(from Marie Claire Magazine)
Audrey Hepburn was the original gamine ingenue. Wide-eyed and pencil-thin, she pioneered the look of surprised innocence, provided an elegant and glamorous antidote to Monroe and even looked credible in a nun’s habit. Now, still in Givenchy suits, she is special ambassador for UNICEF. Too good to be true? Exclusive interview by Marilyn Willison.
In a pastel-colored suite at The Savoy, Audrey Hepburn is relaxing on a large sofa with the help of a generous Scotch and water and a pack of Kent cigarettes. She wears hardly any make-up, a layer of clear varnish on short nails, a plain black straight skirt, a red sweater and simple court shoes. Her jeweler is limited to two small rings worn on the little finger of her left hand: one, a gift from her son Sean, a discreet sapphire surrounded by a gold heart; the other, a row of three small diamonds given to her by Robert Wolders, the man with whom she has lived for the past nine years.
She looks younger than her 59 years, but if it were not for the familiar face and the willowy bearing of a ballerina, she could be any well-heeled matron from the Home Counties in London for a day’s shopping. Ten years ago the American journalist Bart Mills observed that when Audrey Hepburn needs a match for her cigarette, the look on her face is like a deer on a rifle range. She has retained the wide-eyed and delicate features, but the demeanor of a frightened animal has been replaced by quiet self-assurance. In the 1950s and 1960s. Audrey Hepburn was the quintessential gamine ingénue. Film fans of that era had a choice between voluptuous sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, and the girlish charm proffered by Hepburn and Leslie Caron. As a popular icon, her appeal competed with that of Monroe: the two women shared a record for having seven Life magazine covers each.
When she was a child, like all good little girls, Audrey Hepburn dreamt not of film stardom but of becoming a ballerina. ‘Ballet was always my first love and what I wanted to do. I didn’t intend to become an actress,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t start ballet lessons until I was ten and, because my training was interrupted by the war, and then by my lack of energy, it was much too late. You need to train early – and properly – at some serious place like Sadlers Wells. So that’s why I went into musicals and cabaret.’
By her early twenties she had managed to appear in several dancing/acting roles in stage productions. ‘I was always worried that I wouldn’t get the next job,’ she recalls. ‘At the time I was supporting myself and my mother and it seemed I was always struggling.’ Her first big break came in 1951, when she was cast in the title role in the Broadway production of Gigi. Still relatively unknown, she was snapped up by the director William Wyler – whose passionate epic film versions of Wuthering Heights and Ben Hur had made an enormous impact on Hollywood – to star in his new project, Roman Holiday. Hepburn was irresistible as the bored princess trapped in Rome with an American journalist (played by Gregory Peck), and her portrayal won her an Academy Award for best actress.
‘This girl,’ predicted Wyler, ‘single-handed, may make bosoms a thing of the past.’ He was right. Audrey Hepburn’s slender silhouette was the death knell for the voluptuous top-heavy figure that was currently in vogue, and earned her the flattering reputation of being ‘elegance personified’.
While fans envied her pencil-thin physique – she is 5ft 7in tall and still weighs only 100lb – the Belgian-born actress was far from comfortable with her figure. One of the great doyennes of Hollywood, the costume designer Edith Head, once suggested that her shape could be improved with a little padding. Apologetically, Hepburn replied, ‘But I’m wearing falsies!’
She laughs at the memory of her youthful insecurity about the features so many have tried to emulate. `I’d wish my nose was smaller, that my hair wasn’t so straight, that I wasn’t so flat-chested, that sort of thing. My feet are large: I would have loved to have had petite feet.’
The refined but exotic looks that caused Audrey Hepburn so much anxiety during her youth are the result of an unusual parentage. Her mother, a Dutch baroness, was living in Indonesia when she met the Anglo-Irish banker who was to become Audrey Hepburn’s father. With two half-brothers from her mother’s first marriage, she adjusted to what she now calls ‘my weird childhood’. Her parents divorced when she was six years old which, she makes clear, left a deep wound that D affected her well into adulthood.. ‘Today I’ve settled into a happy relationship with how I am. But when you’re, young, you often wonder if anyone will love you the way you are.’
Life would be far happier, she thought, with a different face: ‘I wanted to look like two people when I was younger: Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons. I thought they were the two most beautiful women I’d ever seen and I still do. But I also wanted to be like Ingrid Bergman because she seemed so strong; I loved her freshness and openness. 1 would have been happy to look like any one of them. Because Ingrid was bigger, she gave me hope: it was comforting that people admired her even though she wasn’t a tiny, curl haired, delicate thing.’ Once her Hollywood career was launched, Audrey Hepburn embarked on a brief but glittering string of films in which she invariably starred as a sensitive and virtuous heroine. In The Nuns Story, critics justifiably attacked the plot and stilted performances, but convents reported a dramatic increase in applicants. As Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tifatly’s, Hepburn starred with another ‘unknown’, George Peppard, and propelled the theme tune ‘Moon River’ into a national anthem of true love. Teamed with Cary Grant in Charade, she was one half of Hollywood’s ideal romantic duo at the time. And even when she received bad reviews for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle opposite Rex Harrison’s Professor Higgins in My. Fair Lathy, her box-oflice popularity continued to rise.
