Style icon Audrey Hepburn’s legacy of love and loss
On what would have been her 90th birthday, the actress’s fashion sense, as well as her story of survival and love, is as powerful as ever, writes Julia Molony
By Julia Molony
At the age of 16, Audrey Hepburn was a promising ballet dancer who dreamed of a career in classical dance. She was also on the brink of death. Weighing just over six stone, she was living on a diet of the lettuce endive, water, and even resorting to eating tulip bulbs. It was not the punishing discipline of her art that was threatening her health, but the deprivations of the Nazi occupation of Holland, where Hepburn was living at the time with her mother.
In desperation, she and her mother ate nettles and even tried to boil grass. By the time they escaped, she was suffering from a litany of serious ailments; asthma, jaundice, acute anaemia and oedema. She escaped death, it is said, by a “hair’s breadth”.
But survive she did, although she missed out on five crucial years of dance training and never fulfilled her dream to become a prima ballerina. Instead, she grew up to become an icon of fashion and film.
This week marks 90 years since Audrey Hepburn’s birth in Brussels. The only daughter of a Dutch baroness and an Anglo-Irish diplomat, she was her mother’s third child. Ella van Heemstra had two older sons from an earlier marriage.
Audrey’s early life was very cosmopolitan. Her family moved around Europe and she grew up speaking several languages.
But despite material privileges, she knew loss from a young age. In 1935, when she was six, her father abandoned the family and made little effort to keep in contact with his daughter. It was, she later said, “the most traumatic experience of my life”.
By the time she became a teenager, she was living in Kent, pursuing ballet and attending boarding school. But when Britain declared war on Germany, Ella and Audrey moved back to the family’s ancestral home, Castle Zypendaal, in Arnhem, Holland, in the belief that the Netherlands would most likely stay neutral during the conflict.
It wasn’t to be. The Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, launching the adolescent Audrey into the greatest trial of her life, and one that would remain with her until her death. She later said “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week… six months… next year… that’s how we got through”.
Both her parents had been early supporters of fascism. But by the time the Nazis marched on Holland, their allegiances had changed. Her beloved uncle, Count Otto van Limburd, was murdered by Hitler’s troops, an event that, according to biographer Robert Matzen, inspired the teenage Audrey to join the resistance movement. In a book published last year, Matzen claimed to have unearthed evidence that Audrey was active in the fight against the Nazis, working as a doctor’s assistant for the Dutch resistance during the Battle of Arnhem in 1944.
Though it was her gamine, fragile looks that made her famous, Audrey had a survivor’s spirit, one that sustained her through her Hollywood career, and through personal heartbreak, that included at least two miscarriages and two divorces, before she finally found happiness in her romantic life in her 40s. Her vulnerability, and her open acknowledgement of that vulnerability, was part of that inner strength. “I was born with an enormous need for affection and a terrible need to give it. That’s what I’d like to think maybe has been the appeal. People have recognised something in me they have themselves. The need to receive affection and the need to give it,” she once said.
This need stemmed, perhaps, from the circumstances of her early childhood, and the grief over her absent father. “My parents’ divorce was the first big blow I had as a child,” she said. “I worshipped my father and missed him terribly from the day he disappeared. Having my father cut off from me, when I was only six, was desperately awful. If I could just have seen him regularly, I would have felt he loved me. But as it was, I always envied other people’s fathers. I came home with tears because they had a daddy. My mother had great love for me, but she was not always able to show it. I had no one to cuddle me.”
The estrangement would continue for most of her adult life. At the end of the war, during which he had been imprisoned for his involvement in fascism, her father moved to Ireland and settled in Dublin.
From afar, he watched his daughter’s rise to stardom, without ever seeking to make contact. According to Audrey’s second son, Luca Dotti, it was a decision made mostly out of love. “He didn’t look for my mother; firstly because he thought his political past might hurt her career, but also because he didn’t want to be seen to be ringing at the door for money. Once Audrey became famous, he didn’t try to take advantage of her.
“He never tried to capitalise on her. He never asked for help and I always had the feeling that he was dreadfully embarrassed about leaving Audrey and her mother in the lurch. I think he was an extremely proud man and like so many born in that sort of Victorian period, he was unable to express his affection.”
Later in life, Hepburn traced her father to Dublin and made contact with him. The pair struck up a correspondence and Audrey travelled to visit him six months before his death in 1980. He passed away in Baggot Street Hospital and Audrey did not attend his funeral. He is buried in Harold’s Cross.
It was her passion for dance that led Audrey to the silver screen. After peace had been restored in Europe, she and her mother returned to Britain, where she’d won a ballet scholarship at the Rambert Ballet School.
