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Audrey Hepburn - Goddesses of the Silver Screen
2008    Dibyendu Banerjee    19/06/2020

Audrey Hepburn, a trained ballet dancer who never performed in a ballet, one of the most sought-after actresses of Hollywood in the mid-20th century and considered one of the most beautiful and elegant women in the world during her days, was born in Brussels, Belgium on 04 May 1929, as Audrey Kathleen Ruston. Her mother, Dutch baroness Ella van Heemstra divorced her first husband in 1925 and married her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, a British subject, born in Auschwitz, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary in September 1926.


Although born with the surname Ruston, later he adopted the more aristocratic surname Hepburn-Ruston, as he mistakenly believed himself to be descended from James Hepburn, third husband of Mary, the Queen of Scots. During the mid-1930s, the couple used to recruit and collect donations for the British Union of Fascists. However, all of a sudden, after a so called scene in Brussels, Joseph deserted the family in 1935 and moved to London, where he became deeply involved in Fascist activity and never visited his daughter abroad. This left a deep impact in heart of little Audrey, who felt herself dumped and later described it as the most traumatic event of her life.

Audrey Hepburn

In the same year, after Joseph deserted the family, Baroness Ella van Heemstra moved her two sons from her previous marriage and Audrey from Brussels to her father’s mansion in Arnhem, Netherlands, as she thought that living in a neutral country would be safer than England. After a year, although her half-brothers were sent to The Hague for studies, little Audrey moved back to Kent in England. A native of Brussels and a British citizen through her father, she attended a private boarding school in Elham in East Kent and heartily enjoyed her dance classes taught by a London ballet master. However, as Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and England declared war against Germany, the worried Baroness moved 10-year old Audrey back to Arnhem for safety. Unfortunately, Germany soon invaded the Netherlands in 1940.

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn
In Roman Holiday

During that time the worried mother temporarily changed Audrey’s name to Edda Van Heemstra, as her English-sounding birth name was considered dangerous during the German occupation, which might reveal her British heritage. She attended the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945 and received ballet training from Winja Marova at the Arnhem School of Music, where she was profusely praised for her performance.


However, it is believed that growing up in the German occupied Holland proved to be a defining period in the life of Audrey Hepburn. Despite that terrible time of terror, Audrey reportedly took the risk of her life to actively participate and dance at the underground concerts held in houses with windows and doors closed, to raise money for the Dutch resistance movement. According to Robert Matzen, the author of ‘Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II’, the 15-year old Hepburn once smuggled food for an Allied fighter pilot whose plane had crashed.

As the Germans confiscated all the radios, Hepburn reportedly helped the resistance movement by delivering messages and secret underground newspapers, hiding them in her oversized boots. She also worked voluntarily at a hospital that was the centre of resistance activities in Velp. However, much later, Audrey Hepburn modestly downplayed her role in the Dutch resistance.

Audrey Hepburn

Nevertheless, soon the days became more difficult. As half a million occupying German soldiers were using up Dutch resources, food and fuel became scare and along with others, Audrey and her mother also had to struggle hard to survive. In fact, she was growing up hungry during the war and was experiencing the darker side of life. In 1942, her uncle, husband of her mother's older sister, was shot to death for attempting to blow up a railroad, allegedly an act of sabotage by the resistance movement, although he was not at all involved in the act and was targeted for the prominence of his family in the Dutch society. Audrey’s half-brother Ian was deported to Berlin and was forced to work in a German munitions factory, while the other half-brother Alex went into hiding to avoid the same fate and joined the Dutch underground resistance. In addition to those traumatic events, she also had the misfortune to witness the transportation of the Dutch Jews to the concentration camps. All these horrible experiences compiled together to build survivor’s guilt in Audrey Hepburn that likely contributed to her complex feelings about food and her habit to skip meals.

