Have You Ever Heard of Erik Hazelhoff? (9 cents)

There are so many books that are waiting to be read, that you see somewhere on a shelf, and put on a mental to-read list, that I wonder why I so often will pick up a book that I never had heard of, by or about someone or some topic completely unknown to me, and that I decide that this book will become the book I have to read next. Such was the case with Erick Hazelhoff’s “In Pursuit of Life”, which I saw in the “friends’ room” at DC’s Cleveland Park public library. OK, so the inside of the dust jacket did tempt be a bit (“From wartime freedom fighter and RAF bomber pilot to blockade runner, NBC vice president and co-creator of the Today and Tonight shows – and tramp in New York’s Central Park……”), but something (I don’t know what) made me pull the book off the shelf and read the inside of the jacket.

An extraordinary life was chronicled in this 2000 book (Hazelhoff was born in 1917 and died in 2007), and Hazelhoff was a skilled writer, very competent to tell his story.

What struck me perhaps most is how different he approached his life than I approach mine. Hazelhoff seems to have approached his life without any fear. I should restate that: he approached his fear as something that it was crucial to ignore, to work his way through. He clearly lived only for the day, never for tomorrow. He also had more than his share of good looks and charm, it appears, and even more importantly, an extraordinary amount of good luck.

Let me give you some of the chronology:

1. He was born on the island of Java (now part of the Republic of Indonesia, but in 1917 part of the Dutch East Indies) to a father who oversaw some Dutch owned agricultural plantations and a mother from a prominent Dutch-Indies family, which had been in the islands for generations. He lived on Java for thirteen years, enough to enable him to have had an idyllic, and somewhat cosmopolitan childhood.

2. The family moved to Holland (to The Hague) so that Erik and his sister could get a Dutch education. After high school, Erik surprised his father by saying that he did not want to go on to the university (at least not right then), but that he wanted to see more of the world. He would up spending about six months on a large farm on the Argentine pampas owned or managed by a Dutch friend of his father’s. This gave him the chance to pick up Spanish, live in relatively primitive conditions, and come into contact with yet another type of society.

3. Eventually, he enrolled in the University of Leiden, where he enjoyed extraordinary friendships at the equivalent, perhaps, of Yale’s Skull and Bones, did remarkably well in his studies, but spent a lot of time drinking, engaged in a variety of pranks, and chasing girls. One summer, he met his first American girl, from San Francisco, and on the night they met in a bar (I am not sure how far beyond that this particular relationship went), he told her that he would come visit her in San Francisco in six weeks, by August 15. Although he had no money, he made his war across the ocean, hitchhiked and road the freights to California, and made it on time. Always thinking of himself as a writer, he wrote up his trip, and got it published in the Netherlands, where it sold a lot of copies, the United States in the 1930s being a place of curiosity to Dutch readers. He also picked up a little English.

4. He returned to Leiden, but before he could graduate, World War II broke out, and Holland’s self-assurance that Germany (as during World War I) would respect the country’s neutrality was soon proven to be false, and the country was invaded and put under Nazi occupation. The university was closed, his Jewish friends appeared to be in danger, and he (and many other of his contemporaries) began to think about how to escape Europe for what appeared to be the comparative safety and freedom of the United Kingdom.

5. After several extraordinarily brave attempts (with friends) to escape by boat across the North Sea, he eventually succeeded on his own and reached London. When he got to England, he met a large number of “Englandfahrers”, as Queen Wilhemina named them, Dutch citizens living in England, establishing a government in exile. Wilhemina herself was in exile in England, and made a point of meeting with fellow Hollanders as they reached Britain, so Hazelhoff met his queen (she had already been on the throne for forty years), and because of his charm, I assume, they struck up sort of a friendship.

6. One thing he knew is that there was virtually no contact between the Dutch in England, and the Dutch resisters in Holland, and he and a friend believed that, based on their knowledge of the Dutch coast and of the German occupation, that they could infiltrate the country by sea, put agents in place with radio transmitters, and help the war effort immeasurably. They convinced the powers that be (that included the queen, and some of the Dutch in England – the majority of the members of the government in exile, Hazelhoff concluded, were worthless) of the possible success of their plans. Hazelhoff and others implemented the plan – he made 12 different trips to Holland, each one more exciting and dangerous than the last. And when he wasn’t stealing across the North Sea, he was eating well, drinking too much, and chasing all sorts of women, one of whom (an English lady) he eventually married.

