Audrey Hepburn – Early Life, Stardom, Humanitarian work and Notable Films

Not a single soul exists who wouldn’t have heard of the name of Audrey Hepburn, a more renowned actress, a famous fashionista and an equally hardworking and dedicated humanitarian. Born in Ixelles, Belgium to an English father and a Dutch mother, Audrey had a very multicultural background and upbringing. Although her childhood days were some of her unhappiest, even plagued with war, her spirit never died and she made a path for herself as one of the most successful women in film. Even after retiring from cinema, she focused her work on the goodwill of children in the most backward countries with UNICEF and died at the age of 63 with that effort to make a difference. 


Early Life


Audrey Hepburn was born to parents John Victor Ruston, an English banker and Dutch baroness Ella Van Heemstra on 4th May 1926, in a small town near Brussels, Belgium called Ixelles. Her earlier childhood was a sheltered one. Her constant traveling due to her father’s work and her multicultural background attributed to her being proficient in five languages – Dutch, English, Spanish, French and Italian.

However, her childhood did not remain as happy following her parent’s separation and subsequent divorce when she was six years old, which she has said to be the most traumatic event of her life for she felt dumped as a child needed of both her parents. After the separation, Hepburn moved to the Netherlands with her mother for a while but returned to England after a while because of her father’s wish for her to continue her education in England, where she studied in a small school in Elham. 

More tragedy struck Audrey when she experienced what we know as the Second World War at a very young age. She was forced to move back to the Netherlands with her mother after Britain declared war on Germany in the hopes that the Netherlands would be spared the German wrath. However, things took a worse turn after the German invasion of the Netherlands. Audrey had to adopt the name Edda van Heemstra as a seemingly British name that could lead to dangers. During this time, Audrey had faced many traumatic experiences, like the execution of her uncle and the deporting of her half-brother to a labor camp. Her family also could not provide much food and had to resort to baking using tulip bulbs, Audrey suffered several diseases like anemia and other respiratory issues due to malnutrition. They also suffered heavily in terms of finance where their estate was also destroyed. All of this attributed to the rather tumultuous childhood that she had. 


Solace in the Arts – Ballet and Earlier Acting 


During the difficult times she had faced in her early life, Audrey Hepburn found solace the art form of ballet. During her time in residence in the Netherlands, she attended the Arnhem Conservatory where took ballet lessons under the mentorship of Winja Marova. After the end of the Second World War, she studied ballet in Amsterdam under Sonia Gaskell and Olga Tarasova and later accepted a scholarship in Notting Hill with Ballet Rambert. However, she had to give up her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina due to the health issues caused by her conditions during the war. 

It is after letting go of her dancing that she shifted her focus on acting. While her mother supported the family by working small jobs. Audrey took on small acting roles in film and television. Her first film appearance was in the educational film Seven Hours. She also took in numerous roles in theatre and including the production Gigi, which was performed successfully for six months. The most notable appearance from her early acting days is her work in the movie The Secret People, where she played a ballerina. 


Rise to Fame and Stardom 


After years of hard work and struggle, Audrey Hepburn got her first main role in the film Roman Holiday in 1953, where her portrayal of Princess of Anne got critical acclaim and important film awards like the Academy Awards, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe Awards. After the massive success of her first film as a lead, she went on to sign a contract with Paramount and successively starred in the romantic comedy film Sabrina, the drama film Children’s Hour and the heist film How To Steal A Million. She also played the role of Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s book of the same name and was able to showcase of talent of dance in her first musical film, Funny Face. 

Her most well-known work is the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s where she played the role of Holly Golighty, an eccentric socialite in New York. Holly Golighty’s character remains one of the most well-known characters in cinema and the film, Breakfast a Tiffany’s remains a timeless classic and a defining point for Audrey Hepburn’s career. The role was most challenging for Audrey due to her introverted nature in contrast to Holly’s extroverted one and she considered herself to be in luck to be able to do well in this role. 

Audrey also worked in broadway and her fantasy play, Ondine was of one her most successful works where she played a water nymph who begins to harbour feelings for a human. She also played the role of Eliza Doolittle in the film adaptation of the musical My Fair Lady and the reception to her performance in the role originally played by acclaimed actress Julie Andrews was generally positive. 

The last films she did before her slowly backing away from a busy career in the film industry are Two For The Road, a drama-comedy and Wait Until Dark, suspense and thriller which showed Audrey Hepburn’s skills for performing across a wide range of genres. 


Last projects and retirement 


Audrey Hepburn began dedicated less time to films and more time to her personal life in the 70s, leading to a steady decline in her career which many people called a semi-retirement. Her comeback as Maid Marian in Robin and Marian was only moderately successful but her other film, Bloodline turned out to be a commercial failure. Her last role as the main lead was in the comedy They All Laughed, however, Audrey’s performance and the film, in general, was overshadowed by the death of a co-actor. Her last minor appearances were in the films Love Among Thieves and Always. 

