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Happy Birthday, Audrey Hepburn!

Audrey Hepburn in 1942
Audrey Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston on May 4, 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. She was the only child of Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, an English banker, and his second wife, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch aristocrat. Although born Ruston, Joseph later double-barrelled the surname to the more aristocratic Hepburn-Ruston, mistakenly believing himself descended from James Hepburn, the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Following her parents' divorce in 1937, Audrey moved with her mother to England, where she was educated at a small independent school in Kent.

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Ella and Audrey relocated to the Netherlands, settling in the van Heemstra ancestral family home in Arnhem. After the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, Audrey secretly danced for groups of people to collect money for the Dutch resistance, of which her mother, uncle and two older half-brothers were members. She also occasionally acted as a courier for the resistance, delivering packages and messages that she would hide in her shoe. To learn more about Audrey's experiences during World War II, click here.

After the war ended in 1945, Audrey moved to Amsterdam, where she took ballet lessons for three years, before appearing for the first time on screen as an air stewardess in a Dutch educational film called Dutch in Seven Lessons (1948). In late 1948, she returned to London and began working as a chorus girl in the West End. Audrey's theatrical work quickly lead to minor roles in a number of English films, including One Wild Oat (1951), her motion picture debut, the popular comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), starring Alec Guinness, and Laughter in Paradise (1951), in which she played a cigarette girl. Her first significant film role was in Secret People (1952), wherein she co-starred as a prodigious ballerina, performing all of her own dancing sequences.

With Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday
While filming Monte Carlo Baby (1952) on location in Monaco, Audrey was spotted by French novelist Colette, who handpicked her to play the title character in the stage version of her 1944 novella Gigi. During rehearsals for the play, Audrey was contacted by Paramount Pictures to do a screen test for William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953). Wyler and the studio were so impressed by her manner and general disposition that they immediately cast her in the lead role of Princess Ann, the restless young heir to a European crown who falls in love with an American newspaperman (Gregory Peck) assigned to write a story about her. Roman Holiday was a huge critical and commercial success, earning the 22-year-old star the Academy Award for Best Actress. 

Signing a contract with Paramount, Audrey next starred opposite Humphrey Bogart and William Holden playing the title role in Billy Wilder's romantic comedy Sabrina (1954). Based on Samuel A. Taylor's 1953 play Sabrina Fair, this was the tale of two brothers who compete for the affections of the young and innocent daughter of their family's chauffeur. Like its predecessor, Sabrina was critically and commercially acclaimed and received the Oscar for Best Costume Design, garnering five additional nominations, including Best Actress for Audrey.

With Mel Ferrer in War and Peace
In early 1954, Audrey returned to the stage to appear in the Broadway adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's fantasy play Ondine, for which she won a Tony Award. During the production, she and her co-star, 37-year-old Mel Ferrer, began a romantic relationship and eventually married in Switzerland on September 25, 1954. The marriage, however, was a rather turbulent one partly due to Ferrer's domineering personality and they ultimately divorced in 1968, but not before welcoming a child, son Sean, born in 1960.

Having become one of Hollywood's biggest box-office draws, Audrey went on to star in a series of successful pictures during the remainder of the 1950s. These included King Vidor's War and Peace (1956), with Ferrer and Henry Fonda; Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957), in which she sang and danced opposite Fred Astaire; Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon (1957), with Gary Cooper; and Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story (1959), for which she received a third Academy Award nomination. Her only flop during this period was Green Mansions (1959), a romantic adventure directed by Ferrer.

Following a co-starring role opposite Burt Lancaster in John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960), her only Western, Audrey was cast by director Blake Edwards in what is arguably her most iconic film, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). In this loose adaptation of Truman Capote's 1958 novella of the same name, Audrey played Holly Golightly, a carefree New York call girl torn between her wish to be free and her love for a struggling writer named Paul Varjak (George Peppard). Breakfast at Tiffany's opened to critical and commercial acclaim, earning Audrey her fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress. That year, she also appeared in William Wyler's controversial drama The Children's Hour (1961), wherein she and Shirley MacLaine portrayed teachers whose lives become troubled after a student accuses them of being lovers.

With Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady
After The Children's Hour, Audrey re-teamed with Stanley Donen for Charade (1963), a comic thriller co-starring Cary Grant, who had previously withdrawn from the male lead roles in Roman Holiday and Sabrina. The film was a great success and has been described as "the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made." Next, she reunited with William Holden in the modern screwball comedy Paris When It Sizzles (1964), one of the few critical and financial failures of her career.

Audrey completely regained her box-office status when she starred in George Cukor's My Fair Lady (1964), based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of same name. Released to critical and commercial acclaim, the film became Warner Bros. biggest moneymaker up to that time. The fact that Audrey did not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance as the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle was considered a major snub and triggered protests from both the studio and Cukor. She was very upset herself, but handled her disappointment with remarkable poise when the Academy invited her to present the Best Actor award, which went to her My Fair Lady leading man, Rex Harrison.

Audrey appeared in only three more films during the remainder of the 1960s: William Wyler's heist comedy How to Steal a Million (1966), co-starring Peter O'Toole; the sophisticated marital drama Two for the Road (1967), her third picture directed by Stanley Donen; and Terence Young's psychological thriller Wait Until Dark (1967), for which she received her fifth and final Academy Award nomination for her effective portrayal of a terrorized blind woman. In 1969, a year after her divorce from Ferrer, Audrey married Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, whom she met on a cruise to the Greek islands. The following year, she gave birth to a second long-awaited child, a son named Luca. Due to Dotti's constant affairs with younger women, the marriage ended thirteen later.

With Sean Connery in Robin and Marian
After nearly a decade of being away from Hollywood, Hepburn returned to the screen to star opposite Sean Connery in the Richard Lester's period drama Robin and Marian (1976), inspired by the legend of Robin Hood. Three years later, she re-teamed with Terence Young to appear in Bloodline (1979), an R-rated thriller  based on Sidney Sheldon's novel of the same name. During filming, Audrey enjoyed a brief romantic affair with her co-star Ben Gazzara. The following year, she became involved with yet another actor, Robert Wolders, the widower of Merle Oberon. Although they never married, Audrey and Wolders remained together until her death thirteen years later.

Audrey's last starring role in a motion picture was in Peter Bogdanovich's comedy They All Laughed (1981), which paired her with Gazzara for a second time. The film was overshadowed by the murder of one of its stars, 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, and received only a limited release. After appearing alongside Robert Wagner in the television film Love Among Thieves (1987), produced by the ABC network, she made her final cinematic appearance in Steven Spielberg's romantic drama Always (1989), an updated remake of Victor Fleming's wartime hit A Guy Named Joe (1943), in which she playing a cameo role as an angel named Hap.

Audrey Hepburn in Ethiopia in 1988
In the fall of 1987, following an appearance in a benefit event for help raise money for the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Audrey began a new and important phase in her life: that of a devoted humanitarian. During her five years as a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF, Audrey travelled to some of the world's most profoundly devasted nations, including Etiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam and Bangladesh, visiting several orphanages and participating in food, water and immunisation campaigns. In recognition of her extraordinary humanitarian work, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which she received posthumously and was accepted by her son Sean on her behalf.

During a trip to Somalia in 1992, Audrey began suffering from harsh abdominal pains. In mid-October of that year, after a series of tests and X-rays, it was discovered that she had a tumor of the colon and an emergency cirurgy to remove it was then performed. Since the tumor was given a low-malignancy rating, the doctors were confident that the worse was gone. However, three weeks later, Audrey began feeling severe stomach pains and was rushed back to the hospital. This time, the tests revealed the she was suffering from a rare type of cancer called pseudomyxoma peritonei, which had spread through her entire abdominal area. Two weeks before Christmas, she was told that she would have only three months to live. At seven o'clock on the evening of January 20, 1993, Audrey Hepburn passed away in her home in Switzerland, at the age of 63.

Audrey Hepburn searched her entire life for happiness and fulfillment; she finally found it in her last years by bringing smiles to the faces of millions of battered souls all over the world. Although she has been gone for over twenty years, her legacy as an actress, style icon and personality continues to influence and inspire many people all over the world. Every day, she continues to reminds us to believe in love, to enjoy life and, most importantly, to be happy.

For beautiful eyes, look for the good in other; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.
(Audrey Hepburn)

Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Mark Gitlin (2009) | The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition by Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel (2004)


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