There had been bright sunshine when they left the English shore, but midway across the Channel, dark clouds swept overhead, and the wind had shifted from breezy to almost gale force. Now, as the ship headed for the Continent, they were suddenly caught in a late-winter storm. Cold rain whipped across the deck and stung their faces as the ferry rolled and pitched. Years later, the baroness could not recall feeling any anxiety during the crossing, and therefore she had not communicated any fear to her two small boys as they steadied themselves against her.
This squall was far less threatening than the typhoon she had once endured in the South China Sea; nor was it as threatening as the violent conditions that routinely battered the ships that had taken her from Asia to South America or from the Netherlands to the East Indies. Thanks to the composure of the Dutch baroness, her eight- and four-year-old sons could face the heavy weather cheerfully. But if she did not hold their hands tightly, the wind might easily sweep the children overboard. Better to take them inside for hot chocolate.
On her way to the ferry's café, the baroness passed her husband in the small, smoky lounge bar. Warming himself with Irish whiskey, he glanced toward her but did not interrupt his conversation with a fellow passenger. Her husband was not the boys' father-they were sons from her
rst marriage. And from his dif
dence, no one in the room would have guessed that he had any connection to this handsome, patrician woman and her two docile children. She heard him tell his drinking partner that he had left England to take up a new position in Belgium with great prospects. Indeed, she hoped for the best, for him as for herself and the boys: if at last he could hold a job longer than a month or two without succumbing to indolence-well, that might help secure the marriage, too. He was her second husband, and they had been married for three years; during that entire time, she reckoned that he had not worked a total of three months.
rst husband had jumped from the matrimonial ship
ve years after their wedding, which was just four years ago, and she was left with two small boys when she was twenty-
ve; now, domestic storm clouds were once again on the horizon. And she was seven months pregnant.
She had some
nancial resources and a share of ancestral property, for her family was of old European aristocracy. And she had a title: she was the Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra, now also Mrs. Ruston. Dutch baronesses were not a rare breed even in 1929; most democratic Netherlanders did not mind the last of the noble gentry using venerable titles-but only if their holders adopted no airs and graces and imitated the Dutch royal family, an amiably down-to-earth clan.
The four travelers reached Brussels safely and proceeded to a rented house. There, with the help of a relative who arrived from Holland, the baroness prepared for the child's birth while her husband went off to his job with a British insurance company as a minor clerk with no con
dential duties. He was bored from the
On the morning of Saturday, May 4, the baroness went into labor, and by mid-afternoon she was nursing her newborn daughter. "Saturday's child works hard for a living," according to Mother Goose.
Ella, the Baroness van Heemstra, was born in the fashionable Dutch suburb of Velp, near Arnhem, on June 12, 1900. One of nine children, she was the daughter of Baron Arnoud Jan Adolf van Heemstra (once the governor of Dutch Guiana in South America-later Surinam) and his wife, the Baroness Elbrig Wilhelmine Henrietta van Asbeck; both families were titled aristocrats. The precise reasons for the baronetcies remain unclear, but in each case both sets of Ella's grandparents were respected jurists or judges with a long history of service to Crown and country. Their children, Ella's parents, inherited the titles according to the custom of the time.
Ella's childhood was not underprivileged: her parents owned a country mansion, a city house and a summer cottage, and they employed a small platoon of servants who attended them everywhere. Photos taken of Ella in her mid-twenties show a strikingly attractive woman with
ne features, dark hair, a clear, translucent complexion and a certain digni
ed smile, neither girlish, coy nor seductive. She was, in other words, every bit the image of a somewhat Germanic-Victorian aristocrat, and it was, of course, the Germanic-Victorian style (overstuffed in furniture and formal in demeanor) that was the standard all over Europe-if not among the royal families, certainly among their social rivals, the landed gentry.
At the age of nineteen, Ella concluded a respectable but undemanding upper-class education, at which she excelled mostly in singing and amateur theatricals, to the point where she expressed a desire to become an opera singer. Her parents thought little of that and instead purchased her a
rst-class ticket on a long steamship journey to visit relatives who worked for Dutch colonial companies in Batavia-the Latin name for the Netherlands, later Jakarta-in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia).