While her attention was focused on a list of imagined flaws, countless other people were convinced that she represented a new femininideal. One of hermany admirers, the French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, claimed Audrey Hepburn as his creative inspiration and in the late 1950s he even dedicated his perfume L’Interdit to her. ‘I have a great, great, huge friendship with Hubert de Givenchy,’ she says, smiling at the mention of his name. ‘I’ve worn his clothes, and his only, for years and years. In movies and in my private life his clothes are what I choose, and I borrow a lot of special gowns for important occasions like the Oscars. We’ve been close, ear friends for 35 years. ‘Audrey Hepburn’s romantic alliances, however, have not been as long-lived or as unreservedly successful as her relationship with M. Givenchy. Her first marriage, in 1955, was to Mel Ferrer, who was later her co-star in War and Peace; Hepburn played Natasha, Ferrer played Prince Andrei. Hollywood insiders claimed that the marriage was tense because of Ferrer’s burning acting ambition for both himself and his wife; Hepburn’s ambition was merely for a happy home life. They divorced after thirteen years together, but had one child, Sean, now 28 years old.
Unlike many veterans of the film industry, who would rather see their offspring in more stable professions, she derives obvious pleasure from seeing her son go into the same business. ‘Sean is in production. He’s just finished a film in Mexico with Gregory Peck, my co-star in Roman Holiday – so it has come full circle. He’s very valuable because the film was shot in Mexico with an Argentine director and a crew that was part Italian, part Mexican, and part Argentine, and as Sean speaks so many languages he was very helpful to them all.’
The tributes she pays to her daughter-in-law are no less fulsome: ‘He’s married to an adorable, wonderful little Italian wife who is very pretty and very talented. She’s a fashion designer and very successful, with her own line.’ The only flaw in this otherwise distressingly perfect family is the lack of offspring. ‘Those two arc always working, so I have no grandchildren so far,’ she says, with an air of disappointment.
Hepburn herself has devoted a lot of time to being a shining example of motherhood. In 1969, she married an Italian psychiatrist, Dr Andrea Dotti, nine years her junior. She ‘retired’ from films and devoted herself fully to the duties of a Roman housewife, cooking and caring for her successful husband and their son, Luca. After eleven years together the Dottis divorced. According to press reports, It was because Dotti –an avid enthusiast of backgammon and night-clubbing – grew restless in Rome, while his wife spent time in Switzerland where their son was enrolled in school (to escape the threat of kidnapping).
‘I think of him all the time,’ she says of her younger son. ‘Luca is a truly wonderful boy. He was schooled at the Lycee Francais in Switzerland, but is hoping to move to London in September. He’s Italian and totally bilingual (Italian and French), but wants to live in England. He likes the idea of living where English is the spoken language.’
In 1979, after her second divorce, a mutual friend in Los Angeles introduced the actress to Merle Oberon’s much younger widower, the Dutch actor-turned business man, Robert Wolders, with whom she now lives. Happy to talk about him, she readily recalls how their romance began. ‘I met Rob Wolders nine years ago at a dinner in Los Angeles, about six months after his wife had died. He was very sad and I myself was very unhappy at the time. A friendship was horn that night and we talked a great deal about Merle, whom I had known years before. We didn’t see each other for about six months, but met again at a dinner party in New York and then began going out. We’ve been together ever since.’
The home they share is in the Swiss countryside between Lausanne and Geneva, where Hepburn has lived for the past 24 years. Their lifestyle is quiet and unassuming, and they rarely cross paths with the gaggle of celebrities who live in Switzerland. (Jackie Stewart’s home is just over twenty miles away, but they have seen him no more than twice in the past seven years.) A keen gardener. Hepburn shows no desire to partake in the revels and frivolity on offer for Hollywood royalty retired or otherwise — other than an annual outing to the designer Valentino’s New Year’s Eve party, where shoulders may he rubbed with the likes of Roger Moore, Elizabeth Taylor and William F. Buckley. It was not until last December that this apparently quiet, very private life changed dramatically, after a trip to Tokyo for a gala benefit honoring the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Although Hepburn had attended various other fundraising events over the years, her involvement had never been more than sporadic, but she quickly agreed to a request from the executive director of UNICEF, James Grant, that she become ‘special ambassador’ for the charity. By March this year. she was on her way to Ethiopia, to help focus attention on UNICEF’s struggle there, and her work for the charity has continued ever since. The task is a formidable one: UNICEF operates in 120 countries as part of its commitment to promote the health of children in the Third World, and is entirely dependant on voluntary contributions to provide food, clothing and medicine. To prove how effective their work is, Hepburn proudly underlines the fact that in 1974 only five per cent of the world’s children were vaccinated against contagious diseases: today the figure is closer to fifty per cent. As a child, she was not immune to suffering, and endured near starvation during the Second World War. Although she attended a private school in Britain when the war began, her mother, thinking that Holland would be neutral and therefore safer than England, took her adolescent daughter back to their home in the Dutch city of Arnhem.
