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“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m possible.’”
Those famous words, attributed to Audrey Hepburn, sum up the actress and humanitarian’s resolve and dedication to her craft as well as her activism. In fact, that optimistic spirit is what guided her through a challenging, at times tumultuous, life that had its fair share of sorrows and joys.
The doe-eyed, youthful gamine we all know from films such as Sabrina, Roman Holiday, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston, in Ixelles, a municipality of Brussels, Belgium, in 1929. Her mother was a Dutch baroness, and her father was a British citizen of Austrian-Hungarian descent who worked in banking. Her father’s career and her mother’s birthright meant the family traveled extensively, and it wasn’t long before young Audrey could speak five languages. She was educated in England and Brussels. A little-known fact is that her parents were Nazi sympathizers, although Audrey herself rejected Hitler’s Third Reich and its evil, violent ways. Her parents divorced when Audrey was young, and her mother took her to the Netherlands, hoping it would be a safe place. Audrey began studying ballet while at boarding school, developing a love for dance that would stay with her all her life. Unfortunately, life in Holland was not safe, and the Germans invaded and occupied the country in 1940. Her uncle was executed because of the family’s societal prominence. She had two half-brothers, from her mother’s first marriage. One was deported to Berlin to work in a concentration camp, and the other went into hiding to escape the same fate. Still a child herself, Audrey observed numerous train loads of Dutch Jews being transported to concentration camps, and would sometimes see Nazi street violence. These images, and the emotions they stirred, stayed with Audrey Hepburn all her life.
In retaliation against the Dutch resistance, the Germans would frequently block supply routes, keeping much needed food and other essentials from Dutch citizens who were already struggling to survive, including Audrey and her family. Starving, they resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs at one point. Due to malnourishment, Audrey developed anemia, edema, and respiratory problems. Unfortunately, this made it difficult for Audrey to pursue a career in ballet, so she turned her focus to acting.
She took jobs as a model and chorus girl before landing her first starring role in the film Roman Holiday. She was fresh-faced and enchanting, innocent yet glamorous all at once. She broke with Hollywood’s popular stereotypes. She was neither blonde nor buxom. She was brunette and European, but not in the sultry style of Sophia Loren. As such, she had her own cachet, which caught the attention of Hollywood directors as well as fashion designers. Before long, Audrey Hepburn was something of an It Girl, before such a thing as an It Girl existed. Her style influenced generations of women, and will likely continue to do so.
The producers originally wanted Elizabeth Taylor for the starring role of Roman Holiday, but changed their mind after Hepburn’s audition. Upon completion of filming, her romantic lead, Gregory Peck, went to the director and suggested that Hepburn’s name get equal billing with his, over the title. The plan had been to include “Introducing Audrey Hepburn” in smaller type beneath the title. Although it was her first film, Peck insisted, “She’ll be a big star and I’ll look like a big jerk.” And so, they changed it.
With the success of Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn went on to make many notable films, including Sabrina, The Nun’s Story, Love in the Afternoon, and Funny Face, in which she got to dance with Fred Astaire, a thrill for the dance devotee. But in 1961, Audrey Hepburn took on her most iconic role, that of charmingly naive call girl Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The film’s opening sequence shows Hepburn swishing down Fifth Avenue in a black Givenchy evening gown, with matching gloves, several strands of pearls, and a gravity-defying updo, as the sun rises. Sipping coffee, she pulls a pastry (which she hated, by the way) from a bag and nibbles on it while admiring the jewelry in one of Tiffany’s large shop windows. Again, the role wasn’t originally intended for her. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role of Holly, but Hepburn made it her own. After all, it’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering messages for Sally Tomato or falling in love with George Peppard as they kiss in a downpour on the New York sidewalk.
She went on to make more films, most notably, My Fair Lady. But as much as Audrey Hepburn was beloved for her movie roles, she never forgot her roots and the importance of children and family. She had two sons from marriages to Mel Ferrer (whom she met at a cocktail party hosted by Gregory Peck), and Andrea Dotti; unfortunately, she also had several miscarriages. It was important to her to give her children some stability, so she gladly let her film career wane.
Later in life, she devoted herself to humanitarian efforts, most notably with UNICEF. She had begun working with UNICEF in the mid-1950s, very early in her acting career, doing radio presentations. But now she had time to make a real difference. Never forgetting her experiences as a child in war-torn Europe, Audrey Hepburn was dedicated to helping children the world over. In 1988, she visited an Ethiopian orphanage and was outraged by what she witnessed: Children were starving to death because food, which was available, couldn’t reach them due to civil war. No doubt, this reminded Audrey of what she had experienced in the Netherlands during German occupation. Another reminder of this difficult time likely turned into a more pleasant memory. Hepburn had a passion for flowers and beautiful gardens. In 1990, the Netherlands Flower Information Society named a white tulip in her honor. The dedication ceremony took place at her family’s ancestral home in Holland and she gave the first official Audrey Hepburn tulip to her elderly aunt.
She later went to Turkey on an immunization mission. After that, she traveled to Venezuela and Ecuador, helping bring water systems to places that had never had running water. She observed children helping to build their own school houses, thanks in part to the efforts of UNICEF. She continued her humanitarian work in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sudan, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. While others may have recoiled at children covered in flies, shoeless, starving, and uncertain of their next breath, Audrey Hepburn embraced them and gladly showed the world what it meant to love unconditionally.
Unfortunately, Audrey Hepburn developed appendiceal cancer, and although she had a few surgeries and chemotherapy, it was ultimately inoperable. She had gone to Switzerland, where she lived with her partner, Robert Wolders, to live out her final days, surrounded by her family and her beloved gardens. She succumbed to cancer in January of 1993. Afterward, her longtime friend Gregory Peck, who had fought for her to receive equal billing, read her favorite poem, Unending Love by Rabindranath Tagore, into a camera.
Truly a citizen of the world, blessed with grace and humility, Audrey Hepburn may have been most remembered for her iconic fashions or her glamorous film roles. But it is her unwavering humanitarianism and her unconditional love for the world’s children that showed her true character. To Audrey Hepburn, nothing was impossible. Through her example and her caring, children all over the world came to believe, “I’m possible.”