appeared in “Laura” (1944), directed by Otto Preminger, a stunning film noir masterpiece, so richly layered with plot twists and great casting (Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Clifton Webb) that you can enjoy it again and again. It is her signature film. Also fantastic are “The Razor’s Edge” with Tyrone Power (1946) and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” with Rex Harrison (1947). All three are available to rent on Amazon Instant Video. She plays against type – still classy in manner, yes, but devious in heart – in the film she received an Academy Award nomination for: “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945).

Gene Tierney smolders as "Laura." (1944),

Gene Tierney is smoldering as “Laura” (1944), one of my top five favorite films of all time. Gripping.

In the spring of 1943, Gene finished filming “Heaven Can Wait” in Hollywood. She was expecting her first child and, gratefully, not yet showing signs of pregnancy. She had kept that a secret for fear of being replaced in the film. She longed to be with husband Oleg in Kansas, where he was stationed in the army.

Before leaving Los Angeles and starting her maternity leave, Gene decided to make one last appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. So, that night, Gene showed her support of American troops by signing autographs, mingling with the crowd, and shaking hands. The troops were homesick and sad; a little stardust lightened their load.

A few days after that visit, Gene woke up with red spots covering her arms and face. She had the German measles, or rubella. In 1943, there was no vaccine to prevent contracting the measles. That would not be available for 22 more years. Obstetricians advised patients to avoid crowds in their first four months of pregnancy, to avoid contracting the measles. At the time, it was believed that measles was a harmless childhood disease.

Little did Gene know at the time, but, just two years earlier,

“…[B]y studying a small cluster of cases in Australia, [eye doctor] Dr. N. M. Gregg first noted that the rubella virus could cause cataracts, deafness, heart deformities and mental retardation [in an unborn child].” (3)

Of course, this was before TV and Internet gave us 24/7 news cycles that would have immediately alerted the public to this critical finding. Gene didn’t know that her small act of kindness at the Canteen would have tragic and long-term consequences for both her and her baby’s health.

After a week of doctor-ordered rest, Gene rested, got better, then packed her bags for Fort Riley, Kansas, to join Oleg. The next several months were devoted to making her Junction City home ready for the baby and being a couple.

Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini celebrate the birth of their first child with a night out in New York City at the Stork Club. Mid 1943.

Gene Tierney and husband Oleg Cassini await the birth of their first child with a celebratory night out in New York City at the Stork Club. Mid 1943.

By the fall, Gene was living in Washington, D.C., while Oleg was awaiting orders in Virginia. On the morning of October 15, 1943, Gene gave birth to a premature baby girl, weighing only two and a half pounds. Oleg flew to Washington and joined his wife at Columbia Hospital. They named their baby “Daria.”

Doctors informed them that Daria was not in good shape. She was premature and going blind. She had cataracts in both eyes. After reviewing Gene’s medical chart, the doctors concluded that Gene’s measles were responsible for the baby’s defects. They cited the studies done by the Australian eye doctor, Dr. Gregg.

Daria continued to have health problems and delayed development. She had no inner ear fluid and became deaf. It was clear that she suffered from mental retardation. Gene and Oleg hoped against hope that a doctor somewhere could cure Daria. But, after consulting one specialist after another (much of it paid for by Howard Hughes), they had to face the fact that Daria was permanently disabled and needed more care than they were capable of giving her at home.

When Daria was about two years old, Gene got an unexpected jolt. She was at a tennis function. A fan approached her.

“Ms. Tierney, do you remember me?” asked the woman.

Gene had no memory of having met the stranger. She shook her head and replied, “No. Should I?”

The woman told Gene that she was in the women’s branch of the Marines and had met Gene at the Hollywood Canteen.

Gene never would forget what the woman said next.

“By the way, Ms. Tierney, did you happen to catch the German measles after that night I saw you at the Canteen?”

The woman revealed that she had had the measles herself at the time but had broken quarantine just to see Gene at the Canteen.

Gene was dumbstruck. That woman had given her the measles! She was the sole cause of Daria’s disabilities. Gene said nothing. She just turned and walked away.

When Daria was four, Oleg and Gene made the difficult decision to institutionalize Daria (1943-2010). Daria spent most of her life at the ELWYN, an institution for specially disabled in Vineland, NJ.

Gene Tierney never fully recovered from the blow that Daria was disabled. Although she gave birth to another daughter that was healthy, her marriage to Oleg ended in divorce, and her mental health began to deteriorate. She couldn’t concentrate. On the movie set, she would forget her lines. She began to fall apart and live a life of “stark misery and despair,” said ex-husband Oleg.

