Audrey Hepburn is one of the most well-known and well-admired actresses of Hollywood’s golden era. Today, she is an icon of traditional vintage style, representing the ideals of grace, beauty, and sophistication.
Text by Meagan Dill
Photographs courtesy of Louis Vuitton
Audrey was born in 1929 in Belgium to a father of mixed Austrian and British descent and a mother of Dutch descent. Growing up, the family often travelled between these three countries, giving Audrey a truly multicultural upbringing. As a result, she spoke a plethora of languages fluently: English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian.
In 1937, Audrey and her mother were living in Kent, England. Her mother, having caught Audrey’s father having an affair, had left him and relocated herself and her daughter. When WWII broke out in 1939, the two of them moved to Arnhem in the Netherlands. As Britain and Germany were at war, it was thought that this would be a safer place, given that the Netherlands had been one of few countries to remain neutral in WWI. Unfortunately, in this case, history did not repeat itself, and by 1940 the Netherlands was being invaded by Germany.
It was considered dangerous to have an English-sounding name during this time, so Audrey temporarily adopted the more Dutch-sounding name of Edda Van Heemstra. During the war, Audrey and her family suffered many hardships. Her uncle, Otto Van Limburg Stirum, was executed by Germans as revenge for an act of sabotage performed by Dutch rebels. Meanwhile, Audrey’s half-brother, Ian, was forced to relocate to Berlin to work in a German labour camp. Her other half-brother, Alex, subsequently went into hiding to avoid the same fate.
Audrey herself, just a young girl at the time, saw and experienced many of the horrors of the war. Food became incredibly scarce due to a combination of a devastating famine and the Germans’ attempt to starve out the town of Arnhem by blocking off the resupply routes. It worked – many people either starved or froze to death from the inhospitable conditions. Although Audrey survived, she had developed severe health problems linked to malnutrition, not to mention acute emotional trauma from witnessing the war. After the Netherlands was liberated, the United Nations dispatched trucks filled with food to various affected areas in order to rehabilitate their impoverished inhabitants. Many years later, Audrey recalled how much this meant to her at the time, stating in an interview that – unused to such luxuries – she made herself physically ill from eating an entire tin of condensed milk and putting too much sugar in her porridge.
Later in life, Audrey would go on to become a humanitarian, working together with UNICEF in war-torn countries to provide aid for the children living there. It is clear that, although deeply traumatic, Audrey’s experiences during WWII shaped her into a profoundly empathetic person who was extremely giving of her time and resources to those in need.
In 1945, after the end of WWII, Audrey and her mother moved to Amsterdam, where Audrey began to focus on ballet, an interest which she had pursued throughout her life. 1948 saw Audrey and her mother travelling to London so that Audrey could study at the Ballet Rambert.
However, as we now know, ballet was not to be her destiny. Her mentor at the time told her that her fairly tall height (1,70m or 5’7”) as well as the long-term bodily effects of her impoverishment during the war would stand in the way of her becoming a prima ballerina. Taking this advice, Audrey began to work as a chorus girl on the West End. Her reasoning was that it paid more than modelling, which she had already been doing part-time to supplement the income of herself and her mother.
After being scouted at a theatre production, Audrey began to take on small roles in film. This culminated in her first major supporting role in 1952 as – of all things – a ballerina in Thorold Dickinson’s The Secret People. When a French writer saw Audrey on set and decided immediately to cast her as the titular character in an upcoming play, Gigi, the wheels for an entirely different life were set in motion. The show opened on Broadway in 1951 to great acclaim and went on to run solidly for another two years.
Audrey’s true ascent into the ranks of legendary golden era was at the hands of a 1953 film entitled Roman Holiday. It earned her three major awards for best actress: an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe. From there, Audrey went on to star in Sabrina, a film in which she played the daughter of a chauffeur being wooed by two wealthy brothers. She then returned to Broadway to play the lead role in Odine, a fantasy play to which her elfish beauty lent itself perfectly.
But the true hallmarks of Audrey’s career were yet to come: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), with its hallmark black Givenchy dress, and My Fair Lady (1964), the unforgettable classic musical. Around 1966, shortly after these two films, Audrey began to slow her film career down in order to give attention to her home life and her philanthropic work with UNICEF. It was this that she spent her last three decades pursuing before her death in 1993.
The appendiceal cancer which would ultimately take the Hollywood starlet’s life was discovered just months before she passed. During surgery, doctors discovered that the cancer was impossible to remove as it had spread slowly in a thin coating over her intestine rather than coagulating into a tumour.
With the knowledge that the cancer was inoperable, Audrey wished to return to Switzerland to spend her last Christmas with her family. This was problematic due to the fact that she was in Los Angeles at the time and was still recovering from her surgery, making it impractical for her to take such a long journey on a commercial aircraft. Luckily her old friend from the days of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hubert de Givenchy, arranged for a private jet to be made available to Audrey, and, in a touching gesture, filled it with flowers.
After her tragic passing, Audrey remained a legend not only for her flawless acting skills but also for her beauty, charm, and enviable sense of style. Gone but never forgotten, her image still adorns countless walls across the world.
Photograph credits in order: Audrey Hepburn with her Louis Vuitton Speedy; a scene from the 1967 film "Two for the Road", starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney