One of the great screen icons of her day, Audrey Hepburn was a phenomenon right from the beginning. A paragon of style and taste, she charmed audiences and many a leading man for years as the delicate, nymph-like vision of beauty with a look and style that revitalized a film industry growing stale after years of blonde bombshell starlets. Her skills as an actress vaulted her into the ranks of Hollywood royalty and showered her in awards and praise throughout her relatively short career. Though larger than life on the big screen, she never forgot her troubled beginnings and worked tirelessly, right up to her death, to help people less fortunate in life than she.
Born Audrey Kathleen Ruston on 4 May 1929 in Brussels, Belgium, Audrey was high class from the start. The daughter of a British and Austrian banker father and a Dutch baroness mother, she and her family routinely moved between Belgium, England and The Netherlands as part of her father's business. Learning multiple languages and essentially living as members of the privileged European upper class, life was good for awhile. Things changed quickly after her mother discovered her father in bed with the nanny. The two split, her father essentially becoming alienated from the family thereafter. When WWII broke in late 1939, Audrey's mother returned the family to Belgium, assuming the country would remain neutral as it had in the first world war. Sadly, this did not happen. After Hitler's armies quickly occupied Belgium, Audrey and her family found themselves right in the middle of one of the war's most dangerous hotspots of tension and conflict in WWII Europe.
As a teenager during the war, Audrey saw many of the horrors unleashed on humanity. Her family spent much of the war virtually starving, thanks to repeated Nazi supply blockades to Belgium and the destructive results of invading Allied Forces. Her mother was often forced to use flour from crushed tulips or grass to make bread, but they just as often suffered without food of any kind. To distract from her hunger, young Audrey painted and drew to pass the time. Her plight was grim, but not as bad as some of her neighbors, who she witnessed first hand as they were loaded onto boxcars bound for concentration camps. Audrey worked in a relief hospital, where she was exposed to the toll taken by the fighters in the war. She even contributed to her country's underground war effort by giving secret ballet performances (she had been training as a ballerina since the age of 5) intended to raise funds for the Dutch resistance movement. All these experiences became a huge part of Audrey's life, spurring her toward much of the humanitarian work she took up later in life.
After the war, with the entirety of Europe in tatters and her family's former noble status rendered meaningless, Audrey was forced to earn a living for herself. By 1948 she was studying to be a ballerina in Amsterdam, taking modelling and acting jobs on the side to pay the bills. Though talented, she became discouraged with her pursuits after her teachers expressed a lack of confidence in Audrey's ability to achieve her desired position of prima ballerina. From there, Audrey turned to the theater, which was a discipline she had also trained in from a young age. She started out as a chorus girl in various London theater productions, working her way up from the bottom and earning larger and larger roles in bigger shows. By the early '50s, her theater work was starting to draw attention - most significantly from French author Colette, who was scouting for the lead role in the musical adaptation of her novel Gigli. After spotting Audrey, it was said Colette remarked to a colleague, "Viola, there's your Gigli." The musical ran for 219 performances in London, earning Audrey top billing and showers of praise and awards. She went on to reprise the role in the US tour of the musical the next year. The world was beginning to fall in love with Audrey.
As night must follow day, Audrey's theater successes soon moved her into the movie business. Her first role in 1953's ROMAN HOLIDAY was a huge debut for this new face on the scene. Starring alongside legendary leading man Gregory Peck, rumors flew that she and Peck were an item during the filming, although this has never been positively confirmed. Whatever their relationship, she made quite an impression on her leading man, so much that when he found out Audrey was to be given lesser billing under his name in posters and other promotional material, he argued that they give her equal billing because it was his belief she would soon become a big star and he didn't want to "look like a big jerk."
Peck turned out to be right and the film was a huge success, earning Audrey an Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe wins for Best Actress. She was quickly signed to a 7 movie deal with Paramount, with yearly breaks in between movies for her equally successful theater work. That year her image graced the cover of Time, making her not only a theater and movie success, but also a fashion and glamor phenomenon all over the world. The following year saw her in yet another huge hit, director Billy Wilder's SABRINA. The Cinderella adaptation paired Audrey with two more great leading men in the form William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. Her performance earned her yet another Oscar nom and BAFTA win. Things were certainly off and running for Audrey.
