The Unlikely Life of Audrey Hepburn

By Laurie Bogart Wiles

You must know something of Ella Audrey if you wish to understand anything of the woman she would become—and the world would know—as Audrey Hepburn. At 5 feet, 7 inches and just under 100 pounds, her developing beauty and natural grace presented her the opportunity to study ballet with Sonia Gaskell, director of the Netherlands Ballet, after the war. In 1948, Audrey moved to London with her mother and won a scholarship to study under the great Polish-born dancer and influencer would never advance to prima ballerina due to the lasting effects of childhood malnutrition.

Audrey instead began modeling and took small parts in films and theatre productions, becoming a chorus girl in London’s West End musical revues and making her film debut in Dutch in Seven Lessons (1948).

In 1952, Audrey was in Monaco playing a small role in Monte Carlo Baby, when she was spotted by French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, best known for Gigi. The enchanting story, set in late-1800s Paris, follows the platonic friendship between a wealthy playboy and a young girl, being trained as a courtesan by her elderly aunts, that eventually blossoms into love. Upon seeing Audrey, Colette exclaimed to her husband, “Viola, ma Gigi!”

Audrey set sail to New York to work with acclaimed playwright, Hollywood screenwriter and author Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), who was adapting Colette’s novelette into a Broadway play. At first, the frightened, untrained actress muddled her lines and lacked both the vocal projection and passion required of the leading role.

“Get it together!” demanded renowned Belgian director Raymond Rouleau. Under his and Loos’s painstaking guidance, and the support of a generous cast (led by the grand dame of the New York and London stage, Cathleen Nesbitt), the curtain rose on opening night, November 24, 1951.

In the early hours of the following day, papers hit the newsstands— with rave reviews of the unknown 23-year-old ingenue. “Her quality is so winning and so right that she is the success of the evening,” extolled The New York Times. “She is able to put an athletic show that would shame a track meet,” enthused Esquire.

Audrey would receive a Theatre World Award for her role, playing 219 performances on Broadway before touring the country and finally closing in San Francisco in May 1953. The musical motion picture adaptation of Gigi would go on to win eight Academy Awards with Leslie Caron in the title role.

But Audrey Hepburn, like a comet streaking across the night sky, had already shot to stardom and lit up the silver screen.

In 1953, Audrey won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award, becoming the first actress to win all three, the triple crown, for her performance as Anya/ Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, in which she starred opposite Gregory Peck. Filmed in Rome, director William Wyler, who had personally selected Audrey, said of his new star, “She was perfect. She has no arse, no tits, no tight-fitting clothes, no high heels. In short, she will be a sensation.” And she was. The film was a box office smash.

That same year, she returned to Broadway, starring in Ondine, to universal accolades. “Somehow Miss Hepburn is able to translate its intangibles into the language of the theatre without artfulness or precociousness. She gives a pulsing performance that is all grace and enchantment, disciplined by an instinct for the realities of the stage,” said one New York Times critic. She won her second Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play. 

Back in Hollywood, she starred in one box office hit after another. First Sabrina, a 1954 Cinderella-styled comedy starring Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, the latter with whom she had a near fatal, career-ending affair. She was nominated for an Oscar and won another BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Bostley Crowther, critic for The New York Times wrote, “She is a young lady of extraordinary range of sensitive and moving expressions within such a frail and slender frame. She is even more luminous as the daughter and pet of the servant’s hall than she was as a princess last year, in Roman Holiday, and no more than that can be said.”

The Nun’s Story, filmed in 1959, was a departure from her ingenue image. She spent hours in convents observing and talking with nuns to bring truth and reality to her role, reflecting that she “gave more time, energy and thought to this than to any of my previous screen performances.” Films in Review wrote that her performance “will forever silence those who have thought her less an actress than a symbol of the sophisticated child/woman. Her portrayal of Sister Luke is one of the great performances of the screen.”

