Hepburn, Audrey [real name Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston] (1929–1993), film actress
by Alexander Walker

Hepburn, Audrey [real name Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston] (1929–1993), film actress, was born on 4 May 1929 at 48 rue Keyenveld, Ixelles, Brussels, the only child of Joseph Victor Anton Ruston, also known as (Joseph) Anthony Hepburn or Hepburn-Ruston (1889–1980), one-time honorary British consul in the Dutch East Indies, and his Dutch second wife, Baroness Ella van Heemstra (1900–1984), third child of Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra, colonial governor and first mayor of Arnhem in the Netherlands, and his wife, Elbrig. Her father, a British subject born in Austria, adopted Hepburn for its aristocratic resonance (he was descended from Hepburns on his grandmother's side). The marriage began to fail from 1935, when the family moved to Belgium, owing to Ruston's infidelities and ‘adventurer’ temperament. An active supporter of Leon Degrelle's Nazi party, Ruston settled in London following his divorce. His fascist activities there caught the attention of the British security services. Audrey was thus reared largely by her mother and educated in Arnhem, where they moved in 1939, and at periods at a local school in Elham, Kent, where her mother's new romance had taken the family. Caught in the Netherlands by the war, they suffered severe privations, despite which, Hepburn, at some personal risk, performed minor services for the Dutch resistance as an innocent-looking child courier. During this time she went by the name Edda, since her mother and grandmother feared that ‘Audrey’ might attract the suspicion of the German occupying forces. Her father had been interned in England in 1939 as a suspected enemy agent under regulation 18B. He spent the war years in a concentration camp on the Isle of Man, and upon release in May 1945 went to the Irish republic. Hepburn did not see her father, or even learn his whereabouts, for nearly twenty years. Her emotional and physical traumas, plus the ingrained optimism of her mother's Christian Science faith, had a positive effect on the child, rather than the reverse, contributing to a lifelong practical concern for those less fortunate than herself.

In childhood Hepburn had shown an aptitude in ballet lessons—maintained with difficulty under the occupation—which helps explain the grace of movement and natural serenity that distinguished her film stardom. Her career-in-waiting was hinted at just before mother and daughter left the Netherlands for London about 1947. Then seventeen or eighteen, she secured a role as an air stewardess in a tourist film, Dutch in Seven Lessons (1948), produced for the Dutch airline KLM. Her charming smile was the first of many on screen. In London she was accepted into the Ballet Rambert but her self-critical sense told her she lacked the precision (and possibly the physique) to succeed in that art. After trying other short-term outlets—as a fashion model, and as a travel clerk—she was hired for the chorus line of Jack Hylton's musical High Button Shoes, gaining promotion to solo spots in intimate revue. Her radiant personality won her minor roles in several British films (including Laughter in Paradise, 1951, and The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951). Though these were somewhat decorative parts, her photographic charm earned her a three-year contract (at £12 a week) with a major studio, Associated British Picture Corporation. Ironically, she never made a film for her employers. Throughout her career, they profited from lucrative ‘loan-outs’ for roles in other films, British and American, the first of which was The Secret People (1952), a political thriller set in London, directed by Thorold Dickinson. Her vivacity as a young dancer ensnared in a bomb plot showed her to advantage: she stays alert even when doing nothing, poised like a bird ready to flit off its branch.

While making her next film, an Anglo-French comedy called Nous irons à Monte Carlo (Monte Carlo Baby, 1951), Hepburn was spotted by Colette, the French author who was then seeking an actress suitable to play Gigi in the non-musical adaptation of her autobiographical novel on Broadway. Hepburn was ‘borrowed’ from Associated British, but before the play opened, in 1951, she was screen tested by Paramount for William Wyler's romantic comedy, Roman Holiday (1952), to be filmed immediately after Gigi had ended its successful run. The princess who discovers the simple joys of living like ordinary folk while incognito in the company of Gregory Peck's newspaperman, but who returns to her royal duties, was the role that defined Hepburn's personality and talents for the rest of her life: innocence and good sense, wide-eyed eagerness for life, a gift for happiness, a vulnerability that invited protection, but also an air of natural independence. Her liberated princess had her hair cut by a barber in the film, and the androgynous gamine style was set as the Hepburn look for a generation or more of female filmgoers. An even bolder visual signature was her encounter in 1953 with the French couturier Hubert de Givenchy, who had been engaged to design some of her dresses for her next film, Billy Wilder's modern Cinderella story, Sabrina (1954). Givenchy's minimalist simplicity, worn on a figure that had no protuberances to interfere with his classical concept, conferred a dateless elegance on the film star on and off screen. Hepburn's engagement to the industrialist was broken off owing to the conflicting claims of her new fame. She appeared on the cover of Time's 7 September 1953 issue, even before Roman Holiday had opened in America—a rare tribute.