Humanitarian work 


The one aspect of Audrey Hepburn’s life that is most commendable but also sadly less acknowledged and talked about is her humanitarian work. Her efforts at humanitarian causes began in the 50s in a small part where she hosted radio shows for UNICEF to narrate the stories and children during wars. It was after she had retired from the cinema that she completely dedicated her life to helping others. She was appointed as the Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in the late 80s, an honor she was grateful for as she wished to help an organize that aided her during the German occupation in her mother’s homeland.  

Her main focus area was the upliftment of children. Her first fieldwork was in an orphanage in Ethiopia which was a refuge for about 500 homeless children who were suffering from starvation due to lack of resources. Food was sent by the UN organization for helping these children. She also visited Turkey on an immunization campaign, South Africa, Ecuador, and Venezuela. She also visited Central America and even collaborated with several leaders and Sudan for a relief mission during times of the civil war. Along with these countries, she also visited the children of Bangladesh and later to Vietnam to collaborate with the Vietnamese government for immunization and safe drinking water. Her last humanitarian fieldwork was in Somali, which she had described as almost apocalyptic, and is the place where the conditions affected her the most. Despite being rather shaken, she did not let her spirit break and continued to work with resilience for the betterment of the suffering children. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with UNICEF, and a statue called “the Spirit of Audrey” stands as a tribute to her in UNICEF, New York. 


Style Icon


Audrey Hepburn’s fashion choices became so well-known and distinguished that she became a recognizable brand in herself. Her physical image itself was something that went beyond a standard set by Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, and along with model Twiggy is credited for making slim fashionable and setting a new ideal of feminity. 

She popularised a minimalistic with monochromes and statement accessories to accentuate her look. She also broke barriers in fashion with preferring to wear trousers and ballet flats during a time when high heels and skirts were most popular among women. Her simple black dress from the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a fashion trend that continues to be popular in present-day and is often advertised as the little black dress. However, off-screen, Audrey preferred a simpler and comfortable sense of style as compared to her characters in films. She also became an inspiration for designer Hubert de Givenchy which has to lead to the question if the brand of Givenchy is in part the creation of Hepburn herself. 

Even after the 50s and 60s, she continues to remain a style icon with numerous fashion brands taking their inspiration from her. Even after her death, she was voted to be the most beautiful woman of all time, and of the 20th century. She was also voted to be the most stylish British woman. 


Personal Life 


  • Relationships and children 


Audrey Hepburn was engaged to industrialist James Hanson in 1952, but the wedding never took place and the engagement was broken as Audrey thought that work would keep them apart. She began dating producer Michael Butler somewhere in the 50s. Her first husband was actor Mel Ferrer, who worked with her on Ondine and War and Peace. Their marriage lasted for 14 years. While she was married to him, Audrey suffered 4 miscarriages and had one son named Sean Ferrer born in 1960. She later married an Italian psychiatrist, Andrea Dotti and had a son named Luca Dotti with him. She suffered another miscarriage during this marriage. Her second marriage also ended after 13 years due to infidelity on her husband’s part. Audrey finally found love in her third partner in actor Robert Wolders, who remained her significant other till her death. While they were not officially married, Audrey considered him as her husband and stated that the years spent with Wolders were her happiest. 


  • Illness and death 


Upon her return from her fieldwork from Somali, she began experiencing severe abdominal pain that was revealed to be a rare form of abdominal cancer after extensive check-up for which she received chemotherapy. She spent her last days in a hospice in Switzerland and died in her sleep in 1993. Many of her fellow actors such as Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, and Roger Moore participated in her funeral proceedings. Her graves lied in the small town of Tolochenaz in Switzerland.


Notable films 


Breakfast at Tiffany’s –  This movie is Audrey Hepburn’s most remarkable role and holds a lot of significance in the history of cinema itself. She plays the role of a young socialist Holly Golighty.

My Fair Lady – Audrey Hepburn plays the centre of the story, a flower seller named Eliza Doolittle, who crosses paths with a phonetics professor who claimed that he could teach her the language of the elites.

Roman Holiday – This film marks Audrey Hepburn’s debut as an established actress. She plays the role of a European Princess named Anne who ran away from her royal lifestyle and lives freely after meeting an American journalist. 

War and Peace – The film is based on the novel of Leo Tolstoy portraying the time of French invasion of Russia. She played the role of Natasha Rostova, one of the central characters of the story. 

Funny Face – This is Audrey Hepburn’s first musical film where she could showcase her dancing abilities. She played the role of Jo Stockton, a bookstore clerk who later becomes a model. 


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