Last week saw the unveiling of a celebratory sculpture in the Belgian birthplace of Audrey Hepburn. The renowned Hollywood actress was half Dutch and half British, born in Brussels, the daughter of an heiress from Arnhem and an English wastrel who walked out on the family when she was six.
Her exotic international combination of genes and geography explains part of her allure. But Audrey Hepburn would not have existed at all without the intervention of an eccentric Times journalist, who also happened to be a former Fascist and a prisoner in Colditz, the wartime POW camp.
Micky Burn was one of The Times’s most notable foreign correspondents, and one of the oddest.
The son of George V’s solicitor, Burn was spoiled, louche, witty, handsome, feckless and astonishingly brave, openly bisexual at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The royal doctor gave him Benzedrine injections to “cure” his homosexuality which, unsurprisingly, failed to work: he enjoyed a passionate affair with, among others, Guy Burgess, the Foreign Office official and Communist later exposed as a KGB spy. He left Oxford University in 1933 after a year wholly devoid of study and breezed into a job at The Times.
Like others of the English upper class, Burn was also a keen Fascist. “My mix of ignorance, blindness and semi-criminal benevolence, let loose in a world of intensely organised falsehood, turned me into a dupe,” he later wrote. The nutty British Fascist Unity Mitford introduced him to Hitler; the Führer signed a copy of Mein Kampf for the young Englishman, who immediately lost it.
At a Nuremberg rally, Burn was seated beside Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch noblewoman who shared his right-wing views. They began an affair. Van Heemstra was previously married to another Fascist Englishman, Joseph Ruston, who styled himself Ruston-Hepburn because he claimed (wrongly) to be descended from James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, fourth and last husband of Mary Queen of Scots.
In May 1929, in the Brussels municipality of Ixelles, Van Heemstra gave birth to a daughter named Audrey, known to the family by her Dutch name, Adriaantje. Burn did not stick to anything for long, and that included Van Heemstra. Back in London, he shed his enthusiasm for Nazism almost overnight and became first a socialist and later a Communist. “What Hitler was offering me as soul-saving was s***,” he concluded.
Audrey Hepburn would not have existed at all without the intervention of an eccentric Times journalist.
In part to compensate for his flirtation with Fascism, Burn volunteered for the commandos and was captured in 1942 during Operation Chariot, the daring amphibious attack on the dry dock at St Nazaire on the coast of France, where large German ships put in for repairs. The Germans published a propaganda image of Burn being led away under guard with his hands raised: the photographer had failed to notice that Burn’s left hand was surreptitiously raised in the V for victory sign, a typical act that was both courageous and extremely rash.
Burn was imprisoned in Colditz, along with several hundred other captured officers regarded as troublemakers by the Germans. “I am now living in a castle, as most of the best people do at this time of year,” Burn wrote to his parents. From Colditz, Burn maintained a friendly correspondence with Van Heemstra, his Dutch former lover, who was now back in the Netherlands with her teenage daughter. The family suffered appallingly under Nazi occupation: Audrey’s uncle was executed in retaliation for an act of sabotage by the Dutch resistance; her half-brother was deported to a German labor camp. The family fortune was gone, the ancestral properties in ruins or confiscated.
Like Burn, Ella van Heemstra was now ferociously anti-Nazi. In her letters, she told him how Audrey was training to be a ballet dancer: “We’ll send you tickets for a box on her first night in London,” she promised. The future actress secretly performed silent dance routines to raise money for the Dutch resistance.
Burn was liberated from Colditz at the end of the war. A few months later he received another letter from Van Heemstra, pleading for help. Audrey was desperately ill, suffering from jaundice, anemia, respiratory infection and an edema caused by malnutrition. The family had survived by making flour from tulip bulbs. Ella asked Burn if he could help her to obtain penicillin, a wonder drug that might save Audrey’s life. Burn sent her thousands of cigarettes. Van Heemstra sold these on the black market and bought the medicine. Adriaantje recovered and went on to become Audrey Hepburn.
Micky Burn continued his life of passionate if erratic obsessions. He returned from Colditz convinced of his homosexuality but then immediately fell in love with a woman, to whom he remained married, despite homosexual liaisons that led to several blackmail attempts, for the next three decades.
He embraced Catholicism, but then renounced that faith over the church’s stance on homosexuality. He campaigned for the Communist Party but then disavowed Marxism after witnessing the oppression of Communist rule as a correspondent for The Times in Budapest and Belgrade.
His Colditz novel, Yes, Farewell, was published in 1946, the first of numerous books, plays and poems. He moved to Wales, where he set up a mussel-farming co-operative run on socialist principles in Porthmadog Harbour. It was a financial debacle.
Nazi-sympathizer turned Communist, journalist-novelist, mussel-breeder, commando, poet, dilettante and the PoW “scribe” who had used his journalist’s shorthand to record BBC bulletins picked up on the secret Colditz radio, Micky Burn never experienced a moment of boredom and continued to try everything, at least once, until his death in 2010 at the age of 97.
And of all the things Burn did, none was stranger than his role in saving the life of one of the greatest screen actresses of all time. No Micky Burn of The Times? No Audrey Hepburn and no Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Ben Macintyre is a writer at large for The Times of London and the best-selling author of The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work