In much of the 1950s, Gene went from one mental health facility to another seeking help with her bouts of high and low moods and suicidal thoughts. She received 27 shock treatments, destroying even more of her memory. It is believed that Gene Tierney suffered from bipolar depression during a time when effective treatment for that disease was in its infancy.

If Daria had been born after 1965, Gene Tierney would have been vaccinated against the German measles and Daria would have been born healthy.

Currently, in Mexico and California, there is an outbreak of measles due to the antivaccination movement. Some parents in the western part of the United States have decided not to vaccinate their children due to unfounded worries about it causing autism. These few anti-vaxers are putting our whole population at risk.

Make no mistake. Measles is a highly contagious disease and is anything but harmless:

“Symptoms of measles include fever as high as 105, cough, runny nose, redness of eyes, and a rash that begins at the head and then spreads to the rest of the body. It can lead to inflammation of the brain, pneumonia and death.” (4)

AND

“Worldwide, 242,000 children a year die from measles, but it used to be near one million. The deaths have dropped because of vaccination, a 68 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.” (5)

Postscript: In 1962, Dame Agatha Christie published the detective fiction, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, using the real-life tragedy of Gene Tierney as the basis for her plot.

SOURCES:

(1) Vogel, Michelle. Gene Tierney: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2005.

(2) wiki: Attack on Pearl Harbor

(3) Altman, M.D., Lawrence K. “The Doctor’s World; Little-Known Doctor Who Found New Use For Common Aspirin.The New York Times, July 9, 1991.

(4) LA Times

(5) New York Times

 

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Members of the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company leave Victoria Station, London, for a tour of Holland, May 1940

Members of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company leave Victoria Station, London, for a tour of Holland, May 1940. Director Ninette de Valois is on the far right.

When the Germans invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, Ninette de Valois found herself trapped in The Hague. She was the director of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company from England. She and her 42 dancers had been on a Dutch tour. On the day of the invasion, de Valois had been sitting at a sidewalk café with two members of the dance company. It was noon. Suddenly, a stray bullet ricocheted from the pavement, passed between their heads, and crashed through the café’s plate glass window behind them. The bullet had been fired from a German plane swooping over the city square. The diners were rushed inside to safety.

That morning, some of the dancers had flocked to the rooftop of their hotel to watch German parachutists float down and land in the area around the Hague, where Queen Wilhelmina resided.  Thousands of leaflets also fluttered down from the enemy aircraft, some landing on the rooftop, that proclaimed:

Strong German troop units have surrounded the city. Resistance is of no use. Germany does not fight your country but Great Britain. In order to continue this battle the German Army has been forced to penetrate your country. The German Army protects the life and goods of every peace-loving citizen. However, the German troops will punish every deed of violence committed by the population with a death sentence.” 1

For five days, the Dutch army fought bravely, but it was no match for the German war machine. The Netherlands had a policy of neutrality and had had no recent experience of resisting outside invading forces. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Royal Family from the Royal House of Orange-Nassau refused to accept the Nazi offer of protection and sailed to England on the HMS Hereford sent by King George VI.

The Exiled Royals with the King and Queen of England, WWII (photo undated). From left to right: Queen Marie of Yugoslavia,Miss Benesj,Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands,Miss Raczkiewicz,King George VI of England,King Peter of Yugoslavia,King Haakon of Norway, Queen Elizabeth (The Queen mother) of England, the President of Poland, M. Raczkiewicz and Dr. Benesj, President of Tsjecho- Slovakia.

The Exiled Royals with the King and Queen of England, WWII (photo undated). From left to right: Queen Marie of Yugoslavia,Miss Benesj,Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands,Miss Raczkiewicz,King George VI of England,King Peter of Yugoslavia,King Haakon of Norway, Queen Elizabeth (The Queen mother) of England, the President of Poland, M. Raczkiewicz and Dr. Benesj, President of Tsjecho- Slovakia.

The Netherlands surrendered on May 15.

For the next seven weeks, the citizens of Holland did not resist the German occupation. They buried their dead and mourned their losses. They were shocked and demoralized. They felt abandoned by their queen.

Audrey Hepburn-Ruston, ca. 1941 (age 12)

Audrey Hepburn-Ruston, ca. 1941 (age 12)

Audrey Hepburn was eleven years old when the Germans took over her town of Arnhem, Holland:

“The first few months we didn’t quite know what had happened.”

But Queen Wilhelmina reached out to her subjects across the North Sea via newsreels and BBC radio broadcasts, revitalizing Dutch hope for Allied liberation, and condemning German aggression. She urged them to resist the moffen (German Huns). For the next five years, the radio voice of the Queen would be the main source of inspiration for the Dutch Resistance Movement.

Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard celebrate their engagement 1936. Note the white carnation in the Prince's lapel.

Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard celebrate their engagement 1936. Note the white carnation in the Prince’s lapel.

An opportunity for the Dutch citizens to protest the German occupation arrived on June 29. It was the birthday of Prince Bernhard, the Queen’s son-in-law. Since he had been a student, the Prince had worn a trademark white carnation in his lapel.

So, on June 29, the Dutch people demonstrated their loyalty to Queen and country and their defiance of Nazi rule. People participated all across the country, but the activity was strongest in Amsterdam and The Hague.

People displayed vases full of carnations in the windows of homes and stores. Women and girls wore orange skirts, orange being the national color, symbolic of the Royal House of Orange. The Dutch flag was flown. Men pinned white carnations in the buttonhole of their coats, in imitation of Prince Bernhard, a German who was anti-Nazi.  Some people rode bicycles around town all dressed in orange.

Crowds gathered at the statue of Queen Emma, Wilhelmina’s mother, in Amsterdam to lay flowers.

The Queen Emma monument is festooned with flowers on Carnation Day, 1940

The Queen Emma monument is festooned with flowers on Carnation Day, 1940

At first, only single flowers were placed on the statue’s lap. Then others arrived carrying great pots of flowers. Soon the area at the base of the statue was covered in flowers. On the nearby lawn, the letter B was formed with a clever flower arrangement. People brought cut-out pictures of the royal family and laid these beside the flowers.

A street organ began to play the national anthem. Softly at first, people began to sing. Shortly, though, more people lifted their voices in patriotic song. Emotion was running high.

Men belonging to the WA, the military arm of the Dutch Nazi organization (NSB), shoved into crowds and started fights. The WA goons wore black shirts. Many people were injured.

NSB members (Dutch Nazis or collaborators) show up at a statue of Queen Emma on Carnation Day, giving the straight arm salute.

NSB members (Dutch Nazis or collaborators) show up at a statue of Queen Emma on Carnation Day, giving the straight arm salute.

People gathered at the Queen’s residence in the Hague, the Noordeinde Palace, to lay flowers on the balcony and to sign the birthday register.  The German commander of the Wehrmacht feared a riot. He ordered German fighter planes to fly above the city, diving now and then, but not to shoot, to get the crowd to disperse.

This day became known as Anjerdag, “Carnation Day.”

German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is shown at the entrance to Queen Wilhelmina's residence, the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague on Carnation Day. The nonviolent protest demonstration by the Dutch citizens greatly alarmed their German occupiers. Hitler was informed and the Nazis began their crackdown on Dutch life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (center) is shown at the entrance to Queen Wilhelmina’s residence, the Noordeinde Palace, in The Hague on Carnation Day. The nonviolent protest demonstrations by the Dutch citizens greatly alarmed their German occupiers. Hitler was informed and the Nazis began their crackdown on Dutch life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Germans were furious with this civil act of disobedience. They ordered images of the Dutch Royal Family to be removed from all public places. Street names were renamed. The Prince Bernhard Square, for example, became “Gooiplein.” The Royal Library was soon referred to as the National Library. On the first of August, the top Nazi in Holland, Reichskommissar Seyss-Inquart, announced that it was forbidden to celebrate a birthday of a member of the Dutch Royal family.

Postnote:  In early 1941, a baby girl was born to a Mr. and Mrs. Niehot of The Hague. They wanted to name their newborn baby Nelia after their midwife, Nelia Epker, but she suggested they give their child an ‘Orange‘ name. The result was announced in the newspaper in a birth advertisement: Irene Beatrix Juliana Wilhelmina Niehot.

This announcement was met with great joy. Irene and Beatrix were the young daughters of Crown Princess Juliana.

May 1940, London. Elizabeth Van Swinderen, wife of the former Dutch minister to Great Britain, points out London barrage balloons to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. Juliana is with her children, Beatrix by her side and Irene in the baby carriage.

May 1940, London. Elizabeth Van Swinderen, wife of the former Dutch minister to Great Britain, points out London barrage balloons to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, who is pushing the stroller. Juliana is with her children, Beatrix is by her side and Irene is in the baby carriage.

Perfect strangers sent cards, flowers, cakes and even money to the Niehot family. When the midwife Nelia Epker placed a thank-you advertisement in March 1941, listing the baby’s royal names once again, Nelia was arrested. She would not return to the Netherlands until August 1945, a survivor of Camp Ravensbrück. 2

1 Gottlief, Robert, ed. Reading Dance: A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncategorizable Extras. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

2 Dutch Resistance Museum

 

 

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March 1933, the last picture taken of Anne, Edith, and Margot in Germany, prior to emigrating to Holland. Anne is 3 years old. They are standing in the Hauptwache square in the center of Frankfurt am Main

March 1933, the last picture taken of Anne, Edith, and Margot Frank in Germany, prior to emigrating to Holland. Anne is 3 years, 9 months old. They are standing in the Hauptwache square in the center of Frankfurt am Main.