Now one of Hollywood’s most desirable actresses, she was cast as Natasha Rostova in the screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, War and Peace. The colossal production was written and directed by King Vidor, one of the greatest figures in Hollywood and starred Henry Fonda as Count Pierre. Prince Andrei was portrayed by Mel Ferrer, Hollywood heartthrob, director of Broadway’s Odine, in which Audrey starred, Audrey’s husband of two years and father of her first child (they would divorce in 1968). On set, she met Jeremy Brett (as Nicholas Rostov) who would play Freddy Eynsford-Hill to Audrey’s Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady eight years later.

In 1961, Audrey immortalized Holly Golightly in the Blake Edwards production of Truman Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Not only was the role “the jazziest of my career,” said Hepburn, but she confessed, “I’m an introvert. Playing the extroverted girl was the hardest thing I ever did.” While the film scored a box office hit, it was the little black dress that Hepburn wore in the opening credits, designed by Paris couturier, Hubert de Givenchy, that catapulted her into the elite realm of international fashion icons.

From that moment, the collaboration between Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy reinvented elegance, marrying sophistication with simplicity and changing the way women all over the world dressed. Givenchy set the fashion stage for Hepburn in four other films, and he supervised her personal wardrobe up until the end of her life. Of her dear, longtime friend she would say, “Givenchy gave me a look, a kind, a silhouette. He has always been the best, and he stayed the best. He kept the spare style that I love. What is more beautiful than a simple sheath made an extraordinary way in a special fabric, and just two earrings?”

1963 saw Hepburn, 34, playing a barely grieving widow in Charade opposite a mature Cary Grant, then 59. Though

younger co-star, by the end of filming Grant said, “All I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn.”

The following year, she re-teamed with William Holden in the screwballcomedy, Paris When It Sizzles. Happily married to the handsome Ferrer, she refused Holden’s attempts to rekindle their earlier romance and sparks failed to fly both offscreen and on. The film was panned.

In 1964, Audrey was cast in My Fair Lady, perhaps her most beloved role. Although she could not sing (her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon), she was nonetheless chosen by Jack L. Warner, head of Warner Brothers Studio, over musical star Julie Andrews who had originated the role on Broadway. (In fact, Andrews was Audrey’s personal choice for Eliza Dolittle.)

My Fair Lady received eight Oscar nominations at the 37th Academy Awards, but Audrey was snubbed; she was not nominated for Best Actress. As fate would have it, Julie Andrews took home Best Actress for Mary Poppins.

“The happiest thing about My Fair Lady is that Audrey Hepburn superbly justifies the decision of Jack Warner to get her to play the title role,” wrote one reviewer. Another: “Audrey Hepburn is magnificent. She is Eliza for the ages.”

Just as Hepburn was an underdog in casting the film, Rex Harrison was not the studio’s (or the director’s) first choice for the role of Professor Henry Higgins. Warner Brothers originally sought out Cary Grant, but he was preparing for retirement. He quipped, “Not only will I not play Higgins, but if you don’t use Rex Harrison, I won’t even go to the film.”

After an unsuccessful attempt to secure Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), director George Cukor finally approached Rex Harrison. In response, Harrison sent Cukor some naked Polaroids of himself. He was ultimately cast for the relatively low salary of $200,000. As much as Audrey Hepburnembodied Gigi, she did the same with the cockney-turned-lady Eliza Doolittle. The same could be said for Rex Harrison—not as Professor Henry Higgins, but because Rex Harrison was Professor Henry Higgins.

Hepburn would star with Peter O’Toole in her next movie, the 1966 heist comedy, How to Steal a Million. The following year, she starred with AlbertFinney in the comedy-cum-drama, Two for the Road, one of her happiest film experiences. Her next film, on the opposite end of the emotionalspectrum, was the unhappiest one she ever made, Wait Until Dark, which her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Mel Ferrer, directed. Upon completion of filming, she announced she was retiring from making movies.

A year after her divorce, Audrey married Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist, with whom she would have her second son. In 1976, she attempted a comeback playing an aging Maid Marian, now a nun, to Sean Connery’s Robin Hood, himself a little long in the tooth, in Robin and Marian. Met with high expectations, the film fell flat. After two tepid films, she co- starred in a made-for-television spy caper, Love Among Thieves, with Robert Wagner. Her last motion picture was Steven Spielberg’s Always, in which she made a cameo appearance.

