“How shall I sum up my life? I think I’ve been particularly lucky.”
– Audrey Hepburn
Ranked by the American Film Institute as the third greatest female actress of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn was born in Brussels on the 4th May, 1929. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston was appointed British consul in the Dutch East Indies after the First World War. Hepburn’s Mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch aristocrat. They were married in Batavia in 1926 and soon after relocated to Europe and after years of travel, finally settled in suburban Brussels in 1932. Hepburn’s early childhood was sheltered and privileged and as a result of her multinational background, she spoke five languages: Dutch, English, French, Spanish and Italian.
In the mid – 1930s her parents were members of the British Union of Fascists and her Father became a sincere Nazi sympathiser, abruptly leaving the family in 1935 and filing for divorce in 1938. His increasingly radical views, infidelity and alcoholism were all cited as potential reasons for the separation. Although afforded visitation rights to his daughter, he never saw her, and Hepburn would go on to state the abandonment of her Father was “the most traumatic event of my life”.
After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Hepburn’s Mother relocated them back to the Netherlands, hoping that, as with World War I, they would remain neutral and be spared a German attack. Hepburn attended the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945 studying ballet. After Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Hepburn changed her name to Edda van Heemstra because an ‘English sounding’ name was considered dangerous during occupation. The war profoundly effected her family, with her Uncle executed, her half-Brother deported to a labour camp and her other half-Brother forced into hiding.
“We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they’d close the street and then open it and you could pass by again…Don’t discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.”
After her Uncle’s death, the family left Arnhem to live with her Grandfather in nearby Velp. During this time Hepburrn participated in the Dutch resistance, delivering messages and packages and performing ballet at clandestine fundraising events. After the Allied landing on D-Day, living conditions grew worse. The winter of 1944 saw the Dutch famine, where the Germans blocked all supply routes, with Hepburn and many others resorting to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake cakes. As a result of malnutrition, she developed acute anemia, respiratory problems and edema. The Netherlands was liberated in May 1945.
After the war Hepburn moved with her family to Amsterdam where she began ballet training, eventually moving to London to take up a ballet scholarship. Supporting herself with part time modelling work, she shortened her surname to ‘Hepburn’. Although told she had talent as a dancer, her height and weak constitution due to malnutrition during the war, ensured she would never be successful as a prima ballerina. Deciding to focus on acting, she registered as a freelance actress with the Associated British Picture Corporation and was cast in her first major supporting role in Thorold Dickinson’s The Secret People (1952). While on location in Monte Carlo a chance encounter with French novelist Collette would see Hepburn cast in the Broadway play Gigi, which opened at the Fulton Theatre on the 24th November 1951. Critics praised the relatively unknown actress and this would be seen as a turning point in her career.
Hepburn had her first starring role in Roman Holiday (1953) opposite Gregory Peck. Producers initially wanted Elizabeth Taylor for the role, but director William Wyler was so impressed by Hepburn’s screen test that he cast her. Originally the was to have only Peck’s name above its title, with ‘introducing Audrey Hepburn’ beneath in smaller font. However, Peck suggested to Wyler that he elevate her name to equal billing so that her name appeared before the title and in type as large as his stating, “You’ve got to change that because she’ll be a big star and I’ll look like a big jerk.” The film was a box office success and Hepburn gained critical acclaim, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress, a BAFTA for Best British Actress in a Leading Role and a Golden Globe for Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama in 1953.
Hepburn was signed to a seven picture contract with Paramount with twelve months in between films to allow her time for stage work.
Hepburn starred in Billy Wilder’s romantic drama Sabrina (1954) with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. She was nominated for the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress while winning the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role the same year.
The actress returned to the stage in 1954 to perform Ondine on Broadway, a performance which earned her a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. Hepburn is one of three actresses to receive the Academy Award and Tony Award for Best Actress in the same year. During the production Hepburn began a relationship with her co-star Mel Ferrer and they were married on the 25th September 1954. Hepburn had two miscarriages so when she became pregnant for a third time she took a year off work, and their son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer was born on the 17th July 1960. She would go on to have two more miscarriages in 1965 and 1967.
Hepburn went on to star in a series of successful films over the remainder of the decade, including her BAFTA and Golden Globe nominated role in War and Peace (1956). 1957 saw the actress star opposite Fred Astaire in Funny Face, but it would be her role as Holly Golightly in Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) that would cement her as a star and a fashion icon. The character is considered one of the most iconic in cinematic history, with the dress she wore during the opening credits considered an icon of the twentieth century and perhaps the most famous ‘little black dress’ of all time. Hepburn was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.
Hepburn appeared opposite Cary Grant in the comic thriller Charade (1963). Grant, then 59 years old, had previously withdrawn from the starring man lead roles in both Roman Holiday and Sabrina, sensitive about the age difference between himself and the 34 year old Hepburn. Uncomfortable with the romantic interplay between them, to satisfy his concerns the filmmakers agreed to change the screenplay so that Hepburn’s character romantically pursued his. The film ended up being a positive experience for him, stating, “All I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn.” The role earned Hepburn her third and final competitive BAFTA Award and another Golden Globe nomination.
1964 saw Hepburn appear in the film adaptation of the stage production My Fair Lady. This sparked controversy as Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on stage, was not offered the part as the producer felt that Hepburn was more ‘bankable’. Hepburn initially asked the producers to give the role to Andrews but was eventually cast. Despite this perceived conflict, Hepburn’s performance was widely praised.
Wait Until Dark (1967) was a suspense thriller in which Hepburn played a blind woman terrorised in her home. Filmed on the brink of her divorce from Mel Ferrer, it was a difficult film for her as Ferrer was the producer. The naturally slight actress lost fifteen pounds as a result of stress. The film earned the actress her fifth and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. After 1967, Hepburn decided to devote more time to her family and acted only occasionally in the following decades.
Hepburn would go on to marry Andrea Dotti and have another child, a son, Luca but the marriage would end after thirteen years. From 1980 until the time of her death the actress was in a relationship with Dutch actor Robert Wolders and she would call the nine years she spent with him the happiest of her life.
Hepburn was as well known for her charitable work in her later years as she was for her film career, with the actress a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Although she had done work with UNICEF in the 1950s, her first field mission was to Ethiopia in 1988. She also travelled to Central America, Vietnam and just four months before she died she wet to Somalia. Grateful to have survived the German occupation during the Second World War, Hepburn dedicated the remainder of her life to helping impoverished children in some of the poorest nations.
In 1992 Hepburn began suffering abdominal pains and it was revealed she had a rare form of cancer. Despite surgery and treatment, the cancer had spread and became terminal. On the evening of the 20th January 1993, Hepburn died in her sleep at home. After her death Gregory Peck tearfully recited her favourite poem, ‘Unending Love’ by Rabindranath Tagore.
Hepburn’s influence extended far beyond the silver screen, with her iconic style as prevalent today as it was at the height of her career. Her charitable work continues today, with her film costumes fetching large sums of money at auction. One of her little black dresses designed by Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany’s was sold at Christie’s for a record sum of 467,200 pounds in 2006.