Scholars’ Spotlight: Audrey Hepburn

The Early Years

Audrey Hepburn, born Audrey Kathleen Ruston, was born on May 4, 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. Her mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch noblewoman. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, her mother’s second husband, was a British subject born in Austria-Hungary. Although he was born with the last name “Ruston,” he later added Hepburn-Ruston to be more aristocratic. Ruston thought he was descended from James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. This was never proven.

Hepburn’s parents were married in the Dutch West Indies in September 1926. They eventually settled in Brussels. Young Audrey’s early childhood was quite privileged. She learned six languages – Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.

Joseph dramatically left in 1935 when Hepburn was just six. He moved to London and became deeply involved in Fascism. Audrey was later quoted as saying her father abandoning her family was “the most traumatic event of her life.” Her parents divorced officially in 1938. Two decades later, Audrey rekindled a relationship with her dad after locating him in Ireland through the Red Cross. She supported him financially until his death.

“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!”

– Audrey Hepburn

World War II and How it Affected the Hepburns

When Britain declared war, Hepburn’s mother moved them back to the Netherlands in the hopes they would remain neutral. Hepburn kept busy taking ballet lessons. She also attended the prestigious Arnhem Conservatory during World War II, from 1939-1945. She would become teacher Winja Marova’s “star pupil.”

What happened next was terrifying. Hepburn chose the name Edda van Heemstra to sound less English sounding during the German occupation. Her mother at first was intrigued by Hitler and the Nazi regime. However, later she aided the Dutch Resistance after Nazis executed her brother, (Hepburn’s uncle) Otto Ernst Gelder, with whom she was very close. So close in fact, Audrey never mentioned him by name afterwards.

According to the Times of Israel, Hepburn volunteered for the Dutch Resistance. She hid Jews and raised funds through dance in order to keep them safe. Hepburn’s half-brother Ian was deported to Berlin to work in a German labor camp. Another half-brother, Alex, went into hiding to avoid a similar outcome.

Post-War Audrey

Post-1945, Audrey moved to Amsterdam with her mother and siblings. She started ballet with Sonia Gaskell and Olga Tarasova, both quite skilled and famous at the time. The Hepburn’s wealth was decimated during the war, so Hepburn’s mother worked as a cook and housekeeper.

In 1948, when Hepburn was not quite 20, she made her film debut in Dutch in Seven Lessons. She played a flight attendant in the educational movie. Later that same year, she moved to London to dance on a ballet scholarship with Ballet Rambert. She worked part-time as a model and lost the Ruston part of her last name.

Hepburn then spent some time working as a chorus girl in London’s West End musical theater shows. During one of the shows, she was spotted by a casting director, who then got her in the BBC Television play The Silent Village. She also got minor roles in other films. Hepburn’s big break was in 1952’s The Secret People. Her role was not too far away from real life, as she played a ballerina.

Hepburn was eventually cast in the Broadway play, Gigi. When the play opened in November 1951, she received plenty of praise. The play ran for over 200 performances and eventually went on tour.

A Star

Hepburn’s first starring role was in 1953’s Roman Holiday. She played Princess Anne, a royal rebel who has a night on the town with an American journalist (Gregory Peck). The movie was a rousing success, and Hepburn received the Academy Award for Best Actress, something that came as a surprise to her and others.

“There is more to sex appeal than just measurements. I don’t need a bedroom to prove my womanliness. I can convey just as much sex appeal, picking apples off a tree or standing in the rain.”

– Audrey Hepburn

After her newfound success, Hepburn signed on to a contract with Paramount Pictures. There was an agreement that she would have a year off in between movies to do stage work. After Roman Holiday, Hepburn starred in Sabrina opposite William Holden.

The chemistry Holden and Hepburn had onscreen was not just for acting purposes. The two had an affair during production. Their co-star Humphrey Bogart was not thrilled with these on-set shenanigans. Because of them, he wasn’t very fond of Hepburn, treating her icily during the making of the film and mocking her accent openly. Bogart didn’t care for Holden either. He made this known by ridiculing his dyed hair and calling him “Smiling Jim” due to his perception that Holden always had a phony smile plastered on his face.

