Audrey Hepburn
by: Janell Williams-Harris

For sixty-three years Audrey Hepburn graced the earth with a life that began on May 4, 1929 and ended on January 20, 1993. She was an Academy Award winning actress, fashion model and humanitarian. Raised under Nazi rule during World War 2, she trained extensively to be a ballerina. She instead became a leading Hollywood actress during the 1950’s and 1960’s. She made only a handful of films afterwards, opting instead to devote herself to her children. From 1988 until her death in 1993, she served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. In 1999, she was ranked as the third greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute.

Born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in Brussells, Belgium, she was the only child of Joseph Hepburn Ruston, an Anglo-Irish banker, and Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch aristocrat descended from French nobility and English kings. Her father later appended the name Hepburn to his surname, and her surname became Hepburn – Ruston. She had two half- brothers. Alexander and Ian Quarles van Ufford, by her mother’s first marriage to a Dutch nobleman. She was a descendant of King Edward 3 of England. Hepburn’s father’s job required the family to travel often between Brussels, England, and The Netherlands. From 1935 to 1938, Hepburn attended boarding school in England.

In 1935, her parents divorced and her father left the family. She later called this the most traumatic moment of her life. Years later she located him in Dublin through the Red Cross. She stayed in contact with him and supported him financially until his death.

In 1939, her mother moved her and her two half-brothers to Arnhem, Netherlands. Hepburn attended the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945 where she trained in ballet, in addition to learning a standard school curriculum.  In 1940, the Nazis invaded Arnhem. During the war Hepburn adopted the pseudonym Edda Van Heemstra, modifying her mother's documents to do so, because an English-sounding name was considered dangerous. This was never her legal name. The name Edda was a modified version of Hepburn's mother's name, Ella. By 1944, Hepburn had become a very proficient ballet dancer. She secretly danced for groups of people to collect money for the underground movement. After the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, things grew worse under the German occupiers. During the Dutch famine over the winter of 1944, the Nazis confiscated the Dutch people's limited food and fuel supply for themselves. Without heat in their homes or food to eat, people in the Netherlands starved and froze to death in the streets.

Arnhem was devastated during allied bombing raids that were part of Operation Market Garden. Hepburn's uncle and a cousin of her mother's were shot for being part of the Resistance. Hepburn's brother spent time in a German labor camp. Suffering from malnutrition, Hepburn developed acute anemia, respiratory problems, and edema--a swelling of the limbs.  One way in which Audrey Hepburn passed the time was by drawing, and some of her childhood artwork can be seen today. When the tanks came in and Holland was liberated, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration trucks followed. Hepburn said in an interview that she ate an entire can of condensed milk and then got sick from one of her first relief meals because she put too much sugar in her oatmeal.

Early career

In 1945, after the war, Hepburn left the Arnhem Conservatory and moved to Amsterdam, where she studied ballet with Sonia Gaskell. In 1948, Hepburn went to London and took dancing lessons with the renowned Marie Rambert, teacher of Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the greatest male dancers in history. Hepburn eventually asked Rambert what her future would be. Rampert assured Hepburn that she could continue to work there and have a great career as a ballerina, but that her height, 5'7", coupled with her poor nutrition during the war would keep her from becoming a prima ballerina. Hepburn trusted Rampert's advice and decided to pursue acting, a career which she at least had a chance to excel in. After Hepburn became a star, Rampert said in an interview, "She was a wonderful learner. If she had wanted to persevere, she might have become an outstanding ballerina. Unfortunately, Hepburn's mother was working menial jobs to support them. Hepburn had no money and needed to find a paying job. Since she had trained all her life to be a performer, acting was the only sensible career path.

Her acting career started with the instructional film, Dutch in Seven Lessons. She then played in musical theatre in productions such as High Button Shoes and Sauce Piquante. Hepburn's first role in a motion picture was in the British film One Wild Oat, in which she played a hotel receptionist. She played several more minor roles in Young Wives' Tales, Laughter in Paradise, The Lavender Hill Mob and Monte Carlo Baby. During the filming of Monte Carlo Baby, Hepburn was chosen to play the lead character in the Broadway play Gigi that opened on 24 November 1951. The writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette upon first seeing Hepburn reportedly said, "Voilà! There's our Gigi she won a Theatre World Award for her debut performance, and it had a successful six-month run in New York City

