I remember the day Audrey Hepburn died. I was eight years old, and I had never seen my grandmother so distraught. She bunched a tissue against her eyes and her voice broke, as though the face of Audrey was not an image on celluloid, but the face of her dear friend. My grandmother’s attachment to an icon was the trait of a vanishing age: a lost reverence for celebrities. Of course, if the traffic to celebrity gossip sites is any indication, we are still obsessed with the mystique of glamour. But we know our idols better than ever –perhaps too well. Their missteps are relayed around the world at the speed of a broadband connection. The stars have fallen. But if leading ladies who capture our imaginations and inspire our spirits are an endangered species, the enduring legacy of Audrey Hepburn is all the more important.
At mid-century Hollywood bombshells ruled the silver screen. The sultry likes of Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner, hair often as not dyed platinum blonde, played sassy, sexy all-American heroines. Then came Hepburn, gliding onto the scene with the starring role in the Broadway production of Gigi. The young actress was dark-haired, doe-eyed, demure and almost boyishly slim, as refreshing as the first cool day of autumn. Critics and theater-goers sat up and took notice, but it was Audrey’s Oscar-winning role as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, alongside Gregory Peck, that emblazoned her lovely exoticism on the American screen and secured the affections of a nation. Paramount filmed Roman Holiday on location in Rome, Italy. One scene called for Hepburn and Peck to visit La Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth) a stone carving rumored to bite off the hands of habitual liars.
Side by side, Hepburn and Peck approach the Mouth of Truth. Hepburn wears her hair cropped and pinned, and a scarf is tied at her neck to conceal its impossible length. A full skirt rides belted high on her concave waist, and she keeps her hands primly behind her back. She is 5’7″, but Peck makes her look adolescent. His shoulders are so massive in his casual gray suit, he looks like he would have to turn sideways, and probably duck, to make it through a doorway. His deep bass words echoes against the stone like the voice of some great and powerful Oz as he explains the myth.
“Oh, that’s awful!” she intones, her voice deep and throaty, a shock in light of her diminutive size, but somehow in keeping with her
Cocking an eyebrow, Peck dares her to try. Her enormous eyes grow still larger at his challenge, and then she jerks her chin up
defiantly. She brings her left hand from behind her back, draws it intently up to dark hole in the stone, pauses and pulls it back behind her again to safety.
“You try it,” she throws the gauntlet back at him.
He agrees, places his hand in nervously, then shares a victorious grin with Audrey. He moves his hand in a little further. He shouts in apparent pain as his arm disappears in the hole. Audrey screams hoarsely, sharing his panic, and jumps fiercely to the stone mouth to wrestle Peck’s hand from the jaws of an incensed granite deity. Peck pulls his arm back out, but his hand has disappeared – it’s gone! Seeing this, Audrey screams again and buries her face in her narrow white hands.
“Hello,” Peck says affably, extending his hand from the sleeve where he had concealed it.
Audrey looks again. She takes her hands away from her face, balls them into fists, and beats them against Peck’s barrel chest with charmingly ineffectual rage.
“You beast!” she laughs, “It was perfectly all right the whole time.”
Peck had departed from the script to play a joke on the emerging starlet. Everyone was so pleased by her reaction that they kept it in the final film. It was one of many Hepburn moments, a unique cocktail of childish innocence, unflappable courage, and charming femininity that suffused her private personality and her definitive roles: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the title role in Sabrina, and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, among many others.
After Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn was a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry, but not everyone knew her name. Hubert de Givenchy, founder of the famous French label, was working on a new collection at his Paris atelier when he was told that Miss Hepburn wished to speak with him. He assumed it was film icon Katherine Hepburn. “Hurrying to greet her,” Givenchy later recalled, “I found myself confronted with a young woman dressed as a gondolier. I was totally astonished.” Audrey eventually wore several pieces from Givenchy’s collection in Sabrina, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship and professional collaboration.
When Audrey Hepburn played Holly Golightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it was Givenchy who lent that quintessential Audrey
elegance to her wardrobe, particularly a black, sleeveless confection. Audrey, wearing the black dress with gloves to her elbows and en elongated cigarette holder, became the most enduring image of her stardom. It inspired a thousand weekend shopping crusades in hopeless imitation. Forty-six years later, that image has such power that is has been copied by the likes of Paris Hilton. In 2006, the little black dress sold at Christie’s auction house in London for nearly $900,000 to an anonymous phone buyer.
But it wasn’t just the clothes that made the woman. Audrey’s innate elegance and self-possession made her a muse for the designer. “One thing that struck me about her,” Givenchy remembers, “was her ability to make herself loved and admired by women as well as men. Her image was unique. This is something that other great actresses have been unable to create for themselves.”
Looking at black-and-white stills of Audrey, a mysterious wisdom seems to linger behind her serene eyes. While the media prefers to focus on the glamour of her professional career, it is no secret that her early days were marked by personal and national tragedy.
Audrey was born on May 4, 1929 to British Bank Joseph Victor Anthony and Dutch Baroness Edda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston. While she was quite young, her father abandoned the family, and much of her childhood was spent under the Nazi occupation of Holland. Some of her close relatives were executed or sent to concentration camps, and she and her mother sometimes ate tulip bulbs to survive. Audrey, still a young teenager, helped the Dutch resistance by raising money, carrying
messages in her shoes, and even helping a downed paratrooper to safety under the nose of a German soldier. (The British paratrooper she helped to rescue, Terence Young, later directed her in Wait Until Dark.) The Germans surrendered the day after Audrey’s 16th birthday. “So what if my present was a day late,” she later joked, “I got the greatest present in the whole world.”
After the war, Audrey traveled to Great Britain to study ballet and later began to appear on the stage. While appearing in Monte Carlo Baby, she was discovered and cast in Gigi, the role that propelled her to American stardom. But even as she distanced herself physically from her homeland,she carried along with her the weight of her difficult childhood. What was unique about Audrey, though, was not that she had suffered, but the way in which she transformed her personal tragedies into performances that have given comfort, delight, and inspiration to generations.
Later in life, Audrey began to focus her life more directly on the people with whom she identified most directly – children suffering in contexts of poverty and conflict. She began her second career as an ambassador for UNICEF in 1988. On the occasion of her appointment, she said, “I auditioned for this job for forty-five years and I finally got it. I always felt very powerless when I would see the terrible pictures on TV. But I was offered a wonderful opportunity to do something [and it] is a marvelous therapy to the anguish I feel.” It was a personal crusade she cherished, and one that continued until her death from stomach cancer in 1993. To honor her, the United Nations erected a statue in Manhattan called The Spirit of Audrey. The actress would have been 73.
The legend of Audrey, an encapsulation of feminine grace and all-too-real humanity, lives on in her charitable work (The Audrey
Hepburn Children’s Fund is carried on by Sean Ferrer, her only son from her first marriage to Mel Ferrer.) in her many memorable roles, and in the impact she has had across generations. Thanks to my grandmother, my childhood vacations were spent singing along rapturously to a VHS version of My Fair Lady. To see Eliza Doolittle transformed from a street waif into the epitome of elegance and dignity! It was like seeing a miracle transpire slowly on the screen. Knowing the life of this star better, having just touched upon the horrors that shaped her early years, I am more inspired by her obvious composure and grace, and by the striking parallels between her life and her art. When I think of Audrey, I will always think of that far-away smile to her bottomless eyes, that look that persists in spite of personal pain, that look, as Professor Higgins’ mother says,”as if she had always lived in a garden.”
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