Birth: May 4, 1929
Death: 20 January, 1993
Audrey Hepburn was born as Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston on May 4th 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. She was born into a privileged family: her mother Ella was a Dutch baroness and her British father Joseph had a good job at a loan company in Belgium. Audrey also had two half brothers from her mother’s previous marriage: Ian and Alex. At age 5, Audrey entered a boarding school in England and it was there that she fell in love with ballet, a lifelong passion. But all was not well in the family: Joseph was a heavy drinker and left when Audrey was six. Little Audrey was devastated and begged for her father to have visitation rights. He eventually got them, but he never visited her.
In 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and Ella moved Audrey back to live with her in her native Holland. She hoped the country would be spared an attack, but in 1940 Germany invaded. Rumour had it that Ella helped the Dutch resistance, but this has been proven wrong in recent years. Audrey’s parents actually collected donations for the British Union for Fascists in the 30’s and her father was arrested in England for spreading Nazi propaganda. Ella distanced herself from the union and Nazi sentiments after her divorce, but it is said that she used her connections to make sure Audrey could take ballet lessons at a good school during the war. Dancing had become Audrey’s sole passion and her mother desperately wanted her daughter to be a success.
Still, the war impacted the family heavily. They lost their money and possessions and in 1942, Audrey’s uncle Otto was executed. His death was very traumatic for Audrey and she donated the money she sometimes earned performing as a ballerina to the resistance movement. Audrey’s brother Ian was forced to work in a German labor camp and her brother Alex went into hiding to avoid the same fate. Ella, Audrey and her widowed aunt Miesje went to live with her grandfather. By 1944, the food became so scarce and Audrey so weak, that she had to stop dancing. In the same year she barely escaped the Germans rounding up young women to staff their military kitchens. On Audrey’s sixteenth birthday, May 4th 1945, her city of Arnhem was finally liberated by Canadian troops. Audrey was now five-foot-six and weighed ninety pounds, suffered from asthma, jaundice and other diseases due to malnutrition, including anemia and severe edema. Alex emerged from underground hiding, followed soon by the arrival of Ian from Berlin. Audrey would say: “We lost everything, of course our houses, our possessions, our money. But we didn’t give a hoot. We got through our lives, which was all that mattered.”
In 1945, Audrey and her mother moved to Amsterdam where she studied at Sonia Gaskell’s famous Ballet Studio for three more years. In 1948 she made her film debut by playing a stewardess for the educational Dutch in Seven Lessons. In early 1948, Audrey auditioned and was accepted with scholarship at Ballet Rambert in London. Audrey and her mother moved to Londen, where Audrey supported herself with part-time work as a model. Audrey was devastated when Rambert told her that despite her talent, a status of prima ballerina was unattainable for her because she started her professional ballet training too late and her constitution was too weak after the war.
Now that her dream of being a ballerina was over, Audrey focused on chorus lines and acting. She got a part in the chorus line of the musical High Button Shoes in London and started taking eloquation lessons. Bigger roles in the plays Sauce Tartare and Sauce Piquante followed. During this time, 21 year old Audrey had her first boyfriend: her Sauce Piquante colleague Marcel le Bon. But it was not very serious and the relationship ended when Marcel left for America. Audrey, meanwhile, took acting lessons, found an agent and in 1951 she played minor roles in four movies. Her love life was looking up as well: she started seeing 28-year old James Hanson, a wealthy socialite. She was swept of her feet by the handsome, elegant James and the two soon got engaged. But that didn’t stop her from leaving for Monte Carlo to play a small role in the film Monte Carlo Baby. Coincidentally, she stayed at the same hotel as famous French novelist Colette. When the writer spotted Audrey, she knew that she had found the leading lady for her play Gigi on Broadway. Though Audrey was insecure about her lack of experience in stage acting, Colette convinced her to take the role. James was not happy, because this meant a long separation and a postponement of their wedding, but Audrey knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But Colette was not the only one who saw potential in Audrey: director William Wyler did a screen test with her for the leading role in Roman Holiday and convinced Paramount Studios to give this unknown actress the role. All at once, Audrey was the youngest actress to have a leading role in Hollywood and on Broadway.
