Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Not a fairy-tale life


New biography of Audrey Hepburn

Actress Audrey Hepburn.
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Despite a lovely, photogenic face, Audrey Hepburn (1929-93) was an unlikely Hollywood star. Aristocratic, tall, thin, she burst onto the screen in the early 1950s, an era of voluptuous beauties like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Director Billy Wilder quipped, "After so many drive-in waitresses in movies, here is class, somebody who went to school, can spell and possibly play the piano. This girl, single-handed, may make bozooms a thing of the past." She resembled a fairy-tale princess, but as Donald Spoto shows in his compelling Enchanted: The Life of Audrey Hepburn (Harmony Books, $25.95), her life was anything but easy.

She was born Audrey van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston in Brussels, to a Dutch baroness and a ne'er-do-well, upper-class English father. Both had previous marriages, and Hepburn had two maternal half-brothers. Ruston disappeared when she was eight, scarring Hepburn for life. At the outbreak of World War II, mother and daughter left England for Holland to live in comfort with the baroness' parents. She believed the Nazis would respect Dutch neutrality, a major miscalculation; the family was ruined during the occupation.

As Spoto graphically recounts, they endured horrible hunger and cold while supporting the Resistance. Hepburn endangered herself delivering coded messages to underground fighters hiding in nearby woods. Her brothers fought the Nazis, and miraculously survived. She was starving when the Allies arrived with food.

Her loving yet undemonstrative mother instilled her with noblesse oblige: put others first, avoid attention, don't regard yourself as special. Thus, Hepburn never confused her screen image with reality, was a consummate professional with few diva demands, but often found satisfying her needs difficult.

After the war, mother and daughter returned to London. Broke, the baroness worked as a domestic while Hepburn studied ballet. She was too tall and had started training too late for a classical career. Instead, she joined the chorus of High Button Shoes, modeled, and performed in cabarets. She landed bits in a few English films. While shooting Monte Carlo Baby (51), she met Colette, who wanted her for a Broadway adaptation of Gigi .

Meanwhile, director William Wyler was seeking a replacement for Jean Simmons in Roman Holiday (53). Hepburn tested and played the runaway princess who meets a reporter (Gregory Peck) pretending he doesn't recognize her. They have a magical 24 hours in Rome before she sacrifices happiness for  royal obligations. The film is slight, but Hepburn's incandescent performance won the Best Actress Oscar. Shortly afterwards, she collected Broadway's Tony for Jean Giradoux's Ondine, co-starring future husband Mel Ferrer.

For the next 14 years she was a major Hollywood star, although she lived in Europe, where many of her pictures were set. Starting with Sabrina (54), her collaboration with designer Hubert de Givenchy created a timeless, sophisticated style. Best remembered for  Holly Golightly in a sanitized adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (61), The Nun's Story (59) was closest to her true self, and her moving performance won the New York Film Critics Award. Her stardom was validated when Warners made her Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (64), by-passing Julie Andrews. She became the second performer, after Taylor, to earn $1 million per movie.

Real life

Despite reel successes, her real life was unhappy. Prior to wedding Ferrer, she had an affair with the married William Holden, which ended because his vasectomy prevented fathering more children. Desperate for motherhood, she suffered repeated miscarriages before she and Ferrer had a son, Sean. Their unequal professional status also created problems. Despite his comparative lack of success, Hepburn followed his career advice, frequently with terrible results: a failed television production of Mayerling (56) and a ghastly Green Mansions (59), which he directed. They divorced in 1968, and a year later she married a much younger Italian psychiatrist, Andrea Dotti, putting her career on hold to have children. A son, Lucca, was born, but Dotti kept her in the public eye, despite her objections. Like Ferrer, he had extramarital affairs. The marriage also ended in divorce.

Three of her last five films had been huge hits: My Fair Lady, Charade (64), Wait Until Dark (67). How To Steal a Million (66) and Two for the Road (67) confirmed her range as an actress. The latter, a dazzling study of a rocky marriage co-starring Albert Finney, was the most demanding part of her career, and her finest performance.

Her return to movies proved uneasy. She and Sean Connery were Robin and Marian (76), from a promising idea: the aging lovers of Sherwood Forest reunite — he's back from the Crusades, she's joined a nunnery. Director Richard Lester's rushed style unnerved her, and it shows. As Spoto points out, movies had changed during her hiatus, and the public seemed startled that she was no longer a youthful, romantic heroine. Her subsequent films were dreary.

Fortunately, she found great satisfaction working tirelessly for UNICEF. She traveled throughout the third world, stayed in primitive accommodations, ate local foods, and focused attention on the grim plight of starving, diseased-ravaged children. She also found love with Robert Wolders, a much younger former actor and widower of actress Merle Oberon. A heavy smoker, she died of stomach cancer, facing death with grace and courage.

Spoto documents  her rich artistic legacy. She won innumerable awards and placed third among women in the American Film Institute's top legends of the 20th century. One suspects, however, that she would have been proudest of the posthumous Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar she shared with her friend Taylor, who praised her warmly during the 1993 ceremonies.

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