I have just finished rereading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. I was surprised to read that Anne had not been born in Amsterdam, where she hid from the Germans during World War II, but in Frankfort, Germany:

I will start by sketching in brief the story of my life. My father was 36 when he married my mother, who was then 25. My sister Margot was born in 1926 in Frankfort-on-Main, I followed on June 12, 1929, and, as we are Jewish, we emigrated to Holland in 1933….

The rest of our family, however, felt the full impact of Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws, so life was filled with anxiety.”1

Following Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, a Nazi flag is hoisted at the town hall in Frankfort, the Franks' hometown in Germany. February 1933

Following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, a Nazi flag is hoisted at the town hall in Frankfort, the Franks’ hometown in Germany. ca. January 31, 1933

Once Hitler was appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Nazi Germany became too dangerous for the Franks, simply because they were Jewish.

The Nazis believed that Jews were subhuman and were bent on driving them out of Germany. The Nazi propaganda machine went full bore, inciting the German people to violence against the Jews, their neighbors and fellow citizens. At the helm were Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ main propagandist, and Julius Streicher.

Julius Streicher’s Nazi Party card was Number 2; Hitler’s was Number 7. Throughout the 1920s, Streicher had been a loyal agitator for Hitler. He published the rabid anti-Jewish newspaper Der Stürmer (“The Attacker”). He was believed to be a sexual pervert. In May 1933, Hitler made him chief of the Central Committee of the Defence against Jewish Atrocity and Boycott Agitation. That July, Streicher:

…had some Jews arrested and taken to a meadow to tear out grass with their teeth….A small squat man, his head shaven, he had a predilection for swaggering in public. He carried a whip, and used it.” 2

May 1934 issue of Der Stürmer, a weekly Nazi propaganda newspaper owned by Julius Streicher. This specific cover issue is notorious as an example of the anti-Semitic propaganda style of Der Stürmer. It invokes the infamous "blood libel against the Jews", specifically the allegation that Jews were killing German Christian children and using their blood in religious rituals. The banner across the bottom of the page, "Die Juden sind unser Ungluck,' means "The Jews are our misfortune."

May 1934 issue of Der Stürmer, a weekly Nazi propaganda newspaper owned by Julius Streicher. This specific cover issue is notorious as an example of the anti-Semitic propaganda style of Der Stürmer. It invokes the infamous “blood libel against the Jews”, specifically the allegation that Jews were killing German Christian children and using their blood in religious rituals. The banner across the bottom of the page, “Die Juden sind unser Ungluck,’ means “The Jews are our misfortune.”

Goebbels and Streicher fomented lies about the Jews, making them the scapegoat for Germany’s poor economy and its humiliating defeat in World War I. They told the German people that the Jews were their enemies and not rightful citizens of Germany.

1933 Germany. Germans read issues of anti-Semitic propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer, published by Nazi agitator Julius Streicher

1933 Germany. Germans read issues of anti-Semitic propaganda newspaper, Der Stürmer, published by Nazi agitator Julius Streicher

In the first few weeks of his chancellorship, Hitler gained complete control of the police force, stripping regular uniformed police of the power to defend law-abiding citizens against unreasonable search, seizure, and arrest. He expanded the notoriously brutal Gestapo, his state secret police, and unleashed them and his other thugs with full power to seek out any suspected enemies to his leadership and detain them, without trial.

February 1, 1933. One day after Hitler becomes Chancellor, the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi paramilitary group known as "the brownshirts" round up suspected Communists.

February 1, 1933. One day after Hitler becomes Chancellor, the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi paramilitary group known as “the brownshirts” round up suspected Communists.

Organized attacks on Jews broke out across Germany. Since the local police had no power, the Jews had no one to turn to. Then, on April 1, 1933, the first officially-sanctioned national attack on German Jewry was held. Organized by Streicher, it called for a boycott of all Jewish businesses. Armed Nazi guards were posted in front of every Jewish business, intent upon blocking all clients from entering. The businesses were marked with yellow Stars of David, and trucks drove through the streets sporting anti-Jewish signs. Windows were shattered, business owners attacked, and stores plundered.

Hitler needed a place to stash his “enemies.” Two months into his chancellorship, he built Dachau outside of Munich, the first of many concentration camps.