Becoming A Star
In 1951, Audrey left for New York to start rehearsals for Gigi. It was the first time that she was without her mother and she was nervous but excited. James did business in Canada and would visit from there as often as he could. Still, Audrey was lonely in New York and worried about her lack of experience on stage. But when Gigi opened, the reviews were kind to her and she even received the Theatre World Award for her role. There was no time for a break though: when the Broadway show finished in the spring of 1952, Audrey was whisked away to Italy to shoot Roman Holiday. She got along very well with her co-star Gregory Peck and director William Wyler took Audrey under his wing and coached her through her first big role on film. It was one of the hottest summers in Italy in years and it was the height of tourist season, which made filming difficult. By the end Audrey was exhausted, but she had a commitment to tour America with Gigi. By now she realized that she was not ready to get married. With the wedding invitations already sent, she cancelled the wedding.
Meanwhile, Paramount Studios realized they had a star on their hands and immediately put Audrey in her next leading role: Sabrina. During filming, Audrey had an affair with her married co-star William Holden. William’s wife never worried about his conquests, but Audrey was different and she forbade him to see her. William didn’t listen and the two even discussed a future together. But when William told her he had had a vasectomy, their relationship was over. Audrey made no secret of the fact that having children was what she wanted most in life. Still, she was heartbroken and William carried a torch for her for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Roman Holiday was released and became a worldwide success. Audrey’s ‘look’ became all the rage and the press loved her.
As her co-star Gregory Peck predicted, Audrey was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress and in March 1954 she won the award. But her career was not the only thing on her mind: there was a new man in her life. Mel Ferrer was an actor, director and writer and Audrey had admired his work in the film Lili. Mel was eleven years her senior, had been married three times and had four children. Soon after they met, Mel sent her the script for the play Ondine and asked her to star in it with him. Audrey felt she had met the man of her life and the pair soon got engaged. Ondine was a success and she even won a Tony award for the role.
Marriage And Motherhood
On September 25, 1954 Mel and Audrey married in a simple ceremony. Although Audrey was happier than ever, her mother did not get along with her new son-in-law. Something that would be a problem for the rest of their marriage. In the last weeks of 1954, Audrey found out that she was pregnant, only to suffer a miscarriage the following March. Audrey was devastated after losing her baby. Mel had to convince her that filming would be a good distraction to get her to come to set for War and Peace. It was grueling cold in Moscow and Audrey was still recovering physically. She later called it one of the toughest movies she ever did. She was one of the most popular actors in the world by now: she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for Sabrina and she won the Golden Globe for World Film Favorite of 1955, even though she did not appear in any film that year. Even her sense of fashion was famous now and became known as the Hepburn Look, a waiflike, feminine style. The success proved to be a bit overwhelming for Audrey, who hated crowds and was an introvert.
But in 1956 a dream came true: Audrey got to show her dancing skills in a film with none other than Fred Astaire. They co-starred in the musical Funny Face and it was to be her favorite movie of her entire career. She did not take a break, but followed Funny Face with the filming of Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper and then began work on TV movie Mayerling along with her husband. Audrey wanted to take a rest after shooting movies back to back, but she could not say no to the script of The Nun’s Story, which was based on the life of Belgian nun Marie Louise Habets. She went to convents to study her role and even became real-life friends with Habets. The shooting was grueling though and Audrey contracted kidney stones while filming in Congo because of dehydration. But she was very proud of her work and the film would give her a third Academy Award nomination.
By now rumours were swirling that Mel was Audrey’s Svengali, telling her what to do and how to do it. This is also said to be one of the reasons why he did not get along with Audrey’s mother, who was an opinionated and strong person as well. It is certainly true that Audrey arranged her career around her husband during this time. So it came as no surprise that her next film, Green Mansions, was a project of Mel’s. When the film failed with both critics and fans, Mel was blamed and he lost a lot of his own money. As a very ambitious man, it was not easy for him to see his career decline while his wife’s career was soaring. But Audrey was still very much in love and even more so, when she found out that she was pregnant again. But tragedy struck while she was filming The Unforgiven: Audrey fell off a horse, causing her to brake her back and lose her baby. This time she went into a deep depression, losing weight and smoking heavily. She reclined to Switzerland and after six months she was pregnant once again. This time she refused to do any work, turning down West Side Story and a Hitchcock movie. During this time, Mel helped her to find her father, who she had not seen or spoken to since her childhood. Although her father remained emotionally detached, Audrey was happy to be in touch with him. They wrote each other from time to time and Audrey financially supported him until his death.
On July 17, 1960 Audrey’s biggest dream came true: she gave birth to her first baby.
