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Audrey Hepburn

Actress and Fashion Icon

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of actress Audrey Hepburn

Headshot of Belgian-born actress Audrey Hepburn, wearing a strapless dress, holding her white-gloved hands near to her face. (circa 1957)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Audrey Hepburn?

Audrey Hepburn was an Academy-Award winning actress and fashion icon in the 20th century. Having almost starved to death during Nazi-occupied Holland during WWII, Hepburn became a goodwill ambassador for starving children. Considered one of the most beautiful and elegant women in the world, then and now, her beauty shone through her doe eyes and contagious smile. A trained ballet dancer, who never performed in a ballet, Audrey Hepburn was Hollywood’s most sought after actress mid-century. Her most celebrated movies include Roman Holiday, Sabrina, My Fair Lady, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Dates: May 4, 1929 – January 20, 1993

Also Known As: Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston, Edda van Heemstra

Growing Up in Nazi Occupation

Audrey Hepburn was born the daughter of a British father and a Dutch mother in Brussels, Belgium, on May 4, 1929. When Hepburn was six years old, her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Hepburn-Ruston, a heavy drinker, deserted the family. Hepburn's mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, moved her two sons (Alexander and Ian from a previous marriage) and Hepburn from Brussels to her father’s mansion in Arnhem, Holland. The following year, 1936, Hepburn left Holland and moved to England to attend a private boarding school in Kent, where she enjoyed dance classes taught by a London ballet master.

In 1939, when Hepburn was ten, Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II. When England declared war on Germany, the Baroness moved Hepburn back to Arnhem for safety. However, Germany soon invaded Holland. Hepburn lived in Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945, using the name Edda van Heemstra so as not to sound English. Still living a privileged life, Hepburn received ballet training from Winja Marova at the Arnhem School of Music, where she received praise for her posture, personality, and performance.

Life was normal at first; kids went to football games, swim meets, and the movie theater. However, with half a million occupying German soldiers using up Dutch resources, fuel and food shortages were soon rampant. These scarcities caused Holland’s child death rate to increase by forty percent.

In the winter of 1944, Hepburn, who had already been enduring very little to eat, and her family were evicted when Nazi officers seized the Van Heemstra mansion. With most of their wealth confiscated, the Baron (Hepburn’s grandfather), Hepburn, and her mother moved to the Baron’s villa in the town of Velp, three miles outside of Arnhem.

The war affected Hepburn’s extended family as well. Her Uncle Otto was shot to death for attempting to blow up a railroad. Hepburn’s half-brother Ian was forced to work in a German munitions factory in Berlin. Hepburn’s half-brother Alexander joined the underground Dutch Resistance.

Hepburn also resisted Nazi occupation. When the Germans confiscated all the radios, Hepburn delivered secret underground newspapers, which she hid in her oversized boots. She continued ballet and gave recitals to make money for the resistance until she was too weak from malnutrition.

Four days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, the liberation of Holland took place -- coincidentally on Hepburn’s 16th birthday. Hepburn’s half-brothers returned home. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration brought boxes of food, blankets, medicine, and clothes. Hepburn was suffering from colitis, jaundice, severe edema, anemia, endometriosis, asthma, and depression.

With the war over, her family tried to resume a normal life. Hepburn no longer had to call herself Edda van Heemstra and went back to her name of Audrey Hepburn-Ruston. She and her mother worked at the Royal Military Invalids Home. Alexander (age 25) worked for the government in reconstruction projects, and Ian (age 21) worked for Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch food and detergent company.

Audrey Hepburn Is Discovered

In 1945, Winja Marova referred Hepburn to Sonia Gaskell’s Ballet Studio ’45 in Amsterdam, where Hepburn studied ballet for three more years. Gaskell believed that Hepburn had something special; especially the way she used her doe eyes to captivate audiences. Gaskell introduced Audrey to Marie Rambert of Ballet Rambert in London, a company performing night revues in London and international tours. Hepburn auditioned for Rambert and was accepted with scholarship in early 1948.

By October, Rambert told Hepburn that she did not have the physique to become a prima ballerina for she was too tall (Hepburn was 5’7”). Plus, Hepburn didn’t compare to the other dancers since she had begun serious training too late. Devastated that her dream was over, Hepburn tried out for a part in the chorus line in High Button Shoes, a zany play at London’s Hippodrome. She got the part and performed 291 shows, using the name Audrey Hepburn.