Audrey's collaboration with actor Mel Ferrer in the 1954 Broadway production of Ondine proved fruitful in more ways than one, sparking a love affair and later a marriage between the two that same year. Attempts to have a child resulted in multiple miscarriages for Audrey, though she and Ferrer did manage to have a son together in 1959. Audrey continued to have a string of successful, award-winning performances throughout the rest of the 1950s, starring in movies like WAR & PEACE, FUNNY FACE, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and THE NUN'S STORY. All these films saw her working alongside even more famous leading men with names like Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier, Burt Lancaster and Peter Finch. Audrey's almost constant pairing with older men marked one of the primary themes of her career in Hollywood. Seldom were her leading men anything close to her age.
3 months after the birth of her son with Ferrer, Audrey began work on what many feel is her signature film, 1961's BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. A heavily modified version of a novella by Truman Capote, her role as the charming café society girl is considered one of the defining roles of the 1960s, both in terms of her performance and her infectious styling, which was an oft repeated fashion trend that year. She received yet another Oscar nom for her performance. Her follow up the next year in the less well received yet still groundbreaking film THE CHILDREN'S HOUR was one of the first films to deal with the concept of lesbianism. In 1963 she checked off another, older leading man from her list with a staring role alongside Cary Grant in CHARADE. Like many other leading men before him, Grant was instantly charmed by her, saying "All I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn." 1964 saw her in what became another high profile film in her career, MY FAIR LADY. As the destitute girl who makes good, her performance was beloved by many, though didn't come without controversy. Her casting over Julie Andrews, who also sought the role, led to rumors of an antagonistic relationship between the two movie darlings, though this was mostly fiction manufactured by others looking for scandals where there were none.
Audrey made 3 more films in the 1960s, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION with Peter O'Toole, TWO FOR THE ROAD with Albert Finney and WAIT UNTIL DARK with Richard Crenna. Though the last film earned her one last Academy nomination, 1967 saw her make the choice to go into semi-retirement due to an imminent divorce from her husband and a need to be there for her son. Roles followed only sporadically in the following decades. Films like 1976's ROBIN & MARIAN with Sean Connery, the 1979 thriller BLOODLINE and 1981's THEY ALL LAUGHED did little business. Her last film was the 1988 Steven Spielberg film ALWAYS.
Though her film career was never the same after her peak in the 1960s, Audrey found other causes to occupy her time. A second marriage to an Italian psychiatrist in 1969 brought her another child, though the marriage ended in the early 1980s. In 1988, Audrey was made a good will ambassador with UNICEF, fulfilling a lifelong desire to address the needs of the poor people of the world. Still bearing vivid recollections of her countrymen being loaded into boxcars to their deaths in WWII, Audrey used her status as an actress and UNICEF spokesperson to draw attention to places in the world where people were suffering. In her capacity as goodwill ambassador, she visited poverty-stricken places like Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala and Sudan. One of her final tours in the war torn country of Somalia was particularly difficult for her, due to the horror of population displacement and civilian casualties. Audrey's ambassador role earned her many humanitarian awards, though none of these were as important to her than being an advocate for the impoverished people of the world.
After her return from Somalia in 1992, Audrey began to experience severe abdominal pain. Initial doctor visits found nothing unusual, but after checking into the renowned Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a laparoscopy found she had developed a severe case of abdominal cancer that had probably been slowly spreading through her intestines and into her appendix for years. Though surgery and chemotherapy followed, the cancer was later determined to have spread too far into her body to be operable. Sinking quickly, she and her family brought her back home via private jet to Switzerland, where she spent her final Christmas. She died January 20th, 1993. She was 63. Her funeral was presided over by the same priest who married her to her first husband. One of her leading men, Cary Grant, recited her favorite poem, "Unending Love" by Rabindranath Tagore. She was laid to rest in a small cemetery in the town of Tolochenaz, Switzerland.
A virtual overnight sensation and one of the great screen beauties of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn's unique look and delicate beauty were a breath of fresh air for many in her time. She was also one of the great actresses of the 1950s and 60s, being one of only 12 female actors to win the Triple Crown of acting (Oscar, Emmy and Tony). Audrey started out at the top and never really left it. In that respect, and in many more, she will remain one of Hollywood's brightest stars.