Anyone who knows me, knows that I worship at the altar of Audrey Hepburn. Never mind her taking Julie Andrews’ role in My Fair Lady, she should have taken Mary Poppins because she is practically perfect in every way. She is instantly recognisable across the world, she had her own style this is replicated even today, she was lifelong friends with Givenchy and she won an Oscar in her first staring role. There never was, and never will be, anyone like Audrey again.
Her life was so eventful that I’m afraid a simple blog post is only going to touch the subject of Audrey Hepburn so I literally am only going to skim the surface here. I highly recommend you go out and get a biography (I will recommend some books at the end) so you can read more about her life because some of the things she went through were truly amazing.
Born on 4th May 1929 to Baroness Ella von Heemstra and Joseph Hepburn-Rushton, she was of Dutch origin on her mother’s side but gained British Citizenship because of her British father. I’m not going to dwell on it too long because I could end up doing a blog post on just her father, but it’s worth looking into him in a little more depth – Audrey’s mother found him in bed with the family nanny and he was a Nazi sympathiser. So, back to Audrey, she grew up in England even after her parents divorced, being school in Kent. When England declared war on Germany in 1939, Audrey’s mother took her back to Arnhem in Holland.
This is a very interesting part of Audrey’s life and probably the part that shaped her into the woman she became with the hardness she had to endure and the terrors she saw and it is a testament to her as a person that she came out the other side with such a kind spirit.
During the years of the Nazi Occupation of Holland, Audrey’s mother changed her daughter’s name to Edda von Heemstra because she thought Audrey Hepburn sounded too English. The Occupation saw scarce food for everyone and Audrey resorted to making flour from tulip bulbs in order to bake. The malnutrition during her formative years would affect her metabolism, making it difficult for her to gain weight in later life. But she did find herself a role during this time. Having started ballet at age five, she wanted to be a ballerina, and during the war she would dance in secret to help raise money for the Dutch Resistance, apparently sometimes even carrying messages for them in her shoes. But towards the end of the war she became very ill and at the time of the liberation, Audrey was suffering from malnutrition, anaemia and oedema.
The years following the war, Audrey tried to realise her dream of becoming a ballerina, helped by her mother and they ended up in London. But when she was later informed that while she could be a good dancer, the years of missed training because of the war and her height of 5ft 7 meant she would never be a great dancer. Audrey was crushed that she would not be able to live out her dream but, not one to mope around when life knocked her back, she started as a chorus girl in the West End. This then grew into the odd, one-line role in a few British pictures. Fate, however, was on her side when she flew out to Monte Carlo for the film Monte Carlo Baby and she was seen by Colette who was looking for someone to play the title role in her Broadway production of Gigi. On seeing Audrey, Colette immediately knew she was perfect and Audrey got the gig.
This was the start of Audrey’s star’s ascent because she was then cast as the beautiful Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. The film is about a weary princess who sneaks out and spends the day in Rome with a handsome journalist (played by the handsome Gregory Peck). He knows she is the missing princess, she doesn’t know he’s actually a journalist and the story plays out in Rome – what’s not to love?
Peck knew what talent he was working with and although she was a new-comer and he was the establish star, he demanded she share equal billing with him. What a gent! And he was right because she won the Oscar for Best Actress that year with her performance. It seemed Audrey couldn’t put a foot wrong. She followed this up with a role in Billy Wilder’s classic, Sabrina, co-staring Humphrey Bogart and William Holden (we’ll come back to him in a bit). This was where her friendship with Hubert de Givenchy began.
Audrey was sent to Paris to Givenchy’s atelier to meet with him and pick out some pieces she could wear for the film. Givenchy had been expecting a “Miss Hepburn” and automatically assumed Katherine was going to walk in. He had no idea who Audrey was (Roman Holiday hadn’t been released when filming for Sabrina started) and at first he was reluctant to help but she won him over, just by being Audrey, and a great friendship began.
She picked up three Givenchy pieces and they certainly were excellent choices. There was the suit she looking stunning in when she waited outside the station, running into the object of her affection, David Larrabee. There was the black dress she wore on her date with Linus Larrabee. And of course, there was the iconic ball gown she rocked when she found herself in the Larrabee tennis courts. Sheer perfection.
Now I could wax poetic for many hours about Audrey’s films and the costumes she wore, but I really will not be able to stop so I’m just going to list off some of her classic films you should check out and why:-
Roman Holiday – as mentioned above.
Sabrina – also as mentioned above.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – obviously!
Charade – Audrey and Cary Grant, in the same picture!
My Fair Lady – It’s a bit long and they needlessly dubbed Audrey’s singing voice but definitely worth it for her performance.
Wait Until Dark – She gives a compelling performance, playing a blind woman terrorised in her own home.
Funny Face – Set in Paris and showcases Audrey’s dancing abilities. She even gets to dance with Fred Astaire.
And of course there are a whole host of others!
Now, onto another part of Audrey’s life. Her love life. Practically everyone she met fell in love with her almost immediately. But she didn’t quite have the love life she deserved.
One of the great loves of her life was William Holden and by the sounds of it, she was always his. But it never worked out. They met when he was still married but separated from his long-suffering wife on the set of Sabrina and began a passionate affair, but the deal breaker for Audrey was that Holden had had a vasectomy. Children were very important to her. She then announced her engagement to fellow actor Mel Ferrer. They were married for fourteen years but eventually divorced. Their son Sean, born in 1960 after two miscarriages, even thought Audrey stayed in the marriage longer than she should have. Many believed that Mel was quite controlling of Audrey and maybe always a bit jealous that she was the star and he never reached the heights she did.
She met Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychologist, not long after her divorce and married him in 1969, giving birth to a second son Luca the following year. Though they eventually divorced because of Dotti’s constant infidelity (idiot!), again, she stayed in her marriage longer than she should have because of the children.
But then there was Rob Wolden. They met a few months after the death of his wife and the end of her marriage to Dotti. A perfect companion to Audrey and very similar to her in temperament, they never married but stayed together until Audrey’s death. He was a constant in her life, assisting her with her humanitarian work for UNICEF and enjoying life with her.
When she gracefully bowed out of the acting work, Audrey began to work for UNICEF, raising awareness and money for some of the poorest countries in the world. Having experienced first hand the issues of hunger and war during the occupation of Holland, she could relate on a similar level to the people she was helping. This became an important part of her life that she was very proud of.
She died on 20th January 1993 from appendiceal cancer at the age of 64. This was a relatively young age for her life to end at but her legacy is sure to go on forever. There was just something about Audrey Hepburn that you had to admire whether it was her acting talent, her beauty, her style or the kind nature she exuded.
Today, she would have been 85, so what better way to celebrate than by slipping on a little black dress, an oversized pair of shades and listening to Moon River.
Highly recommend reading an actual biography because there is A LOT more to Audrey that I’ve mentioned here. I really enjoyed the Donald Spoto biography Enchanted and one of my favourite books (not just Audrey books) is entitled What Would Audrey Do? by Pamela Keogh. It’s a guide on how you can live your life in Audrey style while still being a pretty thorough biography.
The internet is a great resource if you want any help recreating Audrey’s surprisingly attainable style. Polyvore is great for examples of the types of outfits you can put together and there are countless hair and make-up tutorials on Youtube.
And of course, finally, go watch her movies.