Hepburn met Melchior (Mel) Gaston Ferrer (b. 1917) when both were starring in her next stage venture, Jean Giraudoux's Ondine (1954), a medieval fable in which she played the eponymous water nymph. They were married in a civil ceremony on 24 September 1954, with a church wedding in Burgenstock, Switzerland, the next day; the marriage produced one son, Sean (b. 1960). Ferrer is usually credited with using his knowledge of the film industry's bargaining politics to shape Hepburn's career and considerably enhance her fees. For Sabrina she received only $15,000; for her next film, War and Peace (1956), she received at least $350,000. Cast as Tolstoy's heroine, she excelled as the young, exuberant Natasha, but had not quite acquired the maturity to personify the post-Napoleonic survivor. Funny Face (1957), a musical with Fred Astaire, directed by Stanley Donen, showed her again as the youthful innocent on which she now almost owned the screen patent. Then came another comedy, Love in the Afternoon (1957), which made a cheekily Wilderesque virtue of the thirty-year age gap between her pert and truant girl and Gary Cooper's amorous millionaire. Hepburn's gifts responded to the coaching of directors such as Wyler and Wilder, who shared her own European inheritance and tastes. Though she worked mostly in American films, she never belonged to the Hollywood ‘system’, and spent the periods between films in domestic seclusion in Europe. She and her husband had settled in Switzerland, where the discreet mode of living offered by small village life was more to her taste than cosmopolitan lifestyles; it was not so helpful to her husband's career, however.

After Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story (1959), Hepburn's most popular film was probably Blake Edwards's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). As Holly Golightly, the up-scale call-girl in Truman Capote's metropolitan fairy tale, the first shot of her wandering up Fifth Avenue at dawn, a sophisticated apparition wearing pearls and a black Givenchy sheath and munching a breakfast pastry while advancing on the baubles in the eponymous jeweller's window, created one of the great iconic images of cinema. It easily competed in her fans' affections with the prestigious title role in My Fair Lady (1964) opposite Rex Harrison, for which she received a million-dollar fee. She gave a precise but not transcendent rendering of Shaw's heroine, the flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who learns to be a lady by speaking ‘proper’. Paradoxically, if understandably, Hepburn's character seemed already more at home in high society than on her Covent Garden pavement pitch. Her performance suffered a slight loss of spontaneity by being partially dubbed by a professional singer, Marni Nixon. About this time, through a Belgian cousin, Walter Ruston, she discovered her father living in Dublin, where he had married again, and a reconciliation took place.

Hepburn's problems of finding mature roles—Stanley Donen's time-juggling comedy, Two for the Road (1967), contained love scenes in line with the new candour of the ‘Swinging Sixties’—were compounded by a collapsing marriage, which was dissolved amicably in 1968. On 18 January 1969 she married Dr Andrea Dotti (b. 1938), an Italian psychiatrist, with whom she had a son, Luca (b. 1970). This marriage was dissolved in 1982. Though she occasionally returned to the screen—her last appearance was a cameo role as a heavenly angel in Steven Spielberg's Always (1989)—Hepburn found a second and more emotionally fulfilling career from 1988 on as a special ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations humanitarian mission for children. She used her celebrity intelligently and unselfishly to draw attention to the need for economic and medical aid in lands ravaged by disease, famine, and civil war. She made more than fifty exhausting and sometimes dangerous field trips for UNICEF to Sudan, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Somalia. Her indefatigable efforts may have contributed to the cancer that caused her death on 20 January 1993, surrounded by her family and her new companion, the former actor Robert Wolders, at La Paisible, the manor house at Tolochenaz-sur-Morges, near Lausanne, Switzerland, which she had made her home since the mid-1960s. She was buried on 24 January under a simple wooden cross in the village graveyard. Famous, beautiful, and dutiful, Hepburn was one of the few stars who lived for others besides themselves—and, many were left thinking, died for others, too.

ALEXANDER WALKER

Sources  

A. Walker, Audrey: her real story (1994) · The Times (21–2 Jan 1993) · The Times (25 Jan 1993) · The Independent (22 Jan 1993) · The Independent (27 Jan 1993) · WWW, 1991–5

Likenesses  

Bassano, photograph, 1950, NPG [see illus.] · A. McBean, photograph, 1951, NPG · photograph, repro. in The Times (22 Jan 1993) · photograph, repro. in The Times (25 Jan 1993) · photograph, repro. in The Independent (22 Jan 1993) · photographs, repro. in Walker, Audrey, following pp. 126, 270, and 271 · photographs, Hult. Arch.


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Audrey Hepburn (1929–1993): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/52107