She was madly in love with baby Sean, but that did not mean that she was going to give up her career. A few months later she started filming her most famous film: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mel and baby Sean were with her during filming, which proved to be a difficult task. As an introvert Audrey found it difficult to play an extrovert and she was well aware that writer Truman Capote did not want her for the role. Still, Breakfast at Tiffany’s not only gave her a fourth Academy Award nomination, but also proved to be a long-lasting classic. Audrey continued to work hard in the next few years: The Children’s Hour, Paris When it Sizzles and Charade were filmed back to back. Only Charade proved to be successful, although Paris When It Sizzles was more personal as it teamed her up with her by now very troubled ex William Holden. It is said that William unsuccessfully tried to rekindle their romance and that his alcoholism caused trouble during shooting, which saddened Audrey. Then her agent arranged a role of a lifetime: the lead in the popular musical My Fair Lady. But Audrey was not aware of the controversy that would erupt. Newcomer Julie Andrews played the lead in the stage musical and was snubbed for the film because she was not famous enough. This caused an outrage, especially since Audrey’s singing voice was not even used in the movie. The press heavily promoted ‘the feud’ between Audrey and Julie. Still, Audrey was beloved by the public and her image barely suffered.
By now, Audrey decided to slow down to spend more time with Sean. She and Mel bought the house ‘La Paisible’ in Switzerland, which was her safe haven until her death. They also tried to have another baby, but Audrey suffered another miscarriage. In 1966, while filming Two For The Road, Audrey had an affair with her co-star Albert Finney. While rumors of her affair were swirling, Mel was reportedly having affairs of his own. Once they finished working on Wait Until Dark together, the pair announced they were filing for divorce. Audrey was devastated as she had vowed to make her marriage work. The divorce was a bitter one and they were not on speaking terms afterwards. But Audrey did not mourn her marriage for long: in June 1968 she met Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti and fell head over heels in love. The two got married only six months later and the couple settled down in Rome with Sean, while her mother took care of La Paisible. Soon, Audrey found herself pregnant and again she rested cautiously. On February 8, 1970 Audrey gave birth to her second son Luca.
By now, Audrey wanted to take a step back and focus on her family. Having a family had always been her biggest dream and she kept herself busy in other ways then acting. She made a Unicef television special and took great interest in psychiatry, accompanying Andrea on lectures. But it was not perfect: Audrey had trouble fitting in with the tight knit Italians and her husband was unfaithful to her. In 1975, Audrey filmed Robin and Marian opposite Sean Connery. The reviews were mixed, but the public was excited to see her on film again. But the dark side of fame reared its ugly head when she received kidnapping threats for her sons. There was even an attempt to kidnap her husband, until security guards rescued him. Audrey immediately took her children and moved back to Switzerland, while her husband commuted from his work in Rome. Audrey stayed away from the limelight for a few years, until 1979 when she starred in Bloodline. During filming she had an affair with her co-star Ben Gazzara. Meanwhile Andrea’s conquests were no secret and were even written about in magazines and newspapers. So it came as no surprise that the couple announced their divorce in 1980. In the same year Audrey had a small role in They All Laughed and arranged for her now 20-year old son Sean to have a small role and a job as production assistant.
At a dinner party during the year of her divorce Audrey met Dutch actor Robert Wolders.
Robert was still grieving the death of his wife, actress Merle Oberon, and Audrey was grieving her second broken marriage. But they realized they had a lot in common: they were both Dutch and they even found out they had lived near each other during the war. They were also both actors, who nonetheless were introverts who preferred a calm lifestyle. It was a match made in heaven and they stayed together until her death. The pair set up house in Audrey’s beloved La Paisible in Switzerland, where she cared for her son Luca and her now elderly mother. In 1984, her mother passed away. A difficult time for Audrey who said her mother was her ‘conscience and sounding board’. In 1987 Audrey starred in her last film: Love Among Thieves. It was not a hit and Audrey was content to leave her acting career behind her, since a new chapter in her life began.
In 1987, she was officially appointed as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. With both of her children now grown up, she devoted all of her time to the organization. She did a lot of field missions and Robert accompanied her on all of the trips. They were away 6 months a year and visited countries like Ethiopia, Turkey, Honduras, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Sudan. After a trip to Somalia in September 1992, Audrey began to suffer from abdominal pain. While visiting her son in Los Angeles, she went to the hospital and found out that she suffered from a rare form of abdominal cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, but it did not work. Audrey wanted to spend her last days in Switzerland, but was unable to fly commercial because of her health. So longtime friend Hubert de Givenchy arranged for a private jet to fly her to her home. She spent her last Christmas there with Robert and her sons and was occasionally well enough to take walks in her beloved garden. Gradually, she was confined to bed rest and on 20 January, 1993 Audrey Hepburn passed away in her sleep.
See her life in pictures in the Audrey Hepburn Gallery.