Anne’s father, Otto Frank, began looking for other places for his family to live. Frank said many years later:

Because so many of my German countryman were turning into hordes of nationalistic, cruel, anti-Semitic criminals, I had to face the consequences, and though this did hurt me deeply, I realized that Germany was not the world and I left my country forever.”

Through his brother-in-law, Frank was able to set up a business in Holland. By the end of 1933, his wife Edith and daughters, Anne and Margot would join him there.

1934, Amsterdam. Margot, Anne, and their mother Edith Frank on the beach with Mrs. Schneider (back)

1934, Amsterdam. Margot, Anne, and their mother Edith Frank on the beach with Mrs. Schneider (back)

They were running from Hitler, but he would catch up with them later. He was not satisfied in just driving the Franks and all Jews out of Germany. He wanted to completely annihilate them. He would hunt them down across Europe and kill them until, in April 1945, the madness finally stopped.

Between 1933 and 1939, more than half of the 550,000 Jews living in Germany had fled.

Between 1933 and 1939, more than half of the 550,000 Jews living in Germany had fled.

1. Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1952.

2. Pryce-Jones. Unity Mitford: A Quest. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

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Corrie’s father turned on the old table radio to warm it up. Corrie felt that the small, portable one would have worked just fine, but her father insisted on using this old one. It was to be a major broadcast, he said, and the old radio had an elaborate speaker. The prime minister of the Netherlands was to address the Dutch nation.

It was 9:15 on a Thursday night, an hour when Corrie, Father, and Corrie’s sister Betsie normally would be heading upstairs to bed. As was their custom, they had already said their prayers and read a passage from the Bible. But, this evening, they would stay up a little later.

Corrie, Betsie, and Nollie Ten Boom

Corrie, Betsie, and Nollie Ten Boom

The Ten Boom family lived above their watch shop in Haarlem in the Netherlands (Holland).

Casper Ten Boom in watch shop

Casper Ten Boom in watch shop

It was May 9, 1940. World War II was raging in Europe. The aggressive German army had invaded and occupied Poland, Norway, and Denmark. As a result, England and France had declared war on Germany. The Netherlands, however, did not and would not enter the conflict. They had declared their neutrality, the same as they had done in the first world war. Germany had respected their neutrality then and would do so again, they expected.

But every day fresh rumors reached their ears of an impending German invasion. Would Holland be drawn into the war? To calm these fears, the German Nazis repeatedly pledged goodwill to the people of the Netherlands. Many times Corrie had heard Hitler himself on the radio, promising the Dutch people that he would not invade their country.

Finally, it was 9:30, and time for the prime minister’s speech. The Ten Booms pulled their wooden, high-backed chairs closer to the radio, leaning in to listen, tense.

The parlor of the Ten Boom house in Haarlem, the Netherlands

The parlor of the Ten Boom house in Haarlem, the Netherlands

The prime minister’s voice filtered over the air waves. Tonight, it was pleasant and soothing. He told the Dutch people that there was no reason to worry. There would be no war. He knew it for a fact. He had spoken to people in high places.

In spite of the prime minister’s encouraging words, The Ten Booms were not comforted. The broadcast ended. They went upstairs to bed.

Five hours later and 37 miles south down the coast, 19 year old Diet (Deet) Eman woke up to noise outside her bedroom window. It was about 3 in the morning. It sounded as if someone was beating a rug. It was a steady, staccato sound – “pop-pop-pop” – only much faster. Deet lived in The Hague, Netherlands, where Queen Wilhelmina and her government were established.

Diet Eman was 19 years old when the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

Diet Eman was 19 years old when the Germans invaded the Netherlands

“This is crazy!” She thought. “Some idiot is beating rugs right now, and it’s pitch dark outside.” It’s true it was Friday morning and Friday was the day of the week that Dutch women typically beat rugs. But who would beat rugs at three in the morning?

What Diet heard was the first sound of the war. The Germans had invaded the Netherlands. The skies were filled with German parachutists falling. German Stukas dive-bombed the airfield, wiping out the Dutch biplanes. Diet’s sister’s fiancé, part of the weak Dutch army, was killed that day in the German bombing.

German parachutists attack the Netherlands May 10-14, 1940

German parachutists attack the Netherlands May 10-14, 1940

The Dutch people had been caught off guard. So many times they had readied for invasion only to discover it was a false alarm. Over time, they had grown complacent, caught in the net of Nazi lies and deception.

Some of the invading German soldiers crossed the border and parachuted from planes in disguise. They wore Dutch, French, and Belgian military uniforms and carried machine guns. Their disguises allowed them to roam freely behind the Dutch lines. It was Hitler’s idea to deceive and infiltrate the enemy; the Dutch army would be confused and not know who to shoot, the French and the Belgians being their allies. Dutch Nazis met them upon arrival and aided their sabotage activities. Other German soldiers dressed up as nuns, bicyclists, priests, peasants, and schoolboys in order to move undetected among the Dutch population. They seized key strongholds like water controls and bridges to pave the way for the German infantry.

Peace talks were underway when the Germans went ahead and ruthlessly bombed Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This was the message: If the Netherlands doesn't surrender, we will do what we did to Rotterdam to every one of the Dutch cities until you surrender.

Peace talks were underway when the Germans went ahead and ruthlessly bombed Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This was the message: If the Netherlands doesn’t surrender, we will do what we did to Rotterdam to every one of the Dutch cities until you surrender.

The German blitzkrieg crushed the Dutch defenses in five days, allowing the Germans to turn their attention then to invading France. On May 14, 1940, the Netherlands surrendered and the German occupation began in earnest. Germans moved swiftly to prepare Dutch airbases to send missiles to destroy England.

With the May 1940 occupation of Holland, Germany is poised to attack England.

With the May 1940 occupation of Holland, Germany is poised to attack England.

Queen Wilhelmina broadcasts over the BBC to her people in the Netherlands during WWII.
However, Queen Wilhelmina had foiled the Nazi plot to kidnap her and escaped, by boat, to England, where she set up a government in exile. Thanks to the BBC radio network, she was able to speak to her people for the next five years over the radio, urging them to resist the Germans.

It was revealed that the Nazis who had been trained to capture her – but had failed – had taken lessons in how to correctly address royalty. After capturing her, the plan went, a German general would come calling, a bouquet of flowers in hand, and attempt to persuade her to call off all resistance activity.

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Audrey Hepburn (ca. 1935-37, perhaps in Brussels, age 6-8)

Audrey Hepburn (ca. 1935-37, perhaps in Brussels, age 6-8)

It was May 9, 1940, and Audrey Kathleen Hepburn (Ruston) had just turned eleven years old. She was living in Holland with her mother, her two older brothers, and other relatives. Her father lived in London. Her parents were divorced.

To celebrate Audrey’s birthday, her mother, Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra Ruston, had bought tickets for her and Audrey to see a performance by the great English dance troupe, The Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The company was touring Holland, France, and Belgium. Audrey’s town of Arnhem was to be one of their stops.

Audrey (1929-1993) had been living in Holland for only nine months. Previously, she had been in boarding school in England. But, in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. All at once, England was no longer a safe place for a little girl, as it had declared war on Germany. At her mother’s request, Audrey’s father scooped up Audrey from her school and put her on a big orange plane to Holland (also known as the Netherlands), where her mother’s family lived. Holland intended to stay neutral in the war with Germany and was considered a safe place for riding out the conflict.

Audrey Hepburn and her mother Ella, Baroness van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston, ca. 1936.

Audrey Hepburn and her mother Ella, Baroness van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston, ca. 1936.

Audrey had not seen her dad since that day at the airport. She missed him so! Her parents’ divorce had left an aching hole in her heart. But on this particular May day, Audrey was not sad. She was looking forward to the ballet! Her mother had given her more than one reason to smile:

My mother had our little dressmaker make me a long taffeta dress. It went all the way to the ground, and it rustled. There was a little round collar, a little bow here, and a little button in front. The reason she got me this, at great expense, was that I was to present a bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance to…the director of the company.”

The evening finally arrived. Audrey wore her beautiful new long dress and got to see the famous Margot Fonteyn dance in “Horoscope” and “Façade” by choreographer Frederick Ashton. It was marvelous.

Margot Fonteyn in the Polka from Ashton's Facade, 1940. Fonteyn was the principal dancer of the Royal Ballet Company for 20 years.

Margot Fonteyn as the Polka from Ashton’s Facade, 1940. Fonteyn was the principal dancer of the Royal Ballet Company (originally the Sadler’s Wells) for 20 years.

Afterwards, Audrey’s mother took the stage and gave a formal thanks to the troupe first in Dutch, then in English. Next was Audrey’s big moment. To her surprise, her bouquet of tulips and roses was hurriedly accepted. A quick supper followed, as the dancers hustled about afterward, gathering up their props and costumes, to get on their bus to leave Arnhem that very evening. According to the British consul, there was suspicious German military activity nearby. The dancers didn’t want to get stuck in Holland if the Germans did attack and closed off the borders.

As Audrey’s head lay on the pillow that night, the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The Dutch were totally shocked. They never dreamed Hitler would attack them, his “Dutch cousins”! Just the night before, matter of fact, Hitler had made a radio broadcast, promising to all who listened that he had no plans whatsoever of attacking Holland. For five days, the Germans came down on the Dutch with the force of Hell. They never bothered issuing a formal declaration of war either.

 German parachutists invading the Netherlands, May 10-15, 1940

This is the city center of Rotterdam, Holland, following the German Blitz of May 14, 1940. A ceasefire was already in progress but the Nazis bombed anyway.

They blasted the city of Rotterdam with an air attack that killed 1,000 Dutch civilians and left 85,000 homeless (accounts vary as to the exact number).

Incendiary bombs were dropped on the Hague. Nazi troops tore through Audrey’s town of Arnhem, looting and despoiling as they pleased. The Germans threatened to bomb every Dutch city until they were demolished until Holland surrendered. The Dutch military, though terribly outnumbered, fought back anyway, but they were no match for the conquering horde, and were forced to surrender. After five days, Holland capitulated. It would be occupied by the Nazis for five very long years. The Germans wanted to take over the world and destroy the Jewish population.

At first, Audrey’s family was allowed to remain at their regal ancestral home, Castle Zypendaal (or Zijpendaal). Audrey Hepburn’s mother’s family was of Dutch nobility.

Audrey Hepburn's mother's family was of Dutch nobility. This is one of their homes, the Castle Zypendaal in Arnhem.

Audrey Hepburn’s mother’s family was of Dutch nobility. This is one of their homes, the Castle Zypendaal in Arnhem.

Over the next ten months, the van Heemstra bank accounts, securities, and jewelry would be confiscated by the Nazis. Rations were imposed on food and fuel which were soon in short supply for the suffering Dutch people. Food became completely nonexistent during the Hunger Winter of 1944 as the Germans cut off all imports of foods to punish the Dutch Resistance (secret group that fought back against the Nazis from inside Holland). During that time, Audrey confessed to eating bread made from flour from tulip bulbs and grass to keep from starving to death like 20,000 other Dutch citizens did that winter.

The Hunger Winter, 1944-45. Wood is taken from the tram rail in Holland to burn as fuel.

The Hunger Winter, 1944-45. Wood is taken from the tram rail in Holland to burn as fuel.

The German occupiers spread anti-English sentiment, banning the import of British jams and biscuits and outlawing the Girl and Boy Scouts. The Germans hoped they could whip the Dutch into a hatred for the English and recruit them in the battle against Britain.

Audrey Hepburn-Ruston was an English name and Audrey spoke English. She carried a British passport. With the Nazis cracking down on the English, the Baroness was worried. Quickly, Audrey’s mother gave Audrey a new identity as a little Dutch girl. For the war years, the Baroness changed her daughter’s name to Edda van Heemstra. Audrey – now Edda – took Dutch language lessons so she could pass as Dutch and not be arrested for being English. Audrey did not risk speaking English for the rest of the war.

Audrey Hepburn at a dance recital, 1944, Arnhem Conservatory, Holland (age 15)

Audrey Hepburn at a dance recital, 1944, Arnhem Conservatory, Holland (age 15)

Audrey was keen to be a famous ballet dancer and her mother was the quintessential stage mom. In 1941, Ella sent Audrey to the Arnhem Conservatory to study dance. It was then that Audrey decided that she wanted to grow up to become a ballerina. Her dream was to

“wear a tutu and dance at Covent Garden.”

Her mother made her ballet slippers from scraps of felt, as materials became scarcer and scarcer, since the Nazis took the best for themselves, always.

As a child of war, Audrey learned to cope with hunger, fear, and deprivation through art, music, and dance. Soon, though, she and some other dancers began staging private, secret dance shows to raise money for the Dutch Resistance.

I designed the dances myself. I had a friend that played the piano, and my mother made the costumes. They were very amateurish attempt – but…it amused people.”

The recitals were given in houses with windows and doors closed, and no one outside knew what was going on. Afterward, money was collected and turned over to the Dutch Resistance. To keep from being discovered, the audiences did not clap.

“The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”

Audrey Hepburn during a dance recital in Arnhem, Holland, 1944

Audrey Hepburn during a dance recital in Arnhem, Holland, 1944

Sometimes at these “black performances,” resistance workers attended. They gave the young performers money and folded messages to be stuffed into the children’s shoes and transported the next day to resistance workers. The children risked death to save the lives of resistance workers and Audrey was one of these children.

