Audrey Hepburn was petite and beautiful - a fashion icon and a talented actress. But not everyone knows that she survived starvation and danger as a young girl, and drew upon this experience to help others in her final years.
Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born on May 4, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium. She had British citizenship through her father, Victor John George Ruston, who was once an honorary British consul in the Dutch West Indies. He changed his surname to Hepburn-Ruston, mistakenly believing that he was descended from James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Young Audrey would take the name Hepburn as her own in adulthood.
Hepburn's mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch aristocrat and the daughter of Baron Aarnoud von Heemstra, mayor of Amsterdam from 1910 to 1920, Governor of Dutch Suriname from 1921 to 1928.
Hepburn spent her childhood living in Belgium, England, and the Netherlands. Her parents were members of the British Union of Fascists in the mid-1930s; her father became a Nazi sympathizer. Her parents divorced when she was young, because her father had an affair with the nanny.
In 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, Hepburn and her mother moved to Arnheim, Netherlands, assuming that the country would remain neutral and that that the Germans would not invade. She attended regular school and continued her ballet lessons, which she had begun at the age of five.
Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940 after all. Hepburn started using the pseudonym Edda van Heemstra, because an English-sounding name was considered to be dangerous. In the years that followed, her uncle was executed for aiding the resistance movement and one of her half brothers was sent to work in a German labor camp. Her other half brother went into hiding. Hepburn, along with her mother and aunt, moved in with her mother's family in Velp, Netherlands.
Hepburn suffered from malnutrition, anemia, and breathing problems during her time in hiding during World War II. She secretly danced for money to aid the Dutch resistance. She also worked as a courier for the resistance, delivering messages and packages.
In 1944, after D-Day, living conditions were even worse. The Arnhem area was devastated during warfare in Operation Market Garden, and in the winter came the Dutch famine. Hepburn's family made cake flour from tulip bulbs.
When the Netherlands was liberated, United Nations trucks brought relief. Hepburn ate too much sugar and drank an entire can of condensed milk, and got sick.
Early Career in the Theatre
In the mid to late 1940s, Hepburn continued to study ballet. She moved to London in 1948, where she started training with Marie Rambert. She supported herself by performing as a chorus girl in West End theatrical productions. Rambert told Hepburn that she would never be a prima ballerina, because of her height and weak constitution.
Hepburn's first film appearance came in the same year - she portrayed a stewardess in an educational travel film called "Dutch in Seven Lessons."
Hepburn's first big break came in 1951, while she was filming a small role in the English- and French-language film, "Monte Carlo Baby." Colette, the French novelist, was on the set, in the midst of an international search for the right actress to play the title character in her new Broadway play, "Gigi." Hepburn was ideal. The play opened with the first of 219 performances on November 24, 1951. Hepburn earned a Theatre World Award for her role.
She was asked to play Anne Frank on Broadway, but she declined. She felt she was too old, since she and Frank were born in the same year, and she also felt emotionally incapable.
Hepburn appeared in many films, most of which were popular with fans and critics. In her first supporting role in a major film, "The Secret People," she was able to showcase her talent as a ballerina.
Hepburn appeared opposite Gregory Peck in 1953's "Roman Holiday." Originally only his name was supposed to appear before the title, in large print; below the title, in smaller print, was supposed to be the phrase, "Introducing Audrey Hepburn." Peck, however, said she should have equal billing above the title, because she was destined to be a star and he didn't want to look like a jerk. Peck would be proven right - for her role in "Roman Holiday," Hepburn was the first actress to win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for a single performance.
Hepburn and Peck had such good onscreen chemistry in "Roman Holiday" that rumors circulated of an offscreen love affair. Hepburn denied this, but said, "Actually, you have to be a little bit in love with your leading man and vice versa. If you're going to portray love, you have to feel it. You can't do it any other way. But you don't carry it beyond the set."
In 1961 Hepburn starred in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," an iconic film. Truman Capote, author of the novel on which the film was based, thought Hepburn was miscast as Holly Golightly, a New York City call girl. Hepburn also had some doubts, and the script was modified.
The 1963 film, "Charade," featured Hepburn's only performance opposite Cary Grant. Originally, his character was supposed to pursue hers. Grant worried about the age difference - he was 59, she was 34 - so the script was changed to portray her romantically chasing after him.
