Audrey Hepburn

How shall I sum up my life?

 I think I’ve been particularly lucky.

– Audrey Hepburn

A film and fashion icon, Audrey was born on 4 May 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. She was known to her family as Adriaantje. Hepburn’s parents Ella van Heemstra and Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston were married in September 1926. It was their second marriage. They were married in Batavia, Dutch East Indies. At the time of marriage, her father worked for a trading company. Soon after getting married, the couple moved to Europe, where he began working for a loan company. They settled in Brussels, which is where Audrey was born.

Hepburn and Andrea Dotti

Her childhood was pretty sheltered and privileged. Owing to her father’s job, the young Audrey had to travel a lot, which resulted in her picking up five languages- Dutch, English, French, Spanish and Italian. When she was just six years old, her father became involved in the Fascist activity and dumped his family to devote more time to it. This dumping by her father was termed as the ‘most traumatic event of my life’ by Audrey. Since Joseph wanted his daughter to be educated in England, in 1937, Ella and Audrey moved to Kent, England where Audrey Ruston or ‘Little Audrey’ was educated in a small independent school in Elham. Her parents officially divorced in June 1939 and Audrey continued to live with her mother. In the 1960s she renewed contact with her father and though he remained emotionally detached she supported him financially until his death.

In September 1939 after Britain declared war on Germany Audrey and her mother moved back to Arnhem Netherlands hoping that as during the First World War, the Netherlands would remain neutral during the Second one as well and therefore be spared a German attack. They remained there from 1939 to 1945. During this period, while at the Arnhem Conservatory Audrey began taking ballet lessons which she continued under the tutelage of Winja Marova becoming her star pupil. However, the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, and Audrey had to change her name during the time of the German occupation as an English-sounding name was considered to be dangerous. She used the name Edda van Heemstra during this time.

Hepburn and Mel Ferrer on the set of War and Peace

The entire period of the occupation was extremely traumatic for the family. The Germans executed one of her uncles, one of her half-brothers was deported to Berlin to work in a German labour camp while the other one went into hiding to avoid a similar fate. After her uncle’s death, she and her mother moved to Velp to live with her grandfather. It is believed that during this time she supported the resistance movement by giving ‘underground concerts’ to raise money, delivering the underground newspaper and taking messages and food to downed Allied flyers hiding in the woodlands north of Velp. She also volunteered at a hospital that was the centre of resistance activities in Velp and her family temporarily hid a paratrooper in their home during the battle of Arnhem. She also witnessed the transportation of Dutch Jews to concentration camps, something that left a deep impression in the child’s mind. As the living conditions worsened and money became a problem, the young Audrey developed several health issues like anaemia, respiratory problems and oedema.

After the war ended in 1945, Hepburn moved with her mother and siblings to Amsterdam where she began ballet training under Sonia Gaskell, a leading figure in Dutch Ballet and Russian teacher Olga Tarasova. Life wasn’t very easy for the family, and her mother had to work as a cook and a housekeeper to support the family.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In the year 1948 Audrey made her film debut playing an air stewardess in the movie ‘Dutch in Seven Lessons’, an educational travel film made by Charles van der Linden and Henry Josephson. Later that year, she moved to London after accepting a ballet scholarship with Ballet Rambert. She supported herself with part-time work as a model. But then much to her disappointment, Rambert told her that despite her talent, her height and weak constitution would make it impossible for her to attain the status of “prima ballerina’ which is when she decided to focus on her acting career.

While her mother continued doing menial jobs to support them, Audrey started appearing as a chorus girl in musicals. Along with that, she also started taking elocution lessons to develop her voice. She was registered with the Associated British Picture Corporation[ABPC] after being spotted by a casting director. She acted in plays and films doing minor roles before she got to play the title role in the Broadway play Gigi, for which she got a lot of appreciation. She was even awarded the Theatre World Award for the performance.

She got her first starring role in Roman Holiday in 1953 which catapulted her to fame. Though the initial choice for the role was Elizabeth Taylor, the director, William Wyler, was so impressed by Hepburn’s screen test that he chose to cast her. She had everything that he had been looking for: charm, innocence and talent. He found her absolutely enchanting. The movie’s hero Gregory Peck was also so impressed that he suggested that she be given equal billing with him in the film’s title.

Hepburn in a screen test for Roman Holiday (1953) which was also used as promotional material

The film was a box-office success, and Hepburn gained critical acclaim for the portrayal winning a string of awards. These included an Academy Award for Best Actress, a BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in a Leading Role and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress- Motion Picture Drama in 1953. Thereafter she signed a seven-picture contract with Paramount. She was featured on the cover of Time Magazine and became known for her personal style.

Following her success in Roman Holiday Hepburn starred in a romantic Cindrella-story comedy Sabrina in 1954 for which she was nominated for the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress while also winning the BAFTA award for Best Actress in a Leading Role the same year. In the same year, she returned to the stage to act in the fantasy play Ondine on Broadway for which she won the 1954 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play three days after she won the Academy Award for Roman Holiday, making her one of three actors to receive the Academy and Tony Awards for Best Actress in the same year. [the other two being Shirley Booth and Ellen Burstyn]

Having become one of Hollywood’s most popular box-office attractions, she starred in a series of successful films during the remaining years of the decade. These included her BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated role in War and Peace and the much-acclaimed Nun’s Story, which earned her a third Academy Award Nomination and a second BAFTA Award. For her role in the latter, she spent hours in convents and Churches to bring truth to her portrayal.