She describes those days in a torrent of near-whispered words. ‘During the war our times were very hard, particularly in the winter of 1944. Half our house was blown away, and we lived in the cellar on’ mattresses. I was there with my mother, my aunt and my grandfather. A friend of my mother’s had been out shopping and we took her in to get her out of the firing, and even a total stranger who happened to he on the street spent two days with us. That cellar became a sort of shelter.’
The need for a safe hiding place had been made bleakly apparent to the family: ‘At the beginning of the war, my uncle and cousin. were killed by the Nazis as a reprisal, or example, for what the underground had done to the Germans. They had been innocent hostages.’ For those who escaped, the struggle to survive was immense: ‘During the five years of the war, food dwindled and I think we in Holland had a particularly rough occupation. The area 1 was in was rather peculiar because six months before the end of the war the British had attempted an airborne landing. at Arnhem. They even made a movie about it afterwards that was my city and my war. The famous bridge in that movie was the one I crossed to go to my school and to ballet class.
‘The Battle of Arnhem failed, the British withdrew across the river, and from then on Arnhem became a no-man’s-land an empty city. There were no shops. no provisions.
‘We found ourselves caught between the two sides and we really had to scrounge for food. Later on it was referred to as “the hunger winter” because even if there was food. which was rare, the Germans would take it for their army.•
Hepburn has vivid memories of the pathetic scraps of food they lived on: ‘We were .so hungry. We tried to eat grass, but discovered that you can’t. Tulip bulbs were good for making a fine flour, and that’s what pastry shops baked with during the war.
Turnips, however, were another matter. We had to grate or boil or eat things any way we could. But there was no salt, no butter, no oil and you ate them morning, noon, and night. They soon lost what little appeal they had.
‘I was in bad shape after the war and I was undernourished, hut it’s thanks to UNICEF that my health was restored. If the health organizations hadn’t existed, I think thousands of children would have had a very difficult time getting back on their feet.’
Hepburn feels very strongly that these war-time experiences make her appeals on behalf of UNICEF all the more compelling and she has become an impressive advocate for the charity’s work today. Explaining why she agreed to make her first trip to Africa for UNICEF in March. she says. ‘Last year Ethiopia was becoming a potentially disastrous area and was being forgotten by the press. The general feeling was that all the hard work of 1985 had solved the problem. But, in fact, by last year the area was in an even worse drought, and the people there were still suffering from the aftermath of the last drought and were weakened and malnourished. But this time, thank God, we’ve managed to get the aid there in time to avoid another major disaster.’
Her dedication to the UNICEF cause is very obvious: ‘Last time it wasn’t until the media publicized the problem that the world woke up. But my job is difficult because it’s tough to shock the world a second time. People think they’ve already given money once and wonder why that didn’t “fix it”. But it’s a much, Much bigger problem than just getting aid. Most of that area has been depleted over centuries and with the Marxist government, the civil war, and the drought, the problem we face is enormous.’
Audrey Hepburn admits that her dramatic change of lifestyle would not have been possible without the constant support of Rob Wolders: ‘I’d be lost without Robbie. I couldn’t do the UNICEF work without him because from both the organizational and emotional side he is a great support for me. There are so many appointments and phone calls and speeches that have to be prepared – and I’ve had to do so much reading – apart from the fact that we have our own lives to live. But he’s so supportive and so passionate about the UNICEF work that we really do it together. I don’t think this kind of job can be done alone.’
But however great the comfort and backing Wolders provides the responsibility is clearly draining her. ‘Emotionally, you can’t counteract the effect of such an assignment,’ she says with some weariness. ‘You can only go home and collapse into bed. I’ve recently discovered that the tiring aspect of this work is not the jet lag or the interviews or the press conferences – none of which I do easily or naturally, – but it’s the awareness of the suffering that I find such a strain. I’m not really cut out for this kind of work. PM not used to making speeches and 1 get the same nerves as if I were giving a performance. But then you realize why you’re doing it and that gives you the strength to carry on. Even when I don’t get it right, I remind myself that the attention is good because the cause is so great.’
Audrey Hepburn admits that now, in her late fifties, she is working harder than she ever did as either a dancer or an actress. But what propels her, she says, is an overwhelming commitment to the cause: ‘Love of children envelops my life. I stayed home – happily – and gave up my career because of my own children; and now, because of other children, I’m constantly on the move. There is something about a child, I tell you, that is magic. And I’d willingly do anything to help. I’d go to the moon.’