Audrey Hepburn

In the winter of 1944, the Hepburn family was evicted from the Van Heemstra mansion, as it was seized by the Nazi force. With most of their wealth confiscated, her grandfather, Baron van Heemstra, took Audrey and her mother to his villa in the town of Velp, three miles outside of Arnhem. Four days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945, liberation of the Netherlands took place, which coincided Audrey Hepburn’s 16th birthday. As her half-brothers returned home, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration brought food, warm clothes and medicines. However, while the family was trying to resume a normal life, Audrey was not keeping well. She was suffering from colitis, edema, anemia, asthma and depression due to malnutrition.

After the war ended in 1945, Audrey Hepburn shifted to Amsterdam with her mother and half-brothers, where she continued her ballet training and the mother of the family had to work as a cook and housekeeper for a wealthy family to support her siblings. Hepburn continued her training for three years under Sonia Gaskell, a leading figure in Dutch ballet, who believed that Hepburn had something special and introduced her to Marie Rambert of Ballet Rambert in London. After her audition for Rambert, Hepburn was accepted with scholarship in early 1948, only to be informed later that despite her talent, she would not make the status of prima ballerina due to her weak constitution and excessive height of more than five feet seven inches.

As her dream of becoming a ballerina was shattered, Hepburn erased Ruston from her surname and made her stage debut in 1948, as a chorus girl in the musical High Button Shoes in London, followed by Sauce Tartare in 1949 and Sauce Piquante (1950). Apart from working as a model, she also registered herself as a freelance actress with the British film studio in 1950 and appeared in several bit parts in several films like, One Wild Oat, Young Wives Tales and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), before landing the role of a ballerina in The Secret People (1952), where she proved her talent as a ballet dancer.

Audrey Hepburn

While shooting for Monte Carlo Baby (1953) in Monaco, the slender and graceful Hepburn, playing the role of a young teenager spoiled actress was spotted by the reputed French writer Colette, who found her ideal for the starring role in the upcoming theatrical adaptation of her novel Gigi. Despite her inexperience, Hepburn bagged the role and earned glowing reviews for her performance, when the musical comedy opened on 24 November 1951 on Broadway in New York at the Fulton Theatre. Later, she also received a Theatre World Award for the role.


In the meantime, director William Wyler, who was looking for a European actress to play the lead role of a princess in his new movie, was enchanted by the screen test of Hepburn. Although the producers were bent on Elizabeth Taylor for the role, he was determined to cast Hepburn in the lead and she got the role. After filming was completed, Wyler is said to have remarked that the girl is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood. In fact, she took the world by storm in the film Roman Holiday (1953) with Gregory Peck. As a young princess who exchanges the burden of royalty for a day of adventure, Hepburn equally won the hearts of the audiences and the critics. The film was a box-office hit and Hepburn won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance, along with winning a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award. In the same year she also won a Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in the fantasy play ‘Ondine’ on Broadway. During the production of the play Hepburn began a relationship with her co-star Mel Ferrer, whom she married on 25 September 1954 in Switzerland.

Audrey Hepburn
Hepburn and Ferrer

Following the grand success of Roman Holiday, reputed film director Billy Wilder signed up Hepburn for his next venture Sabrina (1954), in which two wealthy brothers compete for the favour of their chauffeur's innocent daughter, whose education in France made her the toast of Long Island society. Hepburn earned her second and consecutive Academy Award nomination for the film, which she ultimately lost to Grace Kelly, but won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.

With her slim and elegant look with unfailing graceful style, Hepburn changed the big-bosomed image of the Hollywood heroines and used her doe eyes to captivate the audiences. She had an unfortunate miscarriage in 1955 and not appeared in any film released during the year. However, after the break she appeared in the role of Natasha, in War and Peace (1956), based on the famous novel by Tolstoy, set during the Napoleonic wars, for which she achieved nominations for Best Actress in BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards. She exhibited her dancing skill in the musical Funny Face (1957), in which she played a beatnik bookstore clerk who gets discovered by a fashion photographer, lured by a free trip to Paris and ultimately becomes a beautiful model. Apart from that, she starred in a romantic comedy, directed by Billy Wilder and opposite ageing Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon (1957), for which she was again nominated for Best Actress in Golden Globe.