Hepburn as Princess Ann in her breakthrough film, Roman Holiday

Her first significant film performance was in the 1952 film The Secret People, in which she played a prodigy ballet dancer. Naturally, Hepburn did all of her own dancing scenes. Hepburn’s first starring role and first American film was opposite Gregory Peck in the Hollywood motion picture Roman Holiday. Producers initially wanted Elizabeth Taylor for the role, but director William Wyler was so impressed by Hepburn's screen test, in which the camera was left on and candid footage of Hepburn relaxing and answering questions was taken, that he cast her in the lead. Wyler said, "She had everything I was looking for: charm, innocence and talent. She also was very funny. She was absolutely enchanting. “That’s the girl!” The billing was to have Gregory Peck's name above the title in large font with "introducing Audrey Hepburn" beneath. After filming had been completed, Peck called his agent and had Hepburn's name equally billed with his because he had predicted that she would win the Oscar. Hepburn and Peck bonded during filming, and there were rumors that they were romantically involved; both denied such claims.

Hepburn, however, added, "actually, you have to be a little bit in love with your leading man and vice versa. If you're going to portray love, you have to feel it. You can't do it any other way. But you don't carry it beyond the set. Hepburn would later call Roman Holiday her dearest movie, because it was the one that made her a star. After Roman Holiday she filmed Billy Wilder's Sabrina with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Hepburn was sent to fashion designer Givenchy to decide on her wardrobe.  In 1954, Audrey went back to the stage to play the water sprite in Ondine in a performance with Mel Ferrer, whom she would wed later that year. During the run of the play, Hepburn was awarded the Golden Globe for "Best Motion Picture Actress" and the Academy Award for Best Actress, both for Roman Holiday. Six weeks after receiving the Oscar, Hepburn was awarded the Tony Award for Best Actress for Ondine.

Having become one of Hollywood's most popular box-office attractions, Audrey Hepburn co-starred with other major actors such as Fred Astaire in Funny Face, Maurice Chevalier and Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Cary Grant in the critically acclaimed hit Charade, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Peter O'Toole in How to Steal a Million, and Sean Connery in Robin and Marian. Many of these leading men became very close to her. Funny Face in 1957 was Hepburn's favorite movie to film because she got to dance with Fred Astaire. Hepburn's performance as "Holly Golightly" in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's resulted in one of the most iconic characters in 20th Century American cinema. She wore trendy clothing designed by her and Givenchy and added blonde streaks to her brown hair, a look that she would keep off-screen as well. Hepburn had cemented herself as one of Hollywood's greatest actresses, right alongside Marilyn Monroe. In fact, Monroe was not the only one to sing "Happy Birthday Mr. President" to President John F Kennedy. For JFK's next birthday in 1963, Hepburn did the honors. Despite her stardom, Hepburn retained her humility throughout life. She preferred a more quiet living with family and nature. She lived in houses, not mansions, and she loved to garden.

After her divorce from first husband Mel Ferrer, she married Italian psychiatrist Dr. Andrea Dotti and had a second son, after a difficult pregnancy that required near-total bed rest. After her eventual separation from Dotti, she attempted a comeback, co-starring with Sean Connery in the period piece Robin and Marian in 1976, which was moderately successful. She reportedly turned down the tailor-made role of a former ballet dancer in The Turning Point. Hepburn finally returned to cinema in 1979, taking the leading role in Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline. Hepburn's last starring role in a cinematic film was with Ben Gazzara in the comedy They All Laughed, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Although a critical success, the film was overshadowed by the murder of one of its stars, Bogdanovich's girlfriend, Dorothy Stratten; the film was released after Stratten's death but played only limited runs. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1652 Vine Street.

Marriages, family and later life

In the early 1950s she was engaged to the young James Hanson. She called it "love at first sight;" however, after having her wedding dress fitted and date set, she decided the marriage would not work, due to the demands of his career that would require him to be gone on business most of the time. She had the wedding dress given to a poor Italian couple, who still have it today. Hepburn did marry, twice: to American actor Mel Ferrer and to an Italian doctor, Andrea Dotti, and had a son with each—Sean in 1960 by Ferrer, and Luca in 1970 by Dotti. Hepburn met Mel Ferrer at a party hosted by Gregory Peck, and quickly fell in love with him. After Sabrina, Audrey went back to the stage, this time with Ferrer in a play called Ondine, in which she played a water sprite. She married him on 25 September 1954. Before having their first child, Hepburn had two miscarriages, the first of which was in March of 1955. In 1959, while filming The Unforgiving, Hepburn broke her back after falling off a horse onto a rock. She spent weeks in the hospital and later had a miscarriage that was probably induced by the physical and mental stress. While she was resting at home, Mel Ferrer brought her the fawn from the movie Green Mansions to keep as a pet. In 1965, she had another miscarriage. Hepburn was much more careful when she was pregnant with Luca in 1969; she rested for months and passed the time by painting. Luca was delivered by Caesarean section. Hepburn had her final miscarriage in 1974.

