Hepburn, Audrey Kathleen

views updated

Hepburn, Audrey Kathleen

(b. 4 May 1929 in Brussels, Belgium; d. 20 January 1993 in Tolochenaz, Switzerland), beloved film star and fashion icon of the postwar era who later made a series of inspirational UNICEF missions for the starving children of Africa.

Born Audrey (Edda) Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston, she was the only child of Baroness Ella van Heemstra of Holland and the Anglo-Irish businessman Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, an avid member of Oswald Mosley’s infamous British Union of Fascists (BUF). Her grandfather, Baron Aernoud van Heemstra, was a familiar figure at the court of Queen Wilhelmina and the governor of the Dutch colony of Surinam. His beautiful mini-castles in Arnhem and The Hague were the most idyllic of Hepburn’s many residences in early girlhood, a time when her parents’ incessant arguments produced chaotic moves back and forth between Belgium, England, and the Netherlands.

Baroness Ella sent Hepburn at age five to a boarding school in Kent as a “shock” cure for chronic introversion. Then and later, her passion was dance, but the budding young ballerina’s training was cut short when World War II began. In late 1939, convinced the Germans would soon bomb London but would never attack Holland, her mother took her “for safety” back to Arnhem—just nine miles from the German border and one of the first towns invaded by the Nazis.

Caught in Arnhem for the next six years, Hepburn endured the hardships of occupation and the disastrous Allied paratroop drop chronicled in Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far. Her own schoolgirl efforts on behalf of the Dutch underground included hiding messages in her shoes and ferrying them by bicycle. By late 1944 the Germans had looted Holland of all crops and livestock, leading to what would be remembered as the Hongerwinter (hunger winter). By the time the war ended in 1945, Hepburn was too weak to dance, suffering—like millions of youngsters— from malnutrition, anemia, and edema. She would never forget that her first food came from an UNRRA team (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, forerunner of the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, or UNICEF) accompanying Arnhem’s liberators.

In 1946 the now-penniless Baroness Ella and her daughter returned to England, where their disgraced husband and father had been interned for his Nazi sympathies throughout the war. Hepburn (who never finished secondary school) had obtained a scholarship to the famous Marie Rambert ballet school, but Rambert soon told her bluntly that she lacked the talent for a ballet career. Hepburn turned to the London stage, landing a hoofer’s job in High-Button Shoes (1948) and two cabaret shows in which she stood out as “the girl with the eyes.” She was soon offered a film contract by Ealing Studios.

Small parts in such English films as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) led to a movie in France, Nous irons è Monte Carlo (Monte Carlo Baby, 1952), during which the author Colette spotted her filming in a hotel lobby and instantly offered her the title role in a forthcoming (1951) Broadway adaptation of her 1945 novel Gigi. Simultaneously, a screen test for Paramount netted Hepburn the starring role in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953).

Hepburn was a hit in both productions; equally so in her second stage play, Ondine (1954), in which she developed an intense romance—onstage and off—with costar Mel Ferrer. In the same amazing week in 1954 she won an Oscar for Roman Holiday and a Tony for Ondine. On 24 September of that year she and Ferrer married; they had one son, Sean, born in 1960.

Hepburn’s whimsical, elegant, pixie persona was soon in demand in Hollywood, where she would be one of the last major stars to be nurtured by the studio system. The critic Molly Haskell has pointed out that “she [came] at a historical moment just before feminism, easy divorce, and the sexual revolution,” and Hepburn’s onscreen persona would remain discreet to the end. As Stanley Kauffman put it, reviewing Love in the Afternoon (1957), “The sign of her preparing to take the plunge was when she removes a glove.”

In Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954), the designer Hubert de Givenchy gave her the look that became legendary: clothes that emphasized rather than camouflaged her slender figure. From then to the end of her career, Givenchy designed nearly all her high-fashion film costumes as well as her private wardrobe, propelling her onto every best-dressed list in the world. Vogue—and every other fashion publication on two continents—recorded every minute change of her appearance. Funny Face (1957), her Gershwin-based musical with Fred Astaire, was a song-and-dance landmark of the 1950s but also “the best fashion show ever recorded on film,” wrote Rex Reed.

Hepburn’s look caused a revolution, but she was an unlikely revolutionary. “I never thought I was pretty,” she told the designer Ralph Lauren. She felt too skinny, too flat, and too tall. She was self-conscious about her uneven front teeth, yet during Roman Holiday declined the studio’s offer to cap them. Nor would she let them pluck her thick eyebrows.

Her fashion image derived largely from that “ideal” figure, admired by millions if not to everyone’s taste. “If I wanted to look at bones, I could always have my foot X-rayed,” said one producer. “Structurally, she has all the curves of a piece of melba toast—viewed from the side,” wrote McCall’s. Billy Wilder’s was the most legendary observation: “If that girl had tits, she could rule the world.” She would rule it anyway, marching straight into the middle of the 1950s bosom boom and pioneering a look of her own. Hepburn’s vital statistics were the same from age twenty-three to the end of her life: 32–20–35. Anita Loos noted that her hat size (21) was bigger than her waist.

By 1960 Hepburn could have virtually any film part she wanted. A case in point was Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), a role she won over the objection of its author, Truman Capote, who had written it for Marilyn Monroe. Jack Warner loved Hepburn for turning The Nun’s Story into his surprise blockbuster of 1959.