Hepburn with cinematographer Harry Stradling, on the set of My Fair Lady

And then came the role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 a film based on the Truman Capote novella of the same name. Though Capote initially wanted Marilyn Monroe to be cast in the role, he felt that Hepburn also did a terrific job. The character is considered to be one of the best-known in American cinema and a defining role for Hepburn. The dress she wore during the opening credits has been considered an icon of the twentieth century and perhaps the most famous “little black dress” of all time. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. She continued to be complimented and applauded for her various roles in movies like The Children’s Hour, Charade, Paris When it Sizzles, How to Steal a Million and Two for the Road. Another one of her roles which won her critical acclaim was the one of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a role that she won over Julie Andrews. Her fifth and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress came for her role in Wait Until Dark.

After 1967, Hepburn chose to devote more time to her family and acted only occasionally in the following decades. She attempted a comeback in a period piece, Robin and Marian, in 1976 with Sean Connery which was moderately successful. This was followed by Bloodline in 1979. Her last starring role in a feature film was in the comedy They All Laughed in 1981.

After finishing her last motion picture role in Steven Spielberg’s Always in 1989, Hepburn completed only two more entertainment-related projects, both critically acclaimed; one was Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn filmed in 1990 which began airing the day after her death on 21 January 1993. For the debut episode, she was posthumously awarded the 1993 Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement- International Programming. The other project was a spoken word album Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales, which featured readings of classic children’s stories and was recorded in 1992. It earned her a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children.

Audrey Hepburn in Amsterdam for UNICEF

Along with the glamorous side, she had a humanitarian side too which cared for people and their lives., Hepburn did a number of projects for UNICEF. In 1989 she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF. She took part in several initiatives by the organisation in various parts of the world. The US President George H.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her work with UNICEF and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posthumously awarded her the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her contribution to humanity.

In 2002 UNICEF also honoured Hepburn’s legacy of humanitarian work by unveiling a statue ‘The Spirit of Audrey” at UNICEF’s New York headquarters.

As far as her personal life is concerned, Audrey had several relationships. She got engaged to James Hanson in 1952 but decided against getting married to him as she felt that their respective careers would keep them apart for most of the time and she didn’t want a marriage like that. She met the American actor Mel Ferrer and got married to him in 1954. After two miscarriages she gave birth to their son in July 1960. However, the marriage did not last for too long, and they got divorced in 1968. She married Andrea Dotti, an Italian Psychiatrist in 1969 and had a son in 1970. Dotti wasn’t a very faithful husband which led her to have an affair with actor Ben Gazzara. The marriage as expected dissolved in 1982. After this, in 1980 she got into a relationship with the Dutch actor Robert Wolders which gave her a lot of happiness. The relationship lasted till the day she died and according to her the time that she spent with him was the happiest. Though not officially married to him, she considered herself to be married to him.

In 1992 she was diagnosed with a rare form of abdominal cancer. It was a shock, but the woman that she was she faced it with courage and fortitude. However, though she was treated for it, she couldn’t fight it for too long and within a year succumbed to it when she was only 63 years old. She spent her last Christmas with her family in Switzerland. And look at the goodwill that she had created!! Since she couldn’t take a commercial flight to get there, her longtime friend, fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy arranged for a private jet filled with flowers to take her from Los Angeles to Geneva. She spent her last days in hospice care at her home in Tolochenaz, Vaud and on the evening of 20 January 1993, she died in her sleep.

Hepburn and Sean Connery in the 1976 film Robin and Marian

Though it has been so many years, Audrey’s legacy lives on. The world and its people continue to recognise her achievements, her contributions and keep acknowledging them from time to time. She was appreciated and applauded during her lifetime and continues to be even now. The American Film Institute named Hepburn third among the Greatest Female Stars of All Times. She is one of the few who won the Academy, Emmy, Grammy and the Tony Awards. She won a record three BAFTA Awards for the Best British Actress in a Leading Role. She received a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1991 and was a frequent presenter at the Academy Awards. She received the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. She was the recipient of several posthumous awards including the 1993 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and competitive Grammy and Emmy Awards. She has been the subject of many biographies since her death, including the 2000 dramatisation of her life titled ‘The Audrey Hepburn’. In January 2009 she was named on ‘The Times’ list of the top 10 British actresses of all time. Her image is widely used in advertising campaigns across the world. On 4 May 2014, Google featured a doodle on its homepage on what would have been her 85th birthday.

Hepburn was known for her fashion choices and distinctive look. She was closely associated with the French fashion designer Givenchy with whom she formed a lifelong friendship. She was added to the International Best Dressed List in 1961 and was associated with a minimalistic style usually wearing clothes with simple silhouettes. She was also credited with boosting the sales of Burberry trench coats when she wore one in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was also associated with the Italian footwear brand Tod’s. However, contrary to the haute couture, she wore on-screen and public events in private life, she preferred to wear casual and comfortable clothes.

Her influence as a style icon continues decades after the height of her acting career. In 2004 she was named the “Most Beautiful of all Time” and the “Most Beautiful Woman of the 20th century” in polls by Evian and QVC respectively and in 2015 was voted “The Most Stylish Brit of all Time” in a poll commissioned by Samsung.

Her film costumes fetch large sums of money in auctions: one of the “little black dresses” designed by Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany was sold by Christie’s for a record sum of [pound] 467,200 in 2006.

She may not be physically there but continues to live in people’s hearts. She will always be remembered for her beauty, her grace and the look of ‘A Wild-Eyed Doe,’ that was so her.


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