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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Happy Birthday Audrey Hepburn

Updated: May 5, 2023

Audrey Hepburn.jpg

A few years ago I had what for many people would be THE perfect job. I had to watch every single film Audrey Hepburn had ever made, for a book I had to be asked to write the Pocket Essential Audrey Hepburn.

Imagine my delight, when caught curled up on the sofa watching Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck riding around Rome on a vespa for the umpteenth time I could exclaim – “it’s research – I have to watch it!”

You can snap up copies of my book on Audrey Hepburn on Amazon in kindle, unabridged audio and print versions.

“As with others in the series, it’s a book to dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Strong on fact and trivia.” Empire Magazine

Here's some of the introduction to tempt you!

From her earliest screen glimpses in such classic British movies as The Lavender Hill Mob (where she played Alec Guinness’s escort) and Laughter in Paradise (a cigarette girl) through the enduring classics: Roman Holiday, Sabrina Fair, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. Before moving on to the forgotten films (and to be honest more often than not quite rightly so): Robin and Marian, Bloodline, They All Laughed and Love Among Thieves. In total, only 26 movies, not many considering her film career spanned 44 years.

But even now, almost a decade after her death Audrey Hepburn is everywhere. Every week the national press uses a picture of her to illustrate articles on subjects as diverse as the power of the little black dress to how to crack an egg. The list of current Hollywood stars who are labelled the next Audrey Hepburn is endless. Early in her career Audrey was the face on Lux Soap and Crookes’ Lacto-Calamine - now she’s selling you Longine’s exclusive Swiss watches and Gordon’s Gin.

What is it about Audrey Hepburn that has made her such an enduring screen icon? She spent her childhood between Belgium and England, speaking faultless English. Her early successes were on the London stage and in British movies, but her looks were not those of the English Rose, nor did she look like the platinum blondes so prevalent in Hollywood in the early 1950s. Her Europeanism, looks, figure and manner set her apart and created a whole new look, which was emulated the world over. She was a paradox: Innocence with sexiness, naiveté with worldliness - she was modern, classic, sophisticated and above all - fresh.

Of those twenty-six films, Audrey was the star of only nineteen but yet they include some of the greatest films of all time. Those half-dozen or so classic films remain with us as a record of a young girl, who grew from a Princess, in William Wyler’s 1953 Roman Holiday, to an Angel in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 Always. But she wasn’t just an angel onscreen in the last years of her life she fulfilled that role off-screen as well, when she became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1988.

Audrey was born in Brussels in May 1929. Her mother was Baroness Ella van Heemstra part of the Dutch aristocracy. Her father was Joseph Hepburn-Ruston who, after leaving his wife and family in 1935, became a member of Sir Oswald Mosely’s Union of Fascists.

When the Second World War broke out Audrey’s mother took the family back to Arnhem, Holland believing they would be safe there. However, when the Germans invaded and Hitler’s forces occupied Arnhem they seized the van Heemstra family fortune and Audrey’s half-brother was sent to a labour camp. By the end of the war Audrey, undernourished and suffering from anaemia and asthma, had developed oedema and hepatitis – ill heath would plague her for the rest of her life. But this didn’t stop her determination to continue studying dance with the hope of a career as a ballet dancer.

In 1948 she appeared in her only Dutch film, a half hour travelogue entitled Dutch in 7 Lessons – but her heart was still set on the stage and once travel restrictions were lifted Audrey and her mother moved to London where Audrey enrolled at Marie Rambert’s Ballet School. However her height, weak health and limited funds forced her to leave the school and find a job.

Audrey’s big break came in West End Revues, it was there that a producer spotted her and cast her in a small part in her first British Movie, One Wild Oat, a series of other small parts followed. Larger speaking parts in Young Wives’ Tale and The Secret People brought newspaper and magazine coverage. As did her engagement in 1952 to James (later Lord) Hanson. But despite the announcement in The Times, the marriage was not to be, as Audrey's career took off, Hanson just didn’t fit into her new schedule. By the time she was performing in the Broadway production of Gigi the romance was faltering. When she had finished her first Hollywood film, Roman Holiday it was over.

Paramount had been on tenterhooks after they had signed her for the role of the Princess in Roman Holiday. They needn’t have worried, when filming first began, Gregory Peck, who was a huge star and entitled to solo billing above the title – begged the studio to place Audrey’s name alongside his. He feared he would be a laughing stock when she stole the film out from under him and probably win an Oscar – she did both.

In 1954 Audrey met two men that would have a major impact on her life. Her career was in ascendance when she met Mel Ferrer at the London launch of Roman Holiday. He was fifteen years older than her, twice married and had four children. Her friends and family were concerned by their blossoming romance. His career had been a stop/start affair and when they had met had all but stopped. Her success on Broadway in Gigi back-to-back with Roman Holiday had firmly established her as a major star. Not long after their engagement was announced rumours were flying that he was a ‘Svengali’ figure, manipulating Audrey’s career and flying on her coat-tails.

That same year, she met French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy who would become an integral part of Audrey’s life and look. They met during pre-production of her second Hollywood film, Sabrina Fair, when he was hired to design Audrey’s Paris wardrobe. Later when Mel was negotiating Audrey's contract for Funny Face it stated that she would keep her wardrobe of clothes designed for the film by Givenchy and from then on all Audrey’s contracts would have a Givenchy clause in them – wherever possible Givenchy would design her costumes on screen. Their friendship and business relationship continued throughout her career, he was still designing both her on and off screen clothes well into the 1980s.

Sadly her relationship with Mel Ferrer would not prove so enduring. They appeared on-stage together in Ondine in 1954, and on film in War and Peace, he directed her in Green Mansions and produced Wait Until Dark – but her most successful films were those with which he had little or no involvement. Despite a number of miscarriages, they had one son, Sean, in 1960, but her longed-for child did not equal a happy family and in 1967 their marriage was over.

The following year, she married psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. Determined that her family would take priority she gave up acting to bring up Sean and their son Luca, who was born in 1970. She returned to the screen in 1976 with Robin and Marian with Sean Connery, but it was not a happy experience and she made only a few films over the next thirteen years. Following her divorce from Dr Andrea Dotti in 1982, she met Dutchman Robert Wolders and they would remain together until she died in 1993.

In 1988 she became a Special Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, the children she visited did not know who she was, just a nice woman who would listen and cuddle them. Over the next five-years she made fifty trips for UNICEF. Her fame brought the TV cameras and photographers, which ensured that UNICEF would get maximum exposure for its causes.

A few of Audrey Hepburn’s contemporaries are nearly as famous, or notorious, today. Some are more famous, or notorious, than they were when they were alive, but none has managed to retain the timeless magnetic allure of an actress who right from the start (as Cecil Beaton noted in this diary entry on 23 July 1953) was “a new type of beauty: huge mouth, flat Mongolian features, heavily painted eyes, a coconut coiffure, long nails without varnish, a wonderfully lithe figure, a long neck ... In a flash I discovered Audrey is chock-a-block with spritelike charm ... [and] a sort of waifish, poignant sympathy.”

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