Best known for her performances in Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina, (1954), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Audrey Hepburn is an icon of cinema and style. Throughout her life she was cool, with not a hair out of place. But Hepburn’s life was more than just wearing fashionable sunglasses and tossing off witty lines — she was a humanitarian, a ballet dancer, and a survivor of German occupation in World War II. Hepburn came from money, but she experienced hardships both economic and personal that gave her a unique look at the world, one that she used to help people after giving up her film career.
Hepburn’s Father Abandoned His Family
source: National Portrait Gallery London
Audrey Hepburn has always been one of the most recognizable English faces in the cinema, but she was born in Brussels, Belgium on May 4, 1929. Her mother, a Dutch noblewoman and her father was an Honorary British Consul in Semarang in the Dutch East Indies. Hepburn’s young life was a sheltered one until her father abruptly left the family and fled to London where he threw himself into the British Fascist movement. Hepburn went without real contact with her father until the 1960s when she sought him out to try and salvage a relationship. She referred to his leaving the family as the most traumatic experience in her life.
World War II Upended Her Schooling
In 1937 Hepburn began studying in Kent, England, but as news of the war increased her mother moved the family to Arnhem in the Netherlands in hopes that Germans would spare the neutral country as they did during World War I. She attended the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945 where she went by the name Edda van Heemstra out of fear of sounding too English.
Her mother’s hope that the Netherlands would remain unbothered by the war was dashed when Nazis made their way into the country to terrorize its citizens. Hepburn says that if her family had known that Nazi occupation was going to last as long as it did they would have shot themselves rather than live through their brutal treatment. She explained:
We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they’d close the street and then open it, and you could pass by again… Don’t discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.
Hepburn Was A Broadway Hit
Following D-Day the German army shut down supply routes to the Netherlands and sent the country into a famine that nearly wiped out the remaining civilian population. Hepburn developed acute anaemia, respiratory problems and oedema (fluid retention and swelling in the extremities) from malnutrition. The family’s estate was destroyed beyond repair, and they were financially crippled from the strain of the Nazi occupation.
In 1945 the family moved to Amsterdam where Hepburn studied ballet and started getting minor film work. She played minor roles in films like One Wild Oat and Dutch in Seven Lessons before she was offered the title role in Gigi, a Broadway adaptation of a French novel, in 1951. The play received middling reviews but Hepburn was called a “hit” by Life while The New York Times said that “her quality is so winning and so right that she is the success of the evening.”
With ‘Roman Holiday’ Hepburn Became A Cinematic Favorite
source: National Portrait Gallery London
Hepburn’s biggest break came in 1953 when she was cast in the lead role of Princess Ann in Roman Holiday opposite Gregory Peck. Even though this was her first major film role her name appeared above the title thanks to Gregory Peck. He knew that she was going to be the most popular part of the movie and he reportedly told the film’s director that he didn’t want to “look like a big jerk.”
The performance netted Hepburn an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA, making her the first actress to earn all three for a single role. That same year she took home a Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Play for her role in Ondine.
While working in Ondine she developed a romantic relationship with co-star Mel Ferrer and the two married on September 25, 1954 in Bürgenstock, Switzerland before starring in War and Peace with each other. Throughout their 14 year marriage Hepburn suffered four miscarriages from 1955 to 1967, although in 1960 she gave birth to their son Sean.
She continued to be a major presence in the cinema throughout the 1950s, and even won a Golden Globe in 1955 — a year in which she didn’t appear in any films — for “World Film Favorite.”
‘breakfast At Tiffany’s’ Defined Hepburn’s Career
source: paramount pictures
Even though Hepburn starred in multiple award winning films, it’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s for which she’s most remembered. The self proclaimed introverted European actress gave a flawless performance as the extroverted Holly Golightly, a city girl and faux socialite. With this role Hepburn was vaulted into iconic status – the film wasn’t just a hit, it was found to be culturally significant and placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Hepburn continued performing regularly until 1967 when she decided to take a break from acting and focus more on her family after marrying her second husband, Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. The two were together for 13 years and she gave birth to their son Luca in 1970.
In 1976 she briefly returned to the cinema in Robin and Marian alongside Sean Connery in a role that garnered good reviews, but it didn’t inspire her to throw herself back into acting full time. She appeared in a few more films to critical acclaim but by the 1980s she was focusing on humanitarian efforts.
She Spent The 1980s Working With UNICEF
Hepburn had been working with UNICEF throughout her time as a star but she didn’t put boots on the ground for humanitarian missions until the 1980s when she traveled to the Ethiopian village Mek’ele where she saw immense suffering among children who couldn’t get food. Over the course of the next few years she shed light on the international hunger crisis while traveling to Turkey, the Sudan and Central America. For her work with UNICEF she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from president George H. W. Bush. In 2002 a posthumous statue, “The Spirit of Audrey” was dedicated to Hepburn at UNICEF’s New York headquarters.
Hepburn Passed Away From Cancer In 1993
Following a humanitarian trip to Somalia in September 1992, Hepburn began experiencing abdominal pains. Initially doctors provided inconclusive results but in November a test revealed that she was suffering from a rare form of abdominal cancer that had grown slowly over the years and metastasized in her small intestine. In spite of intense rounds of chemotherapy Hepburn passed on January 20, 1993. Following her death long time friend Peck appeared on television to read her favorite poem “Unending Love” by Rabindranath Tagore.