In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
“I will never, never take that part. Never. I don’t want to make a profit from a saint.” The speaker was Audrey Hepburn in 1955. At the time Audrey was a huge star in both Europe and the United States. She could command up to $US 2,000,000 a film and was already a Broadway success as Gigi on stage and the possessor of an Oscar for Best Actress in Roman Holiday.
Although then only at the start of her career, Audrey could already boast of Gregory Peck, William Holden, Humphery Bogart and Henry Fonda as leading men. She would go on to include Gary Cooper, Anthony Perkins, Peter Finch, Burt Lancaster, Fred Astaire, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Sean Connery as co-stars. More than her professional success, Audrey’s was the face of the 1950’s and 60’s. She was a slim girl with a small breasted boyish figure but her face was of a delicate exquisite beauty with doe like eyes framed by her famous cropped hairstyle. Millions of girls copied both her appearance and her elegant fashions. More than that, to my mind, she exuded charm, elegance and femininity which seems missing in modern Western women. I was in love with Audrey in the 1950’s, I still am.
She would go on to appear in the much loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as Eliza in My Fair Lady and in the bittersweet romantic comedy Two for the Road. Effectively her career finished in 1967, when she was 38. Despite her success in films, Audrey was a deeply unfulfilled woman. She desperately wanted to be happily married and have a family. Suffering several miscarriages during her first, eventually unsuccessful marriage to Mel Ferrer, she finally gave birth to a son, Sean, just before appearing as the delicious Holly Golightly in Breakfast. She married, secondly, Andrea Dotti, an Italian doctor in 1969. They had a son, Luca, in 1970 when Audrey was 40. The second marriage also failed and Audrey lived the rest of her life in Switzerland, where she died in 1993 from cancer. She spent her last years working tirelessly in Africa for UNICEF.
But to return to Audrey’s vow, we must go back to her childhood. Born in Brussels in 1929 of a British father and Dutch aristocratic mother, she lived a happy, conventional life with her two half brothers until her father walked out on his family when she was six. It would be over thirty years until she really saw him again and in the intervening period she knew very little of his whereabouts. It is now known that Audrey’s parents were Nazi supporters and Joseph Victor Hepburn-Ruston had been invited to leave by the Dutch Government. He was interned by the British for five years during the War.
These events left a great scar on her, but worse was to follow. Throughout her life Audrey Hepburn carried a British passport and in 1940 she was at school in Kent. With a German invasion of Britain threatened, Baroness Hepburn took her daughter back to neutral Holland. This proved to be a major misjudgement as the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. They lived in Arnhem in increasingly difficult circumstances. The young girl, no doubt influenced by her mother’s change of heart on National Socialism, carried messages for the Dutch underground. Audrey’s uncle was executed by the Gestapo. In September 1944 the Allies launched Operation Market Garden. The British Airborne fought for mine days in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to hold the town. As General ‘Boy’ Browning famously remarked, “It was always a bridge too far.”
After the battle, the Germans expelled all the Dutch from Arnhem, leaving them to fend for themselves in the bitter winter of 1944/5. Many died, and Audrey almost did too, scrabbling in the frozen fields for tulip bulbs to eat. Her life was saved by British doctors working for what became UNICEF. The Baroness and her seventeen year old daughter moved to London where Audrey trained as a ballet dancer, unsuccessfully, as it happened.
Minor stage performances led to small film roles and then selection by French writer Colette to play Gigi on Broadway. The film role she was offered and refused in 1955 was that of Anne Frank, the young Dutch Jewish girl who died at the hands of the Gestapo in a concentration camp. Although Audrey was 26 at the time she was offered the role, her slim figure and youthful face could have passed for a fifteen year old girl. She had read The Diary of Anne Frank when she was seventeen, and saw herself in the tragic Anne.
As Audrey herself said, “I couldn’t act that role, I would live it, and I can’t do that.”
Written by my Father B.M