The secret lives of famous people

Audrey Hepburn. Marcel Marceau. Josephine Baker. Jimmy Stewart. David Niven. Shirley Temple. Julia Child.

I've just listed, in order, a member of the Dutch Resistance, two members of the French Resistance, a bomber pilot, a commando, an ambassador, and a member of the nascent CIA.

article continues below

I've been keeping a mental collection for the past few years of the untold stories of those we think we know. Fame tends to magnify, and reduce. We don't remember Audrey Hepburn, the person, we remember the girl with the long cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany's. We don't remember James Stewart so much as we recall George Bailey and his savings and loan.

But the most fascinating sides of so many lives are lived entirely out of sight.

Hepburn, for example, was raised by a British father, who was a fascist sympathizer, and a Dutch mother. When her parents split up, she found herself living in Holland as the Second World War broke out. Living under a false Dutch name with her materna relatives, she studied ballet and barely avoided starvation.

She danced for audiences of resistance sympathizers, raising funds to fight the Nazis. The crowds could not applaud for fear of being discovered and her best shows, she said, were delivered in utter silence.

The mime Marcel Marceau, and the African-American dancer and singer Josephine Baker may never have crossed paths, but both worked to undermine the Nazis as well. Marceau, Jewish himself, learned mime to silently entertain - and keep quiet - the Jewish children he was spiriting out of occupied France.

Before the war, Baker had married a French man who was Jewish, and as someone who naturally despised racists, she volunteered to spy on the Nazis, and allegedly smuggled messages for the resistance, written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Jimmy Stewart led bombing missions over Europe as a commander with the U.S. Army Air Force, after struggling for years to avoid being used purely as a propaganda tool.

In his later years, he supposedly refused to let any movie studio use his war record to promote his films.

Actor David Niven wrote candidly about almost every aspect of his life in his quirky autobiography, The Moon is a Balloon. The exception was his work as an elite British commando in the days after D-Day, which he refused to talk about to the day he died. He is likely the most appropriate actor to have ever played James Bond.

Julia Child served with the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, during the Second World War. She worked in what is now Sri Lanka and in mainland China, long before she learned and transmitted the art of French cooking to TV audiences.

Child star Shirley Temple's life was one with an unexpected second act. She never made the transition fully into an adult star. Instead, she went into politics, seeking election as a Republican, and becoming ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia, the latter as it broke up into two separate nations. She was also one of the first celebrities to publicly speak about her own experiences with breast cancer.

This short list touches on the lives of the famous.

There are thousands who had even stranger lives, and are still having them, doing amazing things, and yet little known. Look up James Tiptree Jr., or Rita Levi-Montalcini, or Mary Anning, or Emperor Norton I, or Philo Farnsworth, or Laurent Clerc. Those are just the people well-known enough to study. There are six billion potential adventurers currently living all around us.

Matthew Claxton is a reporter with the Langley Advance, a sister paper to the Burnaby NOW.

Read Related Topics

© Burnaby Now

Report a Typo or Error

Popular Burnaby Now