One winter day, Audrey was walking along a city street when three truckloads full of German soldiers toting rifles stopped suddenly. The soldiers ordered all the girls in their sight to line up and get in the trucks. Audrey did as she was told. As the trucks drove off, Audrey kept saying the Lord’s Prayer to herself in Dutch. Then the convoy stopped unexpectedly. Some soldiers jumped out and began abusing some Jews. Audrey said:

“I remember hearing the dull sound of a rifle butt hitting a man’s face. And I jumped down, dropped to my knees, and rolled under the truck. I then skittered out, hoping the driver would not notice me – and he didn’t.”

Audrey with father, preNazi Occupation, ca. 1934-35, age 5-6

Audrey with father, preNazi Occupation, ca. 1934-35, age 5-6

And where was Audrey’s father all this time? He was arrested in England and accused of peddling Nazi propaganda for the notorious leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. He remained under house arrest for the duration of the war on the Isle of Man with other suspected Nazi sympathizers.

Below are some beautiful drawings Audrey made during the war.

Audrey Hepburn's childhood artwork

Audrey Hepburn’s childhood artwork

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George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India, and the first Head of the Commonwealth.

George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth from 11 December 1936 until his death. He was the last Emperor of India, and the first Head of the Commonwealth.

It was Christmas, 1939, and Great Britain was at war with Nazi Germany. Like his father before him, King George VI would continue the holiday tradition of addressing the British Empire in a live radio message. That year, he would broadcast from the royal country house at Sandringham, where he and his family would spend Christmas.

The Royal Residence at Sandringham, England

The Royal Residence at Sandringham, England

King George VI and his family leave Buckingham Palace, 1939, to spend Christmas at their country house at Sandringham. Pictured are the King and his wife Queen Elizabeth, daughters Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Princess Elizabeth would become Queen Elizabeth upon the death of her father in 1952.

King George VI and his family leave Buckingham Palace, 1939, to spend Christmas at their country house at Sandringham. Pictured are the King and his wife Queen Elizabeth, daughters Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Princess Elizabeth would become Queen Elizabeth upon the death of her father in 1952.

You will remember that King George VI was not a man comfortable with public speaking. His struggle to overcome a debilitating speech impediment – a stutter – was immortalized in the 2011 American Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture, “The King’s Speech.” A shy, nervous man, a heavy smoker and drinker (it would kill him at 56), King George VI would have preferred to have remained the Duke of York, living a quiet, out-of-the-public eye life with his sturdy wife and two rosy-cheeked daughters.

British Royal Princesses Elizabeth (l.) and Margaret Rose. February 1939, 7 months before the outbreak of WWII

British Royal Princesses Elizabeth (l.) and Margaret Rose. This photo was taken in February 1939, seven months before the outbreak of WWII.

King George VI – born Albert, called Bertie – never wanted to be king. He wasn’t supposed to be king. He was only king because his brother David had abdicated the throne in 1936 and he, Bertie, was next in line. Nevertheless, unwillingness aside, this unlikely monarch would rise to the occasion and be the very king the British people so sorely needed in a time of great trouble.

It was December 25, 1939, the day of the broadcast. Dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet, the tall and too thin sovereign approached the table where two radio microphones were set up, taking his seat.

King George VI addresses his people on September 19, 1939, at the outbreak of WWII.

King George VI addresses his people on September 19, 1939, at the outbreak of WWII.

Taking a few deep breaths, he began to speak, slowly yet solidly. Measuring his words carefully, he spoke from the heart:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

Toward the end of his nine-minute broadcast, he said:

“I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you:”

He then read from a poem given to him by his 13-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth,

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’”*

He finished by saying,

“May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”

For a king not known for compelling speeches, this one would be a landmark. It united King and Country in common cause and inspired the people to hold fast. After all, at this point in history, no one knew that the Allies would triumph. Britain was to face five more years of war and brutal bombing by Hitler before the day of liberation would arrive. The end of 1939 was a shaky time and great leadership by King, Queen, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill would hold Britain steady against the Nazi aggressors.

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI of Great Britain stop at Vallence Road, Stepney, in the East End, London, to examine the debris following an air raid in the Second World War. October 4, 1945

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI of Great Britain stop at Vallence Road, Stepney, in the East End, London, to examine the debris following an air raid in the Second World War. October 4, 1945

King George VI pins a Distinguished Service Medal on Chief Petty Officer C.L.Baldwin in December 1939.

King George VI pins a Distinguished Service Medal on Chief Petty Officer C.L.Baldwin in December 1939.

Listen to the last four minutes of the King’s Christmas 1939 message here:

For more about the British Royal Family on this blog, click here.

Click here for the full text of the King’s 1939 Christmas Message plus The REAL austerity Christmas: How a nation gripped by fear kept calm and carried  on three months after outbreak of war in 1939

*“The Gate of the Year,” by Minnie Haskins (1908)

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