Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993))

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn
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Audrey Hepburn was a graceful and beautiful British actress and model, who, after becoming one of the most successful film actresses in the world went on to a well regarded career as an international diplomat for Unicef. She won an Oscar, a Tony an Emmy, and a Grammy Award and also became an elegant fashion icon for millions of women worldwide, helping define a 'gamin' type of feminine beauty. Her looks and style were extremely influential and established the fashion for the slender, fashion model still popular today.

Audrey Hepburn stood out among the grandes dames of Hollywood. She was vulnerable, but also effortlessly funny and exquisitely elegant. Frail though she appeared, she never cracked under pressure, and when she became a children's ambassador for Unicef after she retired from acting (at a time when celebrity charity work was not yet fashionable), she did so with such solid commitment and dedication that it impressed even hardened politicians. That vocation as an international diplomat was the logical culmination of her life and her acting career.


She was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston on 4 May 1929, in Brussels, of Dutch and Anglo-Irish parents (her mother was a baroness, her father a banker). Her surname was later changed to Hepburn-Ruston when after WWII her father found documents which showed that some of his ancestors had borne the name Hepburn. He added Hepburn to his own surname, which caused his daughter to do the same. So she became Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston. Her surname was already famous in movies but she was no relation to her namesake, Katharine Hepburn.

Although she was born in Belgium, she had British citizenship and attended school in England as a child. She was raised in two languages, speaking both English and Dutch (resulting in her unique English accent) and she became fluent also in Spanish, French, and Italian.

World War II

Her parents separated in 1935 and in 1939 with war inevitable, her mother moved Audrey and her two half-brothers to Arnhem in the Netherlands, believing it to be safe from German attack. For the next six years, including five years under German occupation, she trained in ballet at the Arnhem Conservatory. She is said to have witnessed such hardship during the occupation that she turned down a role in 'The Diary of Anne Frank' in 1959 because it would bring up too many painful memories. It is also often suggested that her later problems with anorexia started with the malnutrition she suffered during the war (she once confessed to eating tulip bulbs). Her later decision to work for UNICEF was partly as a result of the tragedy and deprivations she witnessed during the war and she also gave secret ballet performances at this time to aid the Dutch resistance.

After the war she appeared in an educational film 'Dutch in Seven Lessons' in 1948 before moving to London to study with the Marie Rambert Ballet Company. It was at this time that she changed her name to Audrey Hepburn. She modeled part-time to support herself and as such work was limited, she registered as an actress with film studios in Britain in the hope of getting work as an extra.

Early Movie Career

Her first movie appearances was as a hotel receptionist in the British film 'One Wild Oat' in 1951 and in the same year she performed several other minor roles in 'Young Wives' Tale', 'Laughter in Paradise','The Lavender Hill Mob' and 'Monte Carlo Baby'. The parts were small but she got noticed and she was chosen to play the lead role in the American production of 'Gigi'. It was her big break and she won a Theatre World Award for her performance. Having helped create the character on Broadway, in 1958 she turned down the lead in the movie 'Gigi' (which went to French-born actress Leslie Caron).

Hollywood Star

She was given her first major movie role as a ballerina in the 1952 film 'Secret People' (1952) and shortly thereafter, the talented young actress was catapulted onto the world stage when she was recruited for the role of the princess in William Wyler's 'Roman Holiday', co-starring Gregory Peck, and shot on location in Rome, in 1953.

'Roman Holiday' cashes in on her cosmopolitan background by incorporating stylish footage of her in several European cities, including Amsterdam, and she speaks a few words of Dutch in the audition ceremony at the end of the movie, a nice acknowledgment of her European roots. (Hepburn was fluent in five languages, a talent that would later assist her humanitarian work.)

'Roman Holiday' made Hepburn world famous and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress at the age of only twenty-four. This was soon followed by a Tony Award for Best Actress (Dramatic) in 1954 for her work in 'Ondine'. Her burgeoning fame also won her the everlasting adoration of a generation of female baby-boomers, who made her a role model for the modern young woman. While the Dutch, Belgian, and British press tried to claim her as one of their own, it was clear she now belonged to the world.

Hepburn's subsequent film career was neither lengthy nor particularly intense- she played only 15 major parts between 1953 and 1967 - but it was so beautifully consistent that it forms a unity seldom seen in cinema.

