As we near the 17th anniversary of the beloved Audrey Hepburn’s death on January 20, it feels appropriate to reflect back on the life of this beautiful screen legend. Hers is the story of a stunning woman with lots of ambition and determination. She was very strong and always gracious and ready to help those in need.
By a lot of definitions, Audrey led an almost tragic life, but to watch her movies and hear her speak, you would never know it. She dealt with life in the war, no father, severe depression, adulterous affairs, several miscarriages, and finally, a cancer that took her life. Yet through all of this she remained one of the most successful and well loved actresses of all time. Although she never personally believed she was beautiful, she has often been considered the most beautiful woman in the world.
Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born on May 4, 1929 in Belgium to a British father and a Dutch baroness mother. When she was six, her father, a Nazi sympathizer, left her and her mother. She later called this one of the most traumatic moments in her life. Later in her long career, she always remembered her father and wished for his approval, even though she barely ever saw him again. They moved to the Netherlands, and Audrey was sent to a private school. When Hitler and the Nazi’s occupied the Netherlands, Audrey began to secretly dance underground for groups of people as a way to make money for the Dutch Resistance. She was brave in her attempts to help the men who were fighting for their freedom from the Nazi’s. One time, she was nearly captured as she was delivering a message to a paratrooper in the woods. She was around 12 at the time, which made it easy for her to help because children did not draw suspicion from the soldiers. Later, during the war, Audrey suffered from depression, malnutrition, and other severe health problems. In fact, her sicknesses were so severe that they almost killed her.
After the war, Audrey formally studied ballet with the famed instructor, Madame Rambert. Audrey dreamed of being a prima ballerina, and modeled as a way to earn some extra money. Eventually, however, Madame Rambert informed her, that while she was talented, she was too tall and too old to ever be a prima ballerina. The time she had to take off for the war had cost her her dream of a successful career as a ballerina. She then decided to become an actress. She danced and did some minor acting in stage plays before moving on to minor speaking roles in several movies. It wasn’t until 1952 that she was officially discovered. She did a screen test for a William Wyler directed movie starring Gregory Peck, known as “Roman Holiday.” They were so impressed with her screen test, that the virtually unknown actress got the part over big names such as Elizabeth Taylor. This movie launched her career, even earning her an Oscar for Best Actress. After the movie, she was introduced to fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy to design her wardrobe. They became lifelong friends, and she became his muse, often designing clothes for her and inspired by her. She later went on to star in such classics as “Sabrina,” “War and Peace,” “Funny Face,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “My Fair Lady.”
In 1954, Audrey married actor Mel Ferrer and longed to settle into married life and have children. Mel had other ideas, however. He soon began controlling her career, which put a bit of a strain on their relationship. She had notable presumed affairs with William Holden before the marriage, and with writer Bob Anderson and actor Albert Finney. Mel was also rumored to have a girlfriend on the side.
Audrey’s desire to have children hit several rough patches through the years. First, she was several months pregnant with her and Mel’s first child when she was thrown from a horse and broke her back. The doctors determined that the baby was fine. However, later the baby was stillborn. This was believed to be caused by the stress of the accident. Audrey also suffered a miscarriage before giving birth to son Sean Ferrer in 1960 before beginning work on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” After 14 years of marriage, Audrey and Mel divorced in late 1968, and she married Andrea Dotti in early 1969. In 1970, she gave birth to another son, Luca, and had a final miscarriage in 1974. They divorced in 1982 and she never remarried.
In addition to her many terrific movie roles, Audrey is also very well known for her humanitarian efforts. Her experiences in the war led her to want to improve life for the less fortunate. After completing her last film, “Always,” in 1989, Audrey became a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund. In doing this, she spend the last four years of her life devoted to helping impoverished children in underdeveloped nations. She traveled to Turkey, South America, Central America, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Somalia on her goodwill mission.
When she returned home from Somalia in 1992, she began experiencing stomach pains. She was soon diagnosed with abdominal cancer that had spread throughout her body. On January 20, 1994, Audrey Hepburn died at her home in Switzerland at the age of 63.
Despite the private tragedies she endured in life, Audrey has always been considered one of the most beautiful and stylish women of all time. She will always be well loved and looked at as a style icon and role model. Her movies are classics and will be around for many years yet to come.