Afterward, Cecil Landeau, producer of the play Sauce Tartare (1949) had spotted Hepburn and cast her as the girl walking across the stage holding up the title card for each skit. With her impish smile and large eyes, she was cast at higher pay in the play’s sequel, Sauce Piquant (1950), in a few comedy skits.

In 1950, Audrey Hepburn modeled part time and registered herself as a freelance actress with the British film studio. She appeared in several bit parts in small movies before landing the role of a ballerina in The Secret People (1952), where she was able to show off her ballet talent. In 1951, the famed French writer Colette was on the set of Monte Carlo Baby (1953) and spotted Hepburn playing the small part of a spoiled actress in the movie. Colette cast Hepburn as Gigi in her musical comedy play Gigi, which opened on November 24, 1951, on Broadway in New York at the Fulton Theater.

Simultaneously, director William Wyler was looking for a European actress to play the lead role of a princess in his new movie, Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy. Executives in the Paramount London office had Hepburn do a screen test. Wyler was enchanted and Hepburn got the role. Gigi ran until May 31, 1952, earning Hepburn a Theatre World Award and plenty of recognition.

Hepburn in Hollywood

When Gigi ended, Hepburn flew to Rome to star in Roman Holiday (1953). The movie was a box-office success and Hepburn received the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1953 when she was 24 years old.

Capitalizing on its newest star, Paramount cast her as the lead in Sabrina (1954), another romantic comedy, directed by Billy Wilder where Hepburn played a Cinderella type. It was the top box-office hit of the year and Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress again, but lost to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.

In 1954, Hepburn met and dated actor Mel Ferrer when they co-starred on Broadway in the hit play Ondine. When the play ended, Hepburn received the Tony Award and married Ferrer on September 25, 1954, in Switzerland. After a miscarriage, Hepburn fell into a deep depression. Ferrer suggested she return to work. Together they starred in the film War and Peace (1956), a romantic drama, with Hepburn getting top billing.

While Hepburn’s career offered many successes, including another Best Actress nomination for her dramatic portrayal of Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story (1959), Ferrer’s career was on the decline. Hepburn discovered she was pregnant in late 1958, but was on contract to star in a Western, The Unforgiven (1960), which began filming in January 1959. Later that same month during filming, she fell off a horse and broke her back. Although she recovered, Hepburn gave birth to a stillborn that spring. Her depression went deeper.

The Hepburn Iconic Look

Thankfully, Hepburn gave birth to a healthy son, Sean Hepburn-Ferrer, on January 17, 1960. Little Sean was always in tow and even accompanied his mother on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). With fashions designed by Hubert de Givenchy, the film catapulted Hepburn as a fashion icon; she appeared on nearly every fashion magazine that year. The press took its toll, however, and the Ferrers bought La Paisible, an 18th-century farmhouse in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, to live in privacy.

Hepburn's successful career continued when she starred in The Children’s Hour (1961), Charade (1963), and then was cast in the universally acclaimed musical film, My Fair Lady (1964). After more successes, including the thriller Wait Until Dark (1967), the Ferrers separated.

In June 1968, Hepburn was cruising to Greece with friends aboard the yacht of Italy’s Princess Olympia Torlonia when she met Dr. Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist. That December, the Ferrers divorced after 14 years of marriage. Hepburn retained custody of Sean and married Dotti six weeks later.

On February 8, 1970, at age 40, Hepburn gave birth to her second son, Luca Dotti. The Dottis lived in Rome, but while Ferrer had been nine years older than Hepburn, Dotti was nine years younger and still enjoyed the nightlife. In order to focus her attention on her family, Hepburn took a lengthy hiatus from Hollywood. Despite all her efforts, however, Dotti’s ongoing adultery caused Hepburn to seek a divorce in 1979, after nine years of marriage.

In 1981, when Hepburn was 52, she met 46-year-old Robert Wolders, a Dutch born investor and actor, who remained her companion for the rest of her life.

Audrey Hepburn, Goodwill Ambassador

Although Hepburn ventured back into a few more movies, in 1988 her main focus became helping with the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). As a spokesperson for children in crises, she remembered the United Nations relief in Holland after WWII and threw herself into her work. She and Wolders traveled the world six months a year, bringing national attention to the needs of starving, sick children throughout the world.

In 1992, Hepburn thought she had picked up stomach virus in Somalia, but was soon diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. After an unsuccessful surgery, doctors gave her three months to live. Audrey Hepburn, age 64, passed away on January 20, 1993, at La Paisible. At a quiet funeral in Switzerland, pallbearers included Hubert de Givenchy and ex-husband Mel Ferrer.

Hepburn continues to be voted one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century on numerous polls.

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