Has there ever been a more widely-loved actress than Audrey Hepburn? Her stunning combination of vulnerability, sophistication, elfin beauty and indomitable spirit engaged both men and women alike. She was a graceful gamine in an era of larger-than-life ladies like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, yet it was her delicate beauty that survived the decades and fostered an era of reed-thin models. But while Audrey’s loveliness may have gotten her noticed, it was her talent that made her legend endure, as well as her generous heart. She died of colon cancer in 1993, after devoting the last years of her life to helping starving children as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations International Chidren’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
Audrey Hepburn was born Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston in Brussels, Belgium, on May 4, 1929. Can you imagine that on a marquee? The sophisticated aura she projected throughout her life was not an act: her father was an English banker and her mother was a Dutch baroness. After her parents divorced, Audrey went with her mother and attended a private girls school in London. Then, while on vacation with her mother back in the Netherlands, a cruel twist of fate intervened, and the two were trapped by the Nazi invasion. Hepburn spent World War II in extremely stressful circumstances. She suffered from depression and malnutrition, and saw an uncle and cousin executed by the Nazis for their resistance activities.
After the war, Hepburn studied ballet in London. She did some modeling work and had minor roles in English films like Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Then, another twist of fate on a vacation; but unlike her World War II experience, this one was fortuitous – the writer Colette spotted her on the Riviera and insisted she star in the Broadway version of Gigi. Hepburn moved to the states, did the role, won rave reviews, and launched her legend.
Director William Wyler handpicked her to star opposite Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953). Audrey won the Oscar nomination for her role of the unenthusiastic princess and began a string of box-office hits, among them Sabrina (1954), Love in the Afternoon (1957), and The Nun’s Story (1959). She then scored one of her most memorable roles as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Her sad, soulful rendition of the movie’s theme song, “Moon River,” remains a truly indelible moment in the history of film.
After winning a fifth and final Oscar nomination for the chilling Wait Until Dark (1967), Hepburn worked less and devoted more time to her family and various charities. Her longtime marriage to actor Mel Ferrer ended in divorce in 1968. After a second short-lived marriage to an Italian psychiatrist, she settled down with another Dutch actor, Robert Wolders. Although she still made appearances at the Academy Awards – often as a presenter – her work for UNICEF proved more meaningful to her than restarting her acting career. She made memorable appearances in films like Robin and Marian (1976) and Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989) before spending the last years of her life tirelessly touring Africa and South America in her quest to help hungry children.