Actress Audrey Hepburn, star of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” remains one of Hollywood’s most successful actress. She is known as a fashion icon, thanks to her impeccable style, radiant beauty, and charismatic personality. She has that unique ability to project an air of glamour, elegance, and sophistication that is tempered by a charming innocence and humility.
Born on May 4, 1929, in Brussels Belgium, Audrey Hepburn (born Audrey Kathleen Ruston) was a daughter of Dutch baroness Ella Van Heemstra and Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston. Her father later adopted the more aristocratic surname Hepburn-Ruston, believing himself to be a descendant of James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell. Though she was born in Belgium, Audrey had British citizenship because of her father and attended school in England as a child. She had a sheltered and privileged lifestyle as a child, and her family traveled a lot due to her father’s job.
In 1935, his father abruptly left their family as he became deeply involved in fascist activity. Her mother moved with her to her family’s estate in Arnhem but moved to Kent, England, where Audrey was educated at an independent school.
Her parents divorced in 1939, and she remained with her mother. After Britain declared war on Germany that same year, her mother moved her back to Arnhem in the hope that the Netherlands would remain neutral and be spared from German attack. Hepburn attended the Arnhem Conservatory and took ballet lessons during her last years at the boarding school. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands, her mother changed Audrey’s name to Edda van Heemstra because she worried that her birth name would reveal her British heritage. During the war, she continued studying ballet in Amsterdam and London.
As the war escalated, their living conditions became worse. Arnhem was heavily damaged by 1944, and the Dutch famine followed in the winter. Many of the van Heemstra family properties were severely damaged and destroyed. Audrey suffered from malnutrition and developed acute anemia, edema, and respiratory problems as a result.
As their family’s fortunes have been lost during the war, Ella worked as a cook and housekeeper for a wealthy family. Meanwhile, Audrey made her film debut in Dutch in Seven Lessons (1948), an educational travel film. Later on, Audrey moved to London to accept a ballet scholarship and supported herself with a part-time job as a model. Due to her height and weak constitution, she can’t attain the status of prima ballerina despite her talent, so she decided to focus on acting.
Audrey became involved in theatrical work by doing menial jobs. In 1950, she was spotted by a casting director and registered her as a freelance actress with the Associated British Picture Corporation and had minor roles in television and film, credited as Audrey Hepburn.
While shooting a film in Monte-Carlo, Hepburn caught the eye of French novelist Colette, who felt that she would be ideal for the title role in her Broadway production of Gigi. Despite her inexperience, she was cast for the role, and it earned rave reviews when the play premiered on Broadway in 1951. Hepburn became a hit and received a Theatre World Award for the role. The play ran for more than 200 performances before closing in 1952.
Hepburn was cast in her first starring role in Roman Holiday (1953), and the film was a box office success. In the movie, she played a young princess who exchanges the burden or royalty for a day of romance and adventure, and it utterly charmed the audiences. Hepburn unexpectedly won an Academy Award for Best Actress, a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, and a BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in a Leading Role.
The next year, Hepburn returned to Broadway to star as a water nymph in Ondine, co-starring Mel Ferrer, whom she later married in 1954. She won a Tony Award for her performance for Best Actress in a Play. It turned out to be her last Broadway performance.
Back to the big screen, Hepburn made another award-worthy performance in 1954 as a title character in Sabrina, a romantic comedy film. This role provided her opportunities to appear in designs by Hubert de Givenchy, making her fashion identifiable.
In 1956, Hepburn stepped away from lighthearted fare in the film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace with her husband and Henry Fonda. She showcased her dancing abilities in Funny Face (1957), which also portrayed Hepburn as a model. Givenchy also designed her clothes for the film.
In 1959, Hepburn had her most demanding film role in The Nun’s Story (1959), which earned her an Academy Award nomination. After that stellar performance, she co-starred in The Unforgiven (1960) with Burt Lancaster.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Hepburn set new fashion standards. She played Holly Golightly, a lighthearted yet troubled New York party girl, and received her fourth Academy Award nomination. The character was a defining role for Hepburn and was considered one of the best-known in American cinema. The little black dress she wore during the opening credits was considered an icon.
For the rest of the 1960s, Hepburn took on different kinds of roles. She starred with Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour (1961) as a teacher. In 1963, she starred opposite Cary Grant in Charade playing a young widow. She played an assistant of a Hollywood screenwriter in Paris When It Sizzles (1964). She also played the lead in the film version of the classic musical My Fair Lady (1964), but her casting as the role of Eliza Doolittle was a source of dispute, as some viewers felt the role belonged to Julie Andrews. It was perhaps her most controversial role, yet she gave an admirable performance, which won her an Academy Award.
Hepburn starred in the heist comedy How to Steal a Million in 1996 and was followed by two films in 1967, Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark. The latter was a suspense thriller that demonstrated her wide acting range. However, it was a difficult film for her as she was on the brink of her divorce while her husband Mel Ferrer was its producer. She earned her fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. That same year, Hepburn and her husband separated and finalized their divorce.
After 1967, Hepburn chose to spend more time with her family and worked sporadically in the following decades. She got married to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti in 1969 and had a son with him in 1970. She only returned to acting in 1976 to play in a nostalgic love story opposite Sean Connery in Robin and Marian. In 1979, she co-starred with Ben Gazzara in Bloodline and teamed up with him again in 1981 for They All Laughed. Her last screen role was a cameo appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Always in 1989.
Retirement, Humanitarian Career, and Death
In her later years, Hepburn took a back seat in acting and went on to work on behalf of children. In 1989, Hepburn was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF. When she was appointed, she expressed her gratefulness for receiving international aid after enduring the German occupation when she was a child, and she wanted to show gratitude to the organization.
In 1988, Hepburn embarked on her first field mission for UNICEF in Ethiopia. She traveled the world to raise awareness about children in need. She made more than 50 trips, visiting projects in Africa, Asia, Central, and South America. She won a special Academy Award for her humanitarian work in 1993, but she died before she even got to receive it.
She started having abdominal pain in 1992, and it revealed to be a rare form of abdominal cancer. She underwent surgery and began chemotherapy. Hepburn spent her last days in hospice care at her home in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, and died in her sleep on January 20, 1993.
Glamorous Facts about Audrey Hepburn
- When Audrey Hepburn first rose to stardom in Roman Holiday, she was seen as an alternative feminine ideal who appealed to more women than men. She made slim fashionable, and her minimalistic fashion style, monochromatic colors, and statement accessories made her a style icon that young women found it easier to emulate than other more sexual film stars.
- Audrey Hepburn was the first actress ever to win multiple awards for a single performance. After her enchanting performance in Roman Holiday, she won an Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award.
- Even though she was not experienced, Hepburn landed her first major role not just because of her talent and beauty, but also because of her demure, charismatic, and humble personality. After her screen test, the camera kept rolling as she talks to the cameraman about her childhood. The unscripted moments won her the part.
- Audrey Hepburn was an animal lover, so the scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’swhere her character Holly Golightly pushes her orange cat out of a cab broke her heart. However, it had an unexpected bright side. After the movie broke out, animal shelters reported a record number of calls from people requesting for orange cats.
- Hepburn is part of an exclusive club in Hollywood. She won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. Even more impressive, she won an Oscar for her first major role. That’s a rare feat for artists and actors!
- Hepburn is truly beautiful inside and out. After her father left her and her mother for fascism, she forgave and reunited with him in the 1960s. She even provided for him financially for the rest of his life.
- Hepburn’s final film role was as an angel in Stephen Spielberg’s film Always. She was paid one million dollars, and as a real-life angel, she donated every penny to UNICEF.
- Due to her multinational background, Hepburn had the opportunity to learn five languages. She learned Dutch and English from her parents, and later on picked up French, Spanish and Italian.
- Hubert de Givenchy was associated with Hepburn, as he provided the actress’ stunning wardrobe for many of her movies. The two became life-long friends, though that friendship was made in a mix-up. When Givenchy was hired to design her onscreen wardrobe for Sabrina(1954), he was initially disappointed that the “Miss Hepburn” he would be working with was not Katharine Hepburn. But the pair hit it off, and Hepburn became the couturier’s muse. Givenchy was there for Hepburn even in her last years, as he sent a private jet to take Hepburn from Los Angeles to Geneva to be taken care of in her home.
10. Hepburn is one of the two women lucky enough to wear the famous Tiffany Diamond. She wore it on a necklace for the legendary promotional shots for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.