Her marriage to Ferrer lasted 14 years until 5 December 1968; their son was quoted as saying Hepburn stayed in the marriage too long. In the later years of the marriage and Ferrer was rumored to have had a girlfriend on the side. After the marriage fell apart, Hepburn met Italian psychologist Andrea Dotti on a cruise and fell in love with him on a trip to Greek ruins. She believed she would have many children, and possibly stop working. She married him on 18 January 1969. Although Dotti loved Hepburn and was well-liked by Sean, who called him "fun," Dotti had affairs with younger women. The marriage lasted 13 years and ended in 1982 after Luca and Sean were old enough to handle life with a single mother. Hepburn had several pets, including a Yorkshire Terrier named Mr. Famous, who was hit by a car and killed. To cheer her up, Mel Ferrer got her another Yorkshire named Assam of Assam. She also kept Ip the fawn as a pet; they made a bed for him out of a bathtub. Sean Ferrer had a Cocker Spaniel named Cokey. When Hepburn was older, she had two Jack Russell Terriers.

In 1992, President George Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her work with UNICEF, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her contribution to humanity. This was awarded posthumously, and her son accepted the award on her behalf.

In 2006, the Sustainable Style Foundation inaugurated the Style & Substance Award in Honor of Audrey Hepburn to recognize high profile individuals that work to improve the quality of life for children around the world. The first award was given to Ms. Hepburn posthumously and received by the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund.


In late 1992, Hepburn began to feel pains in her abdomen, which turned out to be a rare form of cancer that originated in the appendix. Hepburn had surgery in a Los Angeles hospital, but the cancer continued to spread and doctors decided that another surgery would not help. Hepburn had been a lifelong smoker. That addiction may have come to her at great cost; studies have found that women who smoke are more than 40% more likely to die from colorectal cancer than women who never have smoked.  Hepburn died of colorectal cancer on 20 January 1993, in Tolochenaz, Vaud, Switzerland, and was interred there. She was 63.

Enduring popularity

Audrey Hepburn to this day is a beauty and fashion icon. She has often been called one of the most beautiful women of all time. Her fashion styles also continue to be popular among women. Contrary to her recent image, although Hepburn did enjoy fashion, she did not place much importance on it. She preferred casual, comfortable clothes.

To date only one biographical film based upon Audrey Hepburn's life has been attempted. The 2000 American made-for-television film, The Audrey Hepburn Story, starred Jennifer Love Hewitt as the actress. Hewitt also co-produced the film. The film received poor reviews due to numerous factual errors and for Hewitt's performance. The film concludes with footage of the real Audrey Hepburn, shot during one of her final missions for UNICEF.

Several versions of the film exist; it was aired as a mini-series in some countries, and in a truncated version on America's ABC television network, which is also the version released on DVD in North America. In 2003, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp illustrated by Michael J. Deas honoring her as a Hollywood legend and humanitarian. It has a drawing of her which is based on a publicity photo from the movie Sabrina. Hepburn is one of the few non-Americans to be so honored. 


She won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Actress for Roman Holiday. She was nominated for Best Actress four more times; for Sabrina, The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Wait Until Dark. There was Oscar controversy in 1964 when Audrey was not nominated for her performance as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, one of her most acclaimed performances. For her 1967 nomination, the Academy chose her performance in Wait Until Dark over her critically acclaimed performance in Two For The Road. She lost to Katharine Hepburn (in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner).Audrey Hepburn was one of the few people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. Academy Award: Best Actress for Roman Holiday (1954) and posthumous The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (1993). Tony Award: Best Actress for Ondine (1954) and Special Achievement award (1968). Grammy Award: Best Spoken Word Album for Children (1993) for Audrey Hepburn's Enchanted Tales (posthumous).Emmy Award: Outstanding Individual Achievement - Informational Programming (1993) for the "Flower Gardens" episode of her documentary series, Gardens of the World (posthumous). In December 1992, one month before her death, Hepburn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in UNICEF. This is the highest award a civilian can receive.


Audrey Hepburn Children’s fund. , 2002