She began her career in the West End, finding work as a chorus girl before she got her big break, cast as the lead role in a Broadway production of Gigi. Thanks to her aristocratic heritage, exotic accent and sculptural beauty, she swiftly found fame in America, and before long had been cast in the role that would make her name in Hollywood, playing a runaway European princess and love interest to established star Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Over the course of the next 30 years, she would play a roll-call of unforgettable characters, etched into the history of film, taking in classics such as Sabrina, My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Possessing the proportions of a fashion model, the posture of a dancer and a signature elegance that was hers and hers alone, she became a darling of the fashion world and muse to the designer Givenchy, who designed the iconic white dress she wore for Roman Holiday and later designed her wedding dress for her second marriage to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti.
Hepburn credited the designer with helping to shape her Pygmalion-esque transformation from gawky ingenue to fully fledged star. “Givenchy’s clothes are the only ones I feel myself in. He is more than a designer, he is a creator of personality,” she said.
As her fame grew, however, Audrey was in search of a different kind of role.
She yearned for family life and to be surrounded by the stability and affection she had felt deprived of as a child.
As she navigated her way through the Hollywood studio system, she embarked on several affairs. At the age of 23, while on the cusp of stardom, she was briefly engaged to British businessman James Hanson but she broke off the betrothal. “For a year I thought it possible to make our combined lives and careers work out. It is all very unhappy making, but I am sure it is the only sensible decision,” she wrote to a friend at the time.
Some time later, she fell in love with Bill Holden, her handsome co-star on Sabrina, who was married with three children when the affair began. He later described Hepburn as “the love of his life” and as time went on, became determined to marry her. But Audrey ended the relationship abruptly when she discovered they would never be able to have children together. He had undergone a vasectomy, at his wife’s insistence, several years previously.
In 1954, she married fellow actor Mel Ferrer after they were introduced at a party. The ceremony took place in a remote chapel in Switzerland. “We want to keep it a dark secret in order to have it without the Press,” Hepburn said.
It was a source of some sadness to Hepburn that the marriage didn’t have the blessing of her beloved mother.
Ella was not a fan of Ferrer, whom she once referred to memorably as the “frog-faced delinquent with the spindly legs”.
In the early years of the marriage, Hepburn suffered two miscarriages. It’s believed she lost her second pregnancy after falling from a horse while on set filming the 1961 film The Unforgiven.
For her third pregnancy, she stopped working completely for a year and in 1960, her first child Sean Ferrer was born.
“Sean is truly a dream and I find it hard to believe he is really ours to keep,” an ecstatic Hepburn confided in a friend.
By her son’s account, Audrey was a devoted mother. But before long it became apparent, even to young Sean, that his parents’ marriage was under strain. Ferrer, it has been claimed, was jealous of his wife’s success and too controlling.
“My parents never argued in front of me,” Sean has said. “They were very good about keeping any problems away from me. But I was aware from quite a young age that something just wasn’t quite right, that something between them didn’t quite jive.
“My mum came and told me that she and dad were going to divorce, but explained that none of it was my fault. When she told me, I was very upset, naturally, because I loved them both, but I was also relieved in a way because it explained why things didn’t feel quite right at home. Neither of them ever said bad things about the other to me.
“The marriage was simply a failure between two human beings.”
In 1966, the tabloids reported that Hepburn was having an affair with Albert Finney, her co-star in Two For the Road, and later that year, she and Ferrer separated. Their divorce represented a great disillusionment for Audrey.
“When my marriage broke up, it was terrible,” recalled Hepburn. “More than that, it was a keen disappointment. I thought a marriage between two good, loving people had to last until one of them died.
“I can’t tell you how disillusioned I was. I tried and tried. I knew how difficult it had to be to be married to a world celebrity, recognised everywhere, second billed on the screen and in real life. How Mel suffered. But believe me, I put my career second.”
To help ease her heartbreak, she went on a cruise around the Greek islands with friends and it was there she met Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. Within a year, they were married. At the age of 40 she welcomed her second child, a boy named Luca and threw herself with relief into domestic life. Luca remembers her as a homebody, who preferred family life to the red carpet. “She had the war, her career, lived all over the world. She wanted a home, a garden, dogs, children. She had played her part. Her attitude was: ‘I did enough, and now I want to enjoy my family’. Her dream was to be a mother, which she’d wanted all her life,” he said in an interview last year.
Though her marriage to Luca’s father crumbled when he was still a boy, amid rumours that he had been unfaithful, Hepburn did eventually find the stability she had sought all her life, with Dutch actor Robert Wolders. They remained together until her death in 1993 and Hepburn described those years as “the happiest of my life”.
Happy Birthday Audrey Hepburn, a performance that brings Hepburn’s story to life through music takes place at 1.05pm on May 3 at the National Concert hall. For more info visit nch.ie
Style icon Audrey Hepburn’s legacy of love and loss