As she appeared in her final few films, Audrey devoted more of her time and energy to UNICEF as a Goodwill Ambassador, traveling across the world to some of the poorest communities in Africa, South America and Asia. In many ways, Audrey Hepburn’s life had now come full-circle. She knew what it was to be poor, to live with fear and hunger. After enduring German occupation as a child, she was ready to give back the humanitarian aid that she herself had once received.

In August 1988, Audrey embarked upon a UNICEF vaccination trip to Turkey to inoculate children against the six main child-killing diseases: measles, tuberculosis, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio. Of this trip, she remarked, “The army gave us their trucks, the fishmongers gave their wagons for the vaccines, and once the date was set, it took ten days to vaccinate the whole country. Not bad.”

Two months later, in October, she traveled to Venezuela and Ecuador and shortly after, made the first of two appearances before a joint session of the United States Congress on behalf of UNICEF. “I saw tiny mountain communities, slums and shanty towns receive water systems for the first time by some miracle—and the miracle is UNICEF. I watched boys build their own schoolhouse with bricks and cement provided by UNICEF.”

In February 1989, she toured Central America, meeting with leaders in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In April, she participated in “Operation Lifeline,” a UNICEF mission to bring desperately needed food and supplies to southern Sudan, which had been cut off from all life-sustaining resources during the Second Sudanese Civil War. “I saw but one glaring truth: These are not natural disasters but man-made tragedies for which there is only one man-made solution—peace.”

Audrey Hepburn playing golf and holding a parasol, circa 1955. (Picturelux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photos)

Of her October 1989 mission to Bangladesh, UN photographer John Isaac said, “Often the kids would have flies all over them, but she would just go hug them. I had never seen that. Other people had a certain amount of hesitation, but she would just grab them. Children would just come up to hold her hand, touch her—she was like the Pied Piper.”

In 1990, she went to Vietnam to work with the government to implement UNICEF clean air and vaccination programs. From 1988 to 1992, Audrey co-hosted the Danny Kaye International Children’s Special with actor Roger Moore. The program was broadcast worldwide from Holland, drawing enormous donations from all over the world. She also performed a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF, reading selections from The Diary of Anne Frank to original music written and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

In September 1992, now skin and bones from advancing cancer, sheinsisted on going to Somalia for one final UNICEF mission. “I walked into a nightmare. I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like this—so much worse than I could possibly have imagined. I wasn’t prepared for this.”

Her final observation about her work was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador was this: ” Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics, perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be humanization of politics.”

As I write, another great humanitarian, the 41st president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, is being conveyed by a special train to his presidential library at Texas A & M, where his body will be laid to rest next to his wife and daughter. Little more than 27 years ago, he presented Audrey Hepburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor any individual can receive from the United States, in recognition of her more than 50 mission to Third World countries for UNICEF and her tireless fight on behalf of struggling children.

“I have been given the privilege of speaking for children who cannot speak for themselves,” she said when accepting the award, “and my task is an easy one, because children have no political enemies. To save a child is a blessing: to save a million is a God-given opportunity.”

Audrey was posthumously awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her contribution to humanity at the 1993 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards. In 2002, at the United Nations Special Session on Children, UNICEF honored Hepburn’s legacy of humanitarian work by unveiling a statue, “The Spirit of Audrey,” at UNICEF’s New York headquarters. Her legacy of service for children is also recognized through the United States Fund for UNICEF’s Audrey Hepburn Society. Her theatrical career, in the great scheme of things, pales in comparison to all she achieved in her life. She is ranked third on the American Film Institute’s Greatest Female Stars of All Times.

Audrey Hepburn embraced life even when life itself was slipping through her fingers. And though she had both beauty and grace, more exquisite was the depth of her wisdom and pureness of faith. Two things she said in particular seem to me, at least, among the greatest lessons you can learn.

“As you get older,” she said, “remember you have two hands: The first is to help yourself, the second is to help others.”

And, “Forgive Quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that made you smile

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