There Ella blossomed and ourished. Much in demand for her
ne voice, which she put to good use entertaining at parties; for her clever repartee and her air of sophistication; and for her genteel irtatiousness, Ella impressed many eligible young men and their parents in the colonies. On March 11, 1920-
ve months after her arrival and three months before her twentieth birthday-Ella's parents traveled to Batavia for her marriage to Hendrik Gustaaf Adolf Quarles van Ufford, who was six years her senior and held a respectable job. Business was thriving that year in the Indies, at least partly because at home the Netherlands began to experience a severe depression and relied on the colonies more than ever.
Van Ufford's mother was a baroness with a respected Dutch and French pedigree, and everything augured well for a happy and pro
table union. On December 5 of that same year, Ella bore a son they named Arnoud Robert Alexander Quarles van Ufford (always known as Alex); and on August 27, 1924, they welcomed Ian Edgar Bruce Quarles van Ufford. But things soon went very wrong. When Hendrik returned to the Netherlands at Christmas 1924 to discuss a transfer from Batavia, Ella and the toddlers accompanied him. Early in 1925, she and her husband registered their divorce in Arnhem, for reasons that may forever remain unclear.
At once, van Ufford took ship for San Francisco, where (he said) he had a good offer of work; there, he soon met and married a German immigrant named Marie Caroline Rohde. With that, Hendrik Quarles van Ufford removed himself from the lives of Ella and their two sons; the public record shows only that he returned to the Netherlands years later, where he died on July 14, 1955, at the age of sixty.
And so, that spring of 1925, the twenty-four-year-old Baroness Ella van Heemstra van Ufford was left with two babies and no husband. Her friends in Holland noted that she had become somewhat imperious, perhaps from defensiveness about the dissolution of her marriage, but she had a title, a Dutch home with her parents and a nanny for her sons.
ts notwithstanding, Ella surprised her parents by returning to Batavia, and there she renewed a friendship she had earlier formed with a dashing, courtly Englishman she had met even while her marriage was foundering. Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, eleven years older than Ella, was born November 21, 1889, in Onzic, Bohemia, where his London-born father, Victor John Ruston, had worked and where he had married a local girl named Anna Catherina Wels. Joseph's maternal grandmother's maiden name was Kathleen Hepburn.
When Joseph and Ella were reunited that spring of 1926, he was still married to Cornelia Wilhelmina Bisschop, a Dutch woman he had married in the East Indies. They were living entirely on her family inheritance, which was certainly helpful, for Ruston never really had any sort of career-nor much of a desire for one. Later identi
ed by Hepburn biographers as an Anglo-Irish banker, he was neither Irish nor a banker; "the sad truth is, he never really hung on to any job," according to one of his grandsons. But he had a calm manner, a handsome expression, dark eyes like velvet (according to Ella's description) and, thanks to Cornelia, a
ne wardrobe. He sported a little moustache like an artist's brush, and he photographed well; it was not dif
cult to understand his appeal to Ella, who in any case was eager to
nd a new father for her boys.
She had every reason to expect that a man with a good job could be found. The direct rule by the Netherlands over the Dutch East Indies had greatly expanded since 1900, and Dutch strategies to control both the economy and tax revenues meant that virtually every exported item was shipped through Batavia.
Joseph found Ella cultivated, elegant and as enamored of the good life as he, and they enjoyed attending cotillions, military parades,
ne restaurants and sporting events. But Ella's greatest appeal was her title-about which he joked so often that she recognized how seriously he took it. Never mind that the title was a centuries-old honori
c used by other ladies in Batavia-and never mind that Ella took an of
ce job to support herself and her boys. Joseph, besotted with all things that had a trace of the upper classes, took to introducing her as his friend, the baroness. He understood quite clearly that marriage would not promote him to a baronetcy, yet he greatly valued her background and breeding, and perhaps most of all, he saw her family's afuence as a very comfortable cushion in life-indeed, as a plush settee on which he could, when so inclined, rest and relax.
