Today’s topic has been easy for me, and anyone who knows me will have guessed long before I got to day six that this is who I would choose for a person who fascinates me – Audrey Hepburn.
Globally adored and more famous and enduring than almost anyone else, Audrey Hepburn has been a personal icon of mine since I was a little girl. I remember one day being sent home sick from school, and mum took out a video tape of “My Fair Lady” and I was in love. Beautiful, talented, unique and intelligent – even as a little girl I could see that this was the sort of woman that I wanted to be.
It wasn’t until I was older that I started researching her life and earlier years, and here I found such pain and such suffering that it made me even more enamoured of her. Everyone surely knows the story; but if you don’t I’ll give you the highlights.
Hepburn was born on May 4th 1929, to her mother, Ella Van Heemstra, and her businessman father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston. Her birth name was Audrey Katherine Ruston, and she was referred to as Edda Van Heemstra as well. Her mother was Belgian aristocracy, who by Audrey’s own admission was distant, but the best mother she knew how to be. After her father abandoned them, Audrey and her mother moved to London for a while, so Audrey could follow her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. This was a dream she never really gave up on, and one that trained her well for the hardships of Hollywood.
Later in life, as Audrey and her mother were holidaying in the small town of Arnhem, Netherlands, Hitler’s forces invaded. For the entire war Audrey tried her best to continue to dance, including performing ballet shows to raise money for the resistance. In one rarely seen audition reel, she can be seen talking about staging the shows and hiding messages in her ballet shoes to deliver for the underground movement against Hitler. The war caused her severe malnutrition, which she struggled to get over all her life.
But what fascinates me the most about Hepburn is not what she endured as a child, or her fairy tale rise to stardom, or even her troubled personal life (Mel Ferrer… don’t get me started). What truly fascinates me about her is that, for everything this one, tiny body endured, she was always so gentle, so kind, and so giving. She gave up being a Hollywood star to work for Unicef and travel to the most dangerous and impoverished places on the globe to help children and communities to better themselves. She was the original celebrity philanthropist.
Hepburn spent her life seeking that one true soulmate that would always love her – she had a great fear of not being loved or wanted. Men she worked with – Gregory Peck, William Holden, George Peppard, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant – raved about her, adored her and were in awe of her. Holden in particular suffered terribly under that great dark cloud of unrequited, one-sided love. It was a huge factor in his alcoholism. But still she sought that deeper human connection, and thought she had found it with Ferrer, then again she thought she found it with Andrea Dotti. Both marriages gave her children, but not without heartache of its own kind. Trial and error and miscarriages were also a familiar part of Hepburn’s personal life.
Her experience during the war, her difficult personal life and her dislike of having no privacy made her ideally suited to become a Unicef ambassador. She had just the right personality for it, and with the support of her eventual soul mate Rob Wolders, she changed the lives of so many impoverished families all over the world.
Hepburn and Wolders never married; to me, this is the only sign of how damaging her personal life had been to her. Two failed marriages put her off the idea permanently. But other than that, you would never have known that she hadn’t had the most picture perfect life – she was positive, happy, loved to laugh, enjoyed making others happy, she was very considerate, kind and loving. Really she was only made up of the things people usually lose when they go through such a difficult time. And that’s what’s so fascinating. Other people have a bad day and snap at their loved ones; Audrey Hepburn would have a bad decade and still bend over backwards to make her friends and family happy, to help someone whenever she could and not feel bitter.
Hepburn, to me, is the ideal icon – those who knew her were priveleged, those who can be like her have made the best choice, and those who don’t understand her simply aren’t looking closely enough. Audrey Hepburn wore her heart on her sleeve. Even playing a role in a movie you could see the real Audrey, the pain and the heartbreak, but also the joy and liveiness in her. We could all be a little more like her, I think.