Holden was a well-known womanizer, and his wife would often just look the other way. However, when Audrey came into the picture Holden’s wife felt threatened, as Hepburn was an educated, glamorous woman. Holden was going to leave his wife for Hepburn, but she wanted children. Holden, however, had a vasectomy years before he met Hepburn. She dumped Holden and rebounded with Mel Ferrer, a fellow actor. The two ended up getting engaged and later married.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Perhaps Audrey Hepburn’s most well-known movie role was her performance as Holly Golightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The movie was loosely based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same name.

Interestingly enough, Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe in the role, but he later said Hepburn did a “terrific job.” Hepburn’s iconic Givenchy dress, often seen on movie posters and on the DVD/Blu-Ray cover, was designed especially for her. The black satin frock was later auctioned off in 2006 at Christie’s for over $900,000.

The song “Moon River,” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, was almost removed by Paramount executive Martin Rackin. The tune, which later went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, was said to have caused the usually mild-mannered Hepburn to say, “over my dead body.” Obviously she had the right idea. Hepburn was also nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars that year.

My Fair Lady

In 1964, Hepburn starred in the film adaptation of the musical My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on stage, was not offered the role due to producers thinking Hepburn was a more “bankable” actress. Hepburn actually asked one of the producers to give the role to Andrews, but cast regardless. Hepburn wasn’t a singer by nature, but she underwent lots of vocal preparation for the role. She ended up having her vocals dubbed by soprano Marni Nixon, who was in The Sound of Music and also did vocal work for West Side Story.

The movie swept the Oscars in 1965, earning eight awards. The only one it lost out to was (ironically) Best Actress, which went to Julie Andrews for her starring role in Mary Poppins. For those unfamiliar, My Fair Lady is based on Pygmalion, a play that debuted in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw.

Her Final Movies

By the time 1967 rolled around, Hepburn wished to spend more time with her son Sean. She left her husband Mel Ferrer, and married Andrea Dotti in 1969. The two had a boy, Luca Dotti, in 1970.

Hepburn acted occasionally in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. She played Maid Marian in a Robin and Marian (1976), co-starring Sean Connery. Hepburn was said to have had great chemistry with Connery.

Hepburn’s last starring role was in the comedy They All Laughed, which came out in 1981. The movie received negative press when one of its stars, Dorothy Stratten, was murdered. It only ended up with a limited release. Hepburn later appeared in a made-for-TV movie Love Among Thieves in 1987. Her final screen appearance was in Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989).

“Everything I learned I learned from the movies.”

– Audrey Hepburn

Audrey the Humanitarian

Hepburn won a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales.” That was only part of the amazing ways she gave back to those in her world.

In the 1950s, Hepburn narrated two programs for UNICEF via the radio, in which she re-told children’s accounts of World War II. By 1989, she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Hepburn was grateful for receiving aid from the organization as a child during the German occupation, so she wanted to give back.

Hepburn’s first field mission was to Ethiopia in 1988 where she visited an orphanage in Mek’ele that housed 500 children. She felt deeply moved by the experience, saying:

“…I have a broken heart, I feel desperate, I can’t stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death…”

Today, Hepburn’s granddaughter Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer is keeping the humanitarian work alive. The 20-something spoke at the 2019 UNICEF USA Gala in Atlanta, paying tribute to Hepburn’s work on behalf of children.

Illness and Death

In September 1992, Hepburn began experiencing abdominal pain. Medical tests in Switzerland were inconclusive, but later a laparoscopy at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles showed that she had a rare form of abdominal cancer. The cancer grew slowly over years and had unfortunately metastasized over her small intestine. After surgery came chemotherapy.

Hepburn and her family went back to Switzerland to celebrate what would be her last Christmas. She was unable to fly commercial due to her immunocompromised state. She ended up flying private through her friendship with designer Hubert de Givenchy. He got socialite Bunny Mellon to send her private jet to pick up Hepburn and her family. Hepburn spent her last days in hospice care, mostly confined to bedrest.

Audrey Hepburn died in her sleep on January 20, 1993. Funeral services were held at the village church of Tolochenaz. The same pastor who married Hepburn and Ferrer, and baptized her first son Sean, conducted the funeral service. Flower arrangements were sent in from all over the world, including from Gregory Peck, her Breakfast at Tiffany’s co-star, Roger Moore, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Dutch royal family.

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