Cornelia, meanwhile, apparently complaisant and much on her own, luxuriated in the rare
ed precincts of colonial life, with a home lavishly appointed in ivory and gold (common for the white Europeans), and there was no shortage of natives to look after their needs. Daily life among the wealthy could neatly be described in terms of a Somerset Maugham novel: the setting was not a dreary backwater outpost but a rather chic preserve for the few advantaged foreigners who controlled the economy.
When Joseph said he could obtain a speedy divorce from his wife, Ella accepted his proposal. Fortunately, Cornelia Bisschop Ruston made no objections, for she had romantic interests elsewhere. Papers were drawn up, signed and countersigned on all sides, there was a quick divorce, and on September 7, 1926, Ella and Joseph were married.
For a brief time, the baroness was attered by her handsome husband, who was at least a presentable escort in society. But she was also alert, and soon she became impatient with his idle and morose comportment. Alas, Joseph Ruston was revealing himself as a common adventurer who had married her for access to her money and the chance to live in the capacious light of her aristocratic family. He made no effort to work for a living, and he seemed to have an excuse when, in November, a Communist revolt caused massive rioting and was put down only with great dif
culty. How, he protested, could he go out to work in so unstable a colony? From this time, Joseph Ruston's conversations were peppered with fervent anti-Communist declamations.
But languor, political tirades and the trivialities of social life were not in Ella's character, and she had no appreciation of those qualities in others, the general public discord notwithstanding. Within a year of the marriage, there were heated arguments about money, Joseph's idleness and his alarming emotional indifference to her two sons. In muted desperation, Ella wrote to her parents, who suggested that Joseph might do well to meet some of their business associates in London. This he agreed to do; he very much missed England in any case, and he considered London far more agreeable than Batavia. Hence, in late 1928, Joseph, Ella, Ian and Alexander took the long journey from the East Indies to Britain.
They arrived on Christmas Eve and leased a at in fashionable Mayfair, a few steps from Hyde Park. The holiday season, Joseph insisted, was no time to hunt for employment, and so he waited until February. A colleague of his father-in-law then made Joseph an offer of employment at a British insurance company in Belgium, and in mid-March the baroness and her husband again packed their luggage, boarded the storm-swept ferry for France and then proceeded to Brussels by train.
At the end of May, the newborn baby nearly succumbed to whooping cough. She stopped breathing and began to turn blue, and the nanny froze with panic and called out to Ella, who did not know panic. Adding audible prayers to her procedure of turning, spanking and warming the infant, Ella effectively saved her life.
On July 18, ten weeks after their daughter was born, Ella and Joseph Ruston registered the birth with the British vice consulate in Brussels, for the law considered the child English by descent from her father. According to the document, she was born at
48 rue Keyenveld, also called Keienveldstraat, in the Ixelles district, southeast of the center of Brussels. The child's full legal name was Audrey Kathleen Ruston; throughout her life, Audrey carried a British passport.
After World War II and the death of the last Hepburn relative in Joseph's maternal ancestry, he legally changed his surname to Hepburn-Ruston, which he thought very posh. The Hepburn clan, which may be traced centuries back in Scots-Irish history, had dozens of various orthographies, among them Hebburne, Hyburn and Hopbourn. Among his most notable forebears-or so Joseph said-was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell and third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. But the multiple branches on the Hepburn tree and the doubtful genealogies at several critical junctures render dif
cult any positive veri
cation of this grand assertion.
The van Heemstra-Ruston house in Brussels was but one of Audrey's childhood residences. She often spent time with her grandparents at their estates in Arnhem, Holland, and outside Arnhem, at Velp. Ella also often took her to visit cousins, most of all when Joseph was absent. He was frequently dispatched to the
nance management company's London of
ce, and when he was at home with the family, he often attended political meetings in the city center.
Whenever he returned home from a day's or a week's business, Joseph was welcomed excitedly by his adoring daughter. But by all accounts, he doted on her no more than he did on Ian and Alex. Ella taught Audrey to read and draw, to enjoy the standard children's classics and good music, and the child longed to show her father what she was learning. But he showed little interest in her, and Audrey's response to his coolness was typical of any child: she redoubled her efforts to win his love and approval-alas, to no avail.
From the Hardcover edition.