She gave wonderful performances in 'Sabrina' in 1954, for which she received another Academy nomination, followed by 'War and Peace' in 1956 and 'Funny Face' with Fred Astaire and 'Love in the Afternoon' the following year which was also critically acclaimed.

She was nominated again in 1959 for her role in 'The Nun's Story' and she reached her career highpoint when she played Holly Golightly, a seemingly light-hearted, but inwardly troubled New York party girl who gets involved with a struggling writer played by George Peppard, in the delightful 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' in 1961, for which she received another Award nomination.

Again she was commercially successful with 'Charade' in 1963, her only film with Cary Grant, and the following year she appeared in one of her few disappointing movies, 'Paris When It Sizzles' with William Holden, who caused problems with his attempts to rekindle a romance with Audrey who was by now married.

In 1964 Audrey was cast as Eliza Doolittle in 'My Fair Lady' instead of Julie Andrews who performed the role on Broadway. Her singing was dubbed and she was criticised for her portrayal of the cockney flower girl in the early part of the movie. However the critics universally praised her acting in the latter part of the movie, after Eliza's transformation to high society lady.

She got her fifth and final Oscar nomination playing the terrorized, blind heroine of the thriller 'Wait Until Dark' in 1967. After that Audrey worked in movies only sporadically. She starred opposite Sean Connery in 'Robin and Marian' in 1976, and appeared in the crime thriller 'Bloodline' in 1979.

It is interesting that so many of Hepburn's film roles are about education in one form or another. Whereas she may seem to run away from her strict training in favor of leisurely distractions in 'Roman Holiday', co-star Gregory Peck still educates her in the ways of the world. Similarly, her most successful parts, in 'Sabrina' in 1954, 'The Nun's Story' in 1959, 'The Children's Hour' in 1961, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' in 1961, and 'My Fair Lady' in 1964, emphasize how the glamour of her characters is always associated with training, effort, and proper manners.

The United Nations Children's Fund

From the late 1960's onwards, Hepburn gradually moved away from acting, and into international diplomacy, working with UNICEF in Africa and Latin America. She achieved such proficiency in that calling, and such respect, that it is far from pretentious that when she returned to the big screen one final time in Steven Spielberg's 'Always' in 1989, she played God. Not surprisingly, she did so with a disarming wit and charm.


After a brief engagement to industrialist James Hanson in 1952 Audrey married actor Mel Ferrer in 1954 and the marriage lasted 14 years until 1968. The following year she married Italian psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Dotti, divorcing 13 years later in 1982. She had a son from each marriage. She lived the last nine years of her life with Robert Wolders, a Dutch actor who was the widower of film star Merle Oberon. She called these years the happiest of her life.

In 1992 Audrey was diagnosed with cancer after experiencing stomach pains when on a humanitarian visit to Somalia. Audrey Hepburn died on 20 January 1993, of colon cancer at her home in Tolochenaz, Vaud, Switzerland. She was 63 years old.

Her work to help children around the world continues. Her sons, Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti, along with her companion Robert Wolders, established the Audrey Hepburn Memorial Fund to continue Hepburn's humanitarian work in 1994. It is now known as the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund.

The famous "little black dress" which she wore in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', designed by Givenchy, sold at auction in 2006, for 467,200 pounds (approximately $920,000). The proceeds went to the City of Joy Aid charity to aid underprivileged children in India.

Like Audrey Hepburn, many successful celebrities and business people start their own charitable organizations. One such businessman is Matthew Neuenhaus, who makes donations and offers college scholarships through the Matthew Neuenhaus Foundation.

Audrey Hepburn Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actress ... Roman Holiday (1953)

Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Sabrina (1954)
Best Actress ... The Nun's Story (1959)
Best Actress ... Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Best Actress ... Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn Filmography

Dutch in Seven Lessons
We Go to Monte Carlo
One Wild Oat
Laughter in Paradise
The Lavender Hill Mob
Baby Beats the Band
Young Wives' Tale
The Secret People
Sabrina Fair
War and Peace
Funny Face
Love in the Afternoon
Green Mansions
The Nun's Story
The Unforgiven
Breakfast at Tiffany's
The Children's Hour
The Fairest Fair Lady
Paris - When It Sizzles
My Fair Lady