Audrey Hepburn

When it comes to classic Hollywood stars, no one is more magnificent than Audrey Hepburn. Born on May 4, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium, this Queen of the World was given two names. She was first given the name Audrey Kathleen Ruston.[1] Yet, after a case of mistaken identity on her father’s part, she was also given the name Edda Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston. It seems that Hepburn’s father had, for a short time, believed that he was a descendant of James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell and Mary, Queen of Scots husband. Nevertheless, Audrey’s father had been born with the surname Ruston and hyphenated his name to adopt the Hepburn lineage.[2] He was, in fact, not related to the Earl of Bothwell.

On the other hand, Audrey’s mother was a Dutch Baroness. Being a multi-ethnic child, it did not take the future star long to speak English, Dutch, Spanish, French, and Italian. They traveled a lot in her early days, but her main home was in Brussels.[3] Unfortunately, in 1935 her father left Hepburn and her mother. He moved to London, on his own, where he became deeply involved in Fascist behavior.[4] She and her father would never be close again. He disappeared from her life for many years, but she finally tracked him down after World War II, he would be cold to her, but she still supported him financially throughout his final years.[5]

During World War II, Audrey and her mother lived in the Netherlands. They had at first held out some hope that the Netherlands would stay neutral, as they did in World War I; this was not to be the case. The Netherlands was invaded in 1940. War was declared. Hepburn would one day say, “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week… six months… next year… that’s how we got through”.[6] At this point in time, Audrey Hepburn began going by the name Edda van Heemstra because her English name put her too much at risk.

Hepburn’s everyday life was filled with fear. In 1942 she saw her uncle, Otto van Limburg Stirum, executed. There had been a resistance growing, and he had been declared to have been the head of an act of sabotage. He had truly had nothing to do with it, he had been targeted by the Nazis because of his prominence in Dutch society.[7]

There has been some talk that Audrey Hepburn herself took part in raising money for the resistance. They say that she did it through performance. There is also talk that she was an allied spy, yet the truth of this remains unknown. She did, however, in her later years, go into great detail about her life during the war. Hepburn was one of the lucky ones. She most often spoke of seeing Dutch Jews being transported to concentration camps. She would later say, “more than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on the train. I was a child observing a child.”[8] She also said, “We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they’d close the street and then open it and you could pass by again… Don’t discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.”[9]

It is odd to think that Audrey Hepburn’s pre-Hollywood days are seldom remembered. The majority of our favorite Hollywood stars fought for the good of the allies, yet not many lived through the horrors of Nazism. When we think of this time we think of Anne Frank or Oskar Schindler, and for very good reasons. Yet, how often did you add the name Audrey Hepburn to that list? She may not have been put in a concentration camp, but she was not persecuted because of her religion. Still, she lived her life in constant fear, fear caused by a hateful man. Every soul that lived through that ordeal was a hero.

After the conclusion of the war, the Hepburn family struggled. The family fortunes had been lost during the war and Hepburn’s mother, Ella, struggled to support her two daughters. It did not take long for Audrey to be cast in some menial roles. In 1948 she made her film debut playing a stewardess in an educational travel film, entitled Dutch in Seven Lessons.[10] Later that year, she accepted a ballet scholarship and moved to London.[11] Unfortunately for her dreams, she was soon told that her height and weak constitution, which was a consequence of wartime malnutrition, would prevent her from becoming a professional ballet dancer.[12] Thusly, she decided to focus on acting.

Hepburn soon began to get jobs as a chorus girl. She appeared in West End productions of High Button Shoes in 1948, Cecil Landeau’s Sauce Tartare in 1949, and Sauce Piquante in 1950. It was her part in Sauce Piquante that caught the eye of a casting director working for the Associated British Picture Corporation. She was cast in her first major role in 1952 as a prodigious ballerina in the film Secret People.[13]

As it turns out, it was not well-played minor roles that caught the eyes of the world. Instead, it was her performance in the Broadway play Gigi.[14] This play was based on a novella, of the same name, written by the Nobel Prize-winning, French novelist Colette. Colette noticed Hepburn while both were in Monte Carlo, Hepburn had a small role in the film Monte Carlo Baby. Colette hired Hepburn, although she had never acted on stage before. It is said that this decision paid off in the long run.[15] Gigi opened with a slam, and overnight the world knew the name, Audrey Hepburn.

Within a year of the opening of Gigi, Hepburn was cast in her first starring role playing Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. The movie was supposed to star Elizabeth Taylor, but the director loved Hepburn’s screenplay so much that he cast her instead. One of the producers of Roman Holiday later said, “She had everything I was looking for: charm, innocence, and talent. She also was very funny. She was absolutely enchanting, and we said, ‘That’s the girl!'”[16] She would star alongside Gregory Peck, who supposedly knew how much this young girl would shine. He suggested that the studio give her equal billing for the movie, which meant that he wanted to put her name as large as his, because “You’ve got to change that because she’ll be a big star, and I’ll look like a big jerk.”[17]

Hepburn’s career was a long and wonderful one. She would star alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Cary Grant. Today, she is probably most well known for her roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. It is important to note that Hepburn initially asked for her role in My Fair Lady to go to its initial leading lady, Julie Andrews, but the studio did not agree.

Audrey Hepburn entered a state of semi-retirement in 1967. It was her wish to spend more time with her family, and so she did. In an interview with Barbra Walters, Hepburn later said that she had filmed a movie in California after her six-year-old son had begun school. She spent most of her time on set missing and worried about him. Therefore, she decided to stay closer to him. Although some of her later films would be successful, none would reach the same heights as Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Hepburn became a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in 1989 and thus began her humanitarian career. She would always say that she was grateful to be able to give back to the world after having received international aid as a child living through German occupation.[18]

Hepburn was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s. She passed away in her sleep on January 20, 1993. The world shall forever remember the likes of Audrey Hepburn as a beacon of hope and a beautiful soul.

      "How shall I sum up my life? I think I've been particularly lucky."
      ~ Audrey Hepburn

[1] Donald Spoto, Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn (Nevada City, CA: Harmony Books, 2006), 10.
[2] Alexander Walker, Audrey, Her Real Story (London: Macmillan, 1997), 6.
[3] Gitlin, Audrey Hepburn: A Biography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009) , 3.
[4] Alexander Walker, Audrey, Her Real Story, 15-16.
[5] Edward Klein, “You Can’t Love Without the Fear of Losing,” March 5, 1989, 4-6.
[6] Barry Paris, Audrey Hepburn (Berkley Books, 1996).
[7] Barry Paris, Audrey Hepburn.
[8] Ian Woodward, Audrey Hepburn: Fair Lady of the Screen (Ebury Publishing, 2012), 36.
[9] Barry Paris, Audrey Hepburn.
[10] Jerry Vermilye, The Complete Films of Audrey Hepburn (New York, New York: Citadel Press, 1995), 67.
[11] Ian Woodward, Audrey Hepburn: Fair Lady of the Screen, 54.
[12] Telegraph, 4 May 2014, ‘I suppose I ended Hepburn’s career’
[13] Ian Woodward, Audrey Hepburn: Fair Lady of the Screen, 94.
[14] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Random House Publishing Group, 2011), 483.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Barry Paris, Audrey Hepburn.
[17]Gary Fishgall, Gregory Peck: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 2002), 173.
[18] “Audrey Hepburn”. UNICEF.

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