Controversy came with the 1964 musical film, "My Fair Lady." Studio executives wanted Hepburn to play the title role rather than Julie Andrews, even though Andrews had originated the role onstage; they thought Hepburn was more bankable. Hepburn initially refused the role, then accepted, then walked out when she learned her vocals would be dubbed. She returned the next day, with apologies, and she was told that her own voice would be used whenever possible. Ultimately, about 80 percent of the singing parts were dubbed, and Hepburn expressed regret. The media fabricated a rivalry between Hepburn and Andrews, because Andrews did "Mary Poppins" the same year and won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
"Wait Until Dark," a film released in 1967, included some awkward moments behind the scenes because the producer was Mel Ferrer. He and Hepburn had married back in 1954; after two miscarriages they had one son, but by this time their marriage was falling apart. They divorced in 1968.
After 1967 Hepburn switched her focus from films to family life. She said, "I had to make a choice at one point in my life, of missing films or missing my children. It was a very easy decision to make because I missed my children so very much." In 1969 she married Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist. The couple had one son and divorced in 1982.
Hepburn's last starring role was in "They All Laughed." The film was only released in limited runs because Dorothy Stratton, one of the stars and also the girlfriend of the director, Peter Bogdanovich, was murdered.
Hepburn's final appearance on-screen was in a cameo as an angel, in Steven Spielberg's "Always."
About her illustrious film career, Hepburn once said, "I probably hold the distinction of being one movie star who, by all laws of logic, should never have made it. At each stage of my career, I lacked the experience."
During production of an early film, 1954's "Sabrina," Hepburn met designer Hubert de Givenchy. He designed clothes for her personal wardrobe and her onscreen ensembles. "His are the only clothes in which I am myself," Hepburn once said. "He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality." She insisted that Givenchy should be given film credit for her wardrobe - and perfume, interestingly - for "Paris When It Sizzles."
Hepburn modeled the world's most famous little black dress - the LBD - in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." In 2006 that dress, designed by Givenchy, sold at auction for £467,200.
Hepburn was known for her confidence, sometimes sporting extremely short hair and menswear at a time when most women opted for long hair and dresses. She was fond of large hats, heavy eye makeup, and bright red lips.
About her style and attitude, Hepburn once said, "I believe in manicures. I believe in overdressing. I believe in primping at leisure and wearing lipstick. I believe in pink. I believe happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day, and... I believe in miracles."
In 1961 Hepburn was named to the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Audrey Hepburn never forgot the suffering she had endured in her youth, or the people who brought aid to her community at the end of World War II. She dedicated the latter part of her life to helping impoverished people in Africa, South America, and Asia. She said, "The 'Third World' is a term I don't like very much, because we're all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering."
In 1988 she was appointed a UNICEF Special Ambassador. She said, "I can testify to what UNICEF means to children, because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II."
Her first field mission involved a visit to an orphanage in Ethiopia. She later said, "My first big mission for UNICEF in Ethiopia was just to attract attention, before it was too late, to conditions which threatened the whole country. My role was to inform the world, to make sure that the people of Ethiopia were not forgotten."
In 1989 Hepburn was appointed Goodwill Ambassador. She continued with her efforts to help the disadvantaged until 1992, helping to provide food, water, and medical aid. In Ankara, Turkey, she personally administered oral polio vaccine to infants.
A 1992 trip to Somalia affected her deeply. Drought and civil war had left the population starving to death, and the hillsides were covered with graves.
After returning from Somalia in 1992, Hepburn was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix, which spread to her colon and stomach. She died on January 20, 1993, in Tolochenaz, Vaud, Switzerland.
Audrey Hepburn received many awards during her lifetime, both for her performances and for her humanitarian efforts. In 1992 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of her work as the Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.
She is ranked by the American Film Institute as the third greatest female screen legend in the history of American cinema, following Katharine Hepburn (no relation) and Bette Davis. A citizen of the world, she spoke six languages.
She once summed up her own philosophy as follows: "If my world were to cave in tomorrow, I would look back on all the pleasures, excitements and worthwhilenesses I have been lucky enough to have had. Not the sadness, not my miscarriages or my father leaving home, but the joy of everything else. It will have been enough."