Audrey Hepburn was born to an English father and Dutch mother in Belgium, May 4th, 1929. Her father’s job as an insurance agent meant the family often moved between England, Holland and Belgium. Because of her mother’s family in the Netherlands and her father’s job with a British company, the family often travelled between the three countries. With her multinational background, she went on to speak fluent English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian. Hepburn participated in ballet by the age of 5. From 1935-58, Audrey went to boarding school in Kent; in 1939 her mother moved the family to Arnhem in the Netherlands, where she thought it would be safe from Nazi invasion.
However, in 1940, the Netherlands was overrun and the country fell under Nazi occupation until liberation in 1945. During this time, Audrey went to school at the Arnhem conservatory where she studied and also learnt ballet. At one time she considered taking ballet as a serious career. During the occupation, it was said she would often dance in various locations, helping to raise money for the underground movement.
The harrowing experiences of war left a profound mark on Audrey; it was one reason for her later commitments to the UNICEF children’s charity.
“I can testify to what UNICEF means to children, because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II”
She felt a natural empathy and sympathy for children who were the victims of war and starvation. During the war Audrey suffered anaemia, respiratory problems and edema. However, despite the ongoing horrors of the occupation, Audrey passed her time through drawing and practising ballet.
After the war, Audrey went to Londonwhere she continued to practise ballet. She had great talent but her height and malnutrition during the war meant that she was unable to become a really great ballerina, and so decided to seek work as an actor.
After several minor roles in films such as The Lavender Hill Mob, Audrey was chosen to play Gigi – a hit West end play. She was given an award by the Theatre world for best debut performance. Her first film was Secret People in 1952; a film about a prodigy ballerina, which was a natural choice for Audrey to play. It was during the filming for this that she was spotted by director William Wyler. He was producing a film “Roman Holiday” and he felt the innocence and elfin beauty of Audrey Hepburn would make a perfect choice for the English Princess, who spends a day in Rome in the company of Gregory Peck. The film was a great hit and on the advertising Audrey Hepburn was given the same billing as Gregory Peck. In many respects, Audrey outshone her more illustrious lead Gregory Peck; as Gregory Peck predicted it was Audrey who would be given an Oscar for her performance.
This film established her place in Hollywood’s elite and allowed her to play against many of the leading men of the time. For example, Sabrina with Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire in Funny Face.
The enduring popularity and appeal of Audrey Hepburn can be attributed to many factors. She had a natural beauty and elegance; she has often been voted the most beautiful woman of the century. However she also had an aura of childlike innocence which portrayed a natural charm and humour. She was held in high regard by many in the film industry; she avoided conflict and many of the top actors said how much they enjoyed working with Audrey. As Cary Grant once said
“All I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn;”
In 1961, Audrey played one of her most demanding roles, the extrovert Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” She said of her role that it was “one of the jazziest of my career” she said it was contrary to her introverted nature and thus was quite difficult to pull off. However, her performance was one of the most iconic roles of the 1960s. The film has retained an enduring popularity to this day. In 2006, the “little black dress” from the film was sold in auction for just under £0.5 million. The proceeds were given to one of Audrey’s charities.
From 1967, after 15 years in film, she acted only occasionally. She spent more time with her family and also working with UNICEF. She was appointed as a special ambassador to UNICEF and became actively involved in campaigns to improve conditions for children around the world.
In 1988 she visited Ethiopia at a camp for children on seeing the poverty and starvation she remarked:
“I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. I can’t stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children, [and] [sic] not because there isn’t tons of food sitting in the northern port of Shoa. “ – Audrey Hepburn
She also visited street children in South America and was appalled to see children living in such conditions. She later reported to Congress how UNICEF had been able to make a difference:
“I saw tiny mountain communities, slums, and shantytowns receive water systems for the first time by some miracle-and the miracle is UNICEF. “I watched boys build their own schoolhouse with bricks and cement provided by UNICEF.”
After returning from Somalia in 1992 Audrey Hepburn developed cancer of the colon. The disease proved to be untreatable in January 1993 she died in Switzerland aged 63.