7. Bureaucratic infighting led to the intelligence operation (called Contact Holland) being taken over by the military, which led a to a military hierarchy that was too much for Hazelhoff, that he resigned (under threat of court martial, it must be said, forestalled only by the queen awarding him a high military honor), and he joined the Royal Air Force (you could do that as a foreigner) and became a bomber pilot (in spite of notoriously bad eye sight).

8. He made about 80 bomber runs over Germany – not many pilots made so many runs and lived to tell the tale.

9. When the war was over, it was time for Queen Wilhemina to return to the Netherlands, and she recruited Hazelhoff to be one of her two personal aides. He accompanied her on the return trip, and lived with her (and a very small staff) on a rural estate, while the royal residences were being refurbished.

10. Deciding that post-war Holland was not the same as pre-war Holland, he decided to leave, in spite of all of his contacts and patriotic feelings, and he and his new wife came to America. He wangled a green card (a story in and of itself), and went about searching for work, which turned out not to be overly easy. He was only 30 years old (after all of this adventure), took a couple of unsatisfying jobs, and decided to head out west and go to Hollywood. He worked for a while in a men’s clothing store, found an agent, met a number of Hollywood big-wigs (hobnobbed with George Cukor, for example) and got a part in a film, with Kirk Douglas and Laraine Day. But the Hollywood life was not for him, the process of movie making too slow and frustrating, and he left his film career as soon as it started.

11. He was continuing to write, he and his wife (and now son) left California, went back to Holland for a while (his parents were still alive), but then came back to New York, where he fell in with some well known writers and thought he might have discovered his career path, when another diversion appeared. Indonesia had just declared its independence for Holland, and the South Molucca Islands had declared their independence from Indonesia – this was something permitted by the new Indonesian constitution, but not countenanced by new Indonesian President Sukarno (who along with Hitler comes across as the two bad men of this book). He is approached by an old Dutch friend to help the Moluccans, first raising funds for naval vessels, and then by going to the islands to see what is going on there. As access to the Moluccans has been blocked by the Indonesians, entry requires a reprise of his secret approaches to Holland during the war, only this time in better weather. The story of how he accomplishes this is as unbelievable as his World War II adventures (and formed the basis for more writing) – it involves intrigue in the Philippines with Indonesian diplomats and call girls, “borrowing” a sea plane to get to the Moluccans, running out of gas, and have no directional aids, and much more.

12. Returning to the United States and his writing career, he gets fixed up with folks at NBC-TV, and becomes a writer and producer for the Today show (Dave Garroway and then Steve Allen at this time), and Tonight.

13. His stint at NBC ended shortly after the Hungarian revolution of 1956 (he still is under 40), and Hazelhoff and family head to Europe, where he becomes the Director of Radio Free Europe in Munich. Falling to some bureaucratic intrigue there, they return to America where he is offered a new post – President of CBS News. He turns it down, because wants to work on his own. He spends time (with wealthy partners and backers) developing an international television network and production company (which almost succeeds) and then in partnership with the son of Joseph Hirshhorn, he works to discover and pump oil off Israel’s Mediterranean territorial waters (which never succeeds).

14. He is then broke, his wife leaves him, he is at loose ends, returns to Europe, meets up with his son, now in school in Switzerland, and agrees to work with his son, who wants to become a world class racing driver. Two accidents later, this plan aborts.

15. He then writes his first book-length memoir of his wartime experiences, “Soldier of Orange”. Published in Dutch, it becomes a runaway best seller, selling more than one million copies in this small country, making him a well known personage. Although he has not lived in Holland since the war, he travels there frequently to see family and friends, and keeps up closely with the royal family. He talks about his fellow World War II resistance fighters – most have not done well professionally, but have been saved by the Netherlands’ generous veterans benefits programs, which Hazelhoff touts.

16. His son goes to Goddard College in Vermont, but does not graduate, becomes a hippy, and a ceramicist, and eventually moves to Maui. Hazelhoff visits him there, falls in love with Hawaii, convinces his second wife (a DC interior designer) that they should move to Maui, which they do. They stay there until Maui becomes too commercial, when the move to the Big Island, where he lives in what appears to be comfortable, but not overly comfortable, retirement the rest of his life. He is 56 when he moves to Hawaii – he lives there 34 years, much more sedately, enjoying the sunsets, and vacationing in the Netherlands on a regular basis.

I have given you an outline of his life. The particulars of his adventures you can only get by reading the book.

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