Stepping away from her lighthearted fare, Hepburn brilliantly portrayed the role of Sister Luke, a character struggling to succeed as a nun, in The Nun’s Story (1959). She reportedly spent hours together in convents and with members of the Church to truthfully portray the character and her characterization of Sister Luke is considered one of the great performances of the screen. It earned her a third Academy Award nomination and the second BAFTA Award.

Audrey Hepburn
With Cary Grant in Charade (1963)

Unfortunately, Hepburn had her second miscarriage in 1959, when she fell off a horse and broke her back during the filming of The Unforgiven (1960), her only western film. The sad incident left her in deep depression. Thankfully, she gave birth to a healthy son on 17 January 1960, which helped her to come out of the crisis. The little man even accompanied his mother on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany (1961), in which she played a seemingly lighthearted, but ultimately troubled New York City party girl, the effervescent and mysterious Holly Golightly. It was a defining role for Hepburn and she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Hepburn's successful career further continued with films like The Children’s Hour (1961), Charade (1963) and Paris When It Sizzles (1964).However, although her performance in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964) opposite Rex Harrison was widely acclaimed and the Time magazine remarked it as the best of her career, Hepburn was not even nominated for the Academy Awards.

Audrey Hepburn
My Fair Lad

Hepburn got her fifth Academy Award nomination for her performance in a suspense thriller Wait Until Dark (1967), in which she played the role of a terrified, lonely and blind woman, who became aware of the presence of an unwanted person, probably a killer, in her house. After that, she left her career as a full-time actress and lived mostly in Switzerland, appearing infrequently in films like, Robin and Marian (1976), Bloodline (1979) and They All Laughed (1981).

In her early life during 1950s, Hepburn dated Michael Butler, the future producer of Hair (1979), for a short period and was engaged to James Hanson In 1952, whom she had known since her early days in London. However, she backed out at the last moment, as she felt that her film career would not allow her to become a good wife. She met her future husband Mel Ferrer at a cocktail party hosted by mutual friend Gregory Peck. After 14 years of marriage, they were divorced on 05 December 1968. She met her second husband, a prominent Italian psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Dotti, in June 1968, while she was on a Mediterranean cruise to Greece with her friends abroad the yacht of Italy’s Princess Olympia Torlonia. She married nine years younger Dotti on 18 January 1969 and on 08 February 1970, Hepburn at the age of 40 gave birth to her second son, Luca. She wished to have a third child, but had another miscarriage in 1974.During their marriage, Dotti was unfaithful and Hepburn also had a romantic relationship with her co-star Ben Gazzara during the filming of Bloodline. However, despite her efforts, the marriage was dissolved on 21 September 1982, due to Dotti’s continuous adultery. In 1981, at the age of 52, Hepburn met 46-year-old Dutch Robert Wolders, during the later years of her second marriage and they remained companions for the rest of her life. Hepburn confessed in 1989 that she considered them married, although not officially.

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in 1989 and in her first field mission, she visited with food from UNICEF, an orphanage in Ethiopia that housed 500 starving children. In August 1988, she went to Turkey on an immunization campaign, where the army gave her trucks, the fishmongers gave their wagons for the vaccines and her team completed to vaccinate the whole country in ten days. For different purposes she also visited different countries like, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in Central America, Sudan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, in different times, as an ambassador of UNICEF. In recognition of her work with UNICEF, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President George HW Bush.

Audrey Hepburn
Wax figure at Madame Tussauds, Vienna

Audrey Hepburn began suffering from acute abdominal pain upon her return from Somalia to Switzerland, which eventually diagnosed as a rare type of abdominal cancer that has grown slowly over several years. Chemotherapy followed her surgery. As she was not in a condition to fly on commercial aircraft, her longtime friend, fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy arranged to send her private Gulfstream jet, filled with flowers, to take her from Los Angeles to Geneva. Hepburn spent her last days under medical care at her home in Tolochenaz in the Swiss canton of Vaud. She died in her sleep on the evening of 20 January 1993.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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