HEPBURN, AUDREY (Edda Kathleen van Hemmstra Hepburn-Ruston) (1929–1993) Actress

During her lifetime, film star Audrey Hepburn was celebrated both for her elegant beauty on screen and for her tireless charity work. On May 4, 1929, she was born Edda Kathleen van Hemmstra HepburnRuston in Brussels, Belgium. The wealth of her mother, who was a Dutch baroness, provided her with a happy, though sheltered, upbringing, even after her English father abandoned the family in 1935. As part of the divorce settlement, Edda was sent to school in England in order to be closer to him. At nine, she began taking ballet lessons with an eye toward pursuing a professional dance career.

At the beginning of World War II, Edda and her mother moved to Holland, hoping to escape Nazi control. The Nazis, however, soon invaded the country and seized her mother’s fortunes. They were forced to fiee into the countryside, where young Edda nearly died from malnutrition. Her life was saved only by food and supplies provided by relief workers. The experience was so traumatic that Hepburn later turned down a chance to play Holocaust victim Anne Frank, feeling that Frank’s wartime experiences in Holland had too many uncomfortable parallels to her own.

After the war, Hepburn returned to London and resumed her ballet studies. Convinced she could not succeed as a ballerina, she began modeling and dancing in musical theater. She also took bit parts in English movies, including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Monte Carlo Baby (1952). The filming of the latter took her the Riviera, where she had a chance meeting with the French author Colette. Colette became Hepburn’s champion, insisting that the young actress be cast in the Broadway show Gigi, based on one of the writer’s novels. Hepburn initially refused the part, convinced that with her limited acting experience she could not carry a show on her own. She was eventually persuaded to take on the role, though she was fired and rehired twice during rehearsals. Her performance steadily improved, and when the show premiered, she was hailed as a major new talent.

Hepburn’s success as Gigi earned her the lead in the American movie Roman Holiday (1953). In it, her natural grace and charm were used to their best advantage as she played a runaway princess looking for a brief escape from her official duties during a tour of Italy. For her first major film performance, the 24-year-old Hepburn won an Academy Award for best actress. Three days later, she took home a Tony Award as well for the Broadway show Ondine (1954). Hepburn soon afterward married her Ondine costar, Mel Ferrer; the couple had a son in 1960.

Almost overnight, Hepburn emerged as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. She used the situation to negotiate an advantageous, long-term contract with Paramount. In addition to guaranteeing her the opportunity to fit theater roles into her schedule, it allowed her script approval of her movie projects. As a result, Hepburn escaped being cast just as the romantic partner for male stars. Instead, most of her movies focused on her, often telling stories of young women who grow and mature through new experiences and hardships.

In her second major role, Hepburn played the titular character in Sabrina (1953), a comedy that had her character bloom from an innocent into a sophisticate during a sojourn in Paris. The film improbably paired her romantically with Humphrey Bogart, who was then more than twice her age and looked it. Such “May-December” relationships became a common feature in Hepburn’s movies. In nearly half of her films, her romantic partners were more than 20 years her senior. Sabrina brought Hepburn a second Oscar nomination. She would be so honored three more times for the films The Nun’s Story (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Wait Until Dark (1967).

During the filming of Sabrina, Hepburn became acquainted with the fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, who remained her close friend throughout her life. As Givenchy’s muse, Hepburn set fashion trends on- and offscreen by wearing his classic, simple designs. His sophisticated clothes on her slender frame helped create an alternative to the then-prevailing standard of Hollywood beauty as personified by curvy bombshells such as MARILYN MONROE. To this day, Hepburn’s impeccable sense of style has continued to have a significant impact on popular fashion. In the 1960s, Hepburn appeared in two of her signature roles: Holly Golightly in the romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Eliza Doolittle in the musical My Fair Lady (1967). In both parts, she played a poor girl who re-creates herself as a fashionable urbanite, though Hepburn’s innately regal manner made her fairly unconvincing as the characters before their glorious transformations. Critics were particularly hard on her for her performance in My Fair Lady, largely because many felt the then-lesser-known Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on Broadway, had deserved the part. Hepburn herself was disappointed when the filmmakers decided to dub over her own sweet but weak singing voice in the musical numbers.

The decade saw Hepburn in several more memorable films, including Two for the Road (1967) and Wait Until Dark (1967), which was produced by her husband Mel Ferrer. The next year, the couple divorced, and in 1969 Hepburn married Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. They had a son in 1970 and were divorced in 1982. After retiring in 1967 to spend more time with her family, Hepburn returned to the screen in the mature love story Robin and Marian (1976). The film costarred Sean Connery, who proved to be one of her strongest leading men. Hepburn continued to appear occasionally in small roles in feature films and made-for-TV movies. Her final screen part was an angel in Steven Spielberg’s disappointing Always (1989).

Hepburn devoted her final years to what she regarded as her most important role: serving as the international “goodwill ambassador” for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Fueled by her own gratitude to the relief workers who saved her as a child, Hepburn took her position extremely seriously. She not only raised millions of dollars in relief funds, she also traveled constantly, making personal appearances in the most war-torn and disease-ridden areas of the globe to bring world attention to the miserable living conditions of the people there. Hepburn’s efforts were particularly instrumental in escalating the United States’s relief for famine victims in Somalia. Her devotion to UNICEF ended only with her death from colon cancer on January 20, 1993. Later that year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posthumously gave Hepburn the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her charitable works.

Further Reading:
Keogh, Pamela Clarke. Audrey Style. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
Paris, Barry. Audrey Hepburn. New York: Putnam, 1996.
Vermilye, Jerry. The Complete Films of Audrey Hepburn. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing, 1995.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Paramount, DVD/VHS, 1999/1996.
My Fair Lady (1964). Warner Home Video, DVD, 1998.
Sabrina (1954). Paramount, VHS, 1998.