The only role she ever wanted badly was Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964), the last great Broadway musical to receive lavish screen treatment. Warner owned the film rights, and Hepburn was his first and only choice for Eliza. But columnists nationwide loudly lamented the “injustice” to Julie Andrews, who originated the role on the stage, and Eliza became Hepburn’s worst nightmare: She was misled to believe she would sing the songs and trained hard to do so, even as the soprano Marni Nixon was being hired to dub Hepburn’s singing voice.

The previous year, her spectacular teaming with Cary Grant in Charade had produced a whole new mystery-comedy genre. The offbeat marital saga Two for the Road (1967) with Albert Finney, the thriller Wait Until Dar\ (1967), and the soulful Robin and Marian (1976) with Sean Connery proved her dramatic skills and flexibility. She received Oscar nominations five times, yet her favorite director, Stanley Donen, declared: “Audrey was always more about fashion than movies or acting.”

Hepburn was the most beautiful film- and fashion-statement of her era. She was a ballet dancer who never performed a full ballet. She was the world’s highest-paid film actress, who never studied acting. She graced more covers of Life than any other star except Marilyn Monroe, but no other film goddess except Greta Garbo ever seemed so remote from Hollywood. She starred in a mere twenty films over forty years. But when, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she sang “Moon River” in her breathy, melancholy little voice, she broke the hearts of audiences around the world. No one thought a new feminine ideal could emerge from World War II, wrote Cecil Beaton. “It took the rubble of Holland, an English accent, and an American success to launch a wistful child who embodied the spirit of a new day.”

Hepburn seemed to define every new feminine vogue of the 1950s and 1960s. And she came to represent not just a new look but a new kind of femininity—the European opposite of the blond American sex goddess. She was second only to Jacqueline Kennedy in the degree of flattery-by-imitation she inspired. The opera diva Maria Callas and millions of others looked to Hepburn as a model: the vulnerable but paradoxically sophisticated waif. She influenced the way women looked and acted, then and for decades to come. Her posthumous force in fashion continued through the 1990s—her look and look-alikes more è la mode than ever, dominating the runways of Calvin Klein, Givenchy, and Lauren anew.

Public adulation never spoiled her and southern California never lured her. Her actress-friend Leslie Caron said that Hepburn “conducted her life as discreetly as the way she dressed,” closely guarding her personal and family life. Hepburn lived in Switzerland during her marriage to Ferrer, which ended in divorce on 5 December 1968. A little more than a month later, on 18 January 1969, she married an Italian psychiatrist, Dr. Andrea Dotti. The couple lived in Rome. Over the years she had had numerous miscarriages, but with Dotti she had a second son, Luca, in 1970. She and Dotti divorced in 1982.

Hepburn’s true soul mate was a fellow Dutchman, the actor Robert Wolders, the widower of the film star Merle Oberon. As a child he had suffered under the Nazis in Rotterdam while Hepburn was doing the same in Arnhem. She and Wolders never married but lived together for her last thirteen years in the Swiss village of Tolochenaz near Geneva.

In 1988, with the crucial moral and logistical support of Wolders, Hepburn launched the dynamic UNICEF work that consumed her for the rest of her life, and which brought her full circle from her own traumatic childhood in war-torn Holland. As UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador, she used her celebrity and the media coverage it attracted to speak for millions of starving children around the world, voiceless victims of war and drought. In 1992, Hepburn brought the tragedy in Somalia and emergency relief efforts there to the forefront of world attention. “I don’t believe in collective guilt,” she said, “but I believe in collective responsibility.”

Two weeks after returning from the physically and emotionally exhausting UNICEF trip to Somalia, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died less than three months later and left a humanitarian legacy far beyond stardom. She is buried on her estate in Tolochenaz.

Audrey Hepburn wrote no autobiography or extensive correspondence except to family and a few close friends. A small museum containing selected items is located on the grounds of her home in Tolochenaz, not far from her gravesite there. UNICEF Geneva has all her goodwill ambassador speeches and statements on file. Biographies include Barry Paris, Audrey Hepburn (1996); Warren G. Harris, Audrey Hepburn: A Biography (1994) ; Caroline Latham, Audrey Hepburn (1984); and Ian Woodward, Audrey Hepburn (1984). An excellent account of the behind-the-scenes making of My Fair Lady is found in Andre Previn, No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood (1991). Cogent assessments of Hepburn’s career and impact are in Molly Haskell, “Our Fair Lady Audrey Hepburn,” Film Comment (March-April 1991); Frank Thompson, “Audrey Hepburn,” American Film (May 1990); Elizabeth Wilson, “Audrey Hepburn,” Sight and Sound (March 1993); and Isaac Mizrahi et al., “That Girl with the Eyes,” Interview (Aug. 1990). An obituary is in the New York Times (21 Jan. 1993). Hepburn’s early films and related biographical material can be found at the Dutch Film Archives in Amsterdam and The Hague Film House. Excellent video documentaries are Robert Wolders, Audrey Hepburn in Her Own Words (1993), and Wombat Productions, Audrey Hepburn Remembered (1993).

Barry Paris