Hepburn By The Men Who Loved Her
Daily Express 31st December 1992
HOLLYWOOD was seduced by Audrey Hepburn. She is one of the last stars of the Tinseltown studio system, of the glamour days when costume designers like Edith Head were as important as the directors.
When she won international fame in 1953 in her first American film, Roman Holiday, a screen goddess had to took like a star.
And Audrey Hepburn, who was immediately labelled "The Princess" by Frank Sinatra, unquestionably looked the part. Until 1968 she was, with Elizabeth Taylor, the highest paid female star in the world. Director Billy Wilder, who guided her in Sabrina, recalled: "While most people simply have nice manners, Audrey has authentic charm and class."
She was a chic, sophisticated surprise; an exotic, tomboyish figure in a very chauvinistic business. "Everyone on the set of Roman Holiday was in love with Audrey," says Gregory Peck a lifetime friend who also worked with her for UNICEF. "We did that one picture together and I think it was the happiest experience I ever had on a movie set. There were a lot of tender feelings that we projected onto the screen."
Hepburn played a princess who falls in love with an American newspaper reporter, played by Peck. "Audrey was absolutely stunning and perfect in the role. I told my agent I wanted her to co-star because it was obvious she was going to be big and maybe win the Academy Award (she did)."
PECK says he has "a real love" for Hepburn but will not be drawn into talking of Roman Holiday rumours of a long ago romance. "Now," he says, "we get into an area where I can't answer." But then in Hollywood he is known as "Gentleman Greg". Perfect casting with The Princess.
Hepburn's life has been full of drama, of suffering, and although something of her early appeal lay in her appearance of innocence, from her teenage days there was always a man in her life.
The first man to hurt her was her father. She was born Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston, the daughter of Irish businessman Joseph Hepburn-Ruston and Baroness van Heemstra, from a distinguished Dutch family. She was six when her father vanished from her life after divorcing her mother. As war loomed over Europe, her mother moved from Belgium to Arnhem where she had relatives. Hepburn and her half-brothers Alexander and Jan joined day schools in the town and she also enrolled in the Arnhem Conservatory of Music and Dance.
In May 1940, the Germans invaded Holland, and the Nazi terror began. Her uncle and one of her mother's cousins were shot as "enemies of the Third Reich". Her mother publicly played a neutral game but quietly joined the Dutch Resistance. In 1942, the family home was commandeered and all her rights and deeds cancelled. Because her half-brothers refused to join the Nazi Youth organisation, Alexander was sent to a labour camp in Germany, although Jan escaped that punishment.
The teenaged Audrey Hepburn and her mother got their revenge by hiding resistance men. Hepburn made a little extra money by teaching dancing and piano but by 1943 the Arnhem Conservatory of Music was also a front for Operation Diver — an organisation that specialised in hiding and helping Dutch patriots.
Hepburn and other youngsters acted as secret couriers and agents. She was sent on several missions to deliver messages to British troops and was often in danger of discovery and arrest.
ONCE a roly-poly child, she was now malnourished — a stick-insect of a figure. After the battle at Arnhem in September 1944, Hepburn and her family survived the harsh winter by eating anything they could find, including grass. She developed oedema which swelled her ankles and knees. She later developed, hepatitis.
In May 1945, Arnhem was liberated. Her mother got a job as a cook in Amsterdam and the family lived in a tiny apartment. Audrey never fully recovered from the war — she lacked muscular strength.
And over the years she suffered from asthma which was one of the reasons she adopted Switzerland as her home as she found it easier to breathe in the mountains.
Today, a different but equally vicious disease, cancer, has once again made her gaunt and her limbs weak. In an interview before she had a malignant tumour removed from her colon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, she recalled the war years: "I was in very bad health. I had jaundice during that last six months. My mother and aunt and I ate very little. We ate a few turnips, we made flour from tulip bulbs. In the winter there was nothing. In the spring we picked anything we could in the countryside.
"It made me resilient and terribly appreciative for everything good that came afterwards. I felt enormous respect for food, freedom, for good health and family — for human life. I was 15 when the war ended and those are things that a 15 year old is not normally aware of. Right after the war I went straight to work.
"I wanted to be Margot Fonteyn and a choreographer as well, but life happened differently.. The war and the malnutrition interrupted my dance training and by the time I studied ballet in London in 1948 I didn't have anywhere near the technique that girls my age had. I also sensed I was very tall and might have difficulty. I didn't just make up my complex. I was taller than most of the boys in my class."
After moving to England, Audrey worked as a secretary in the evenings and attended the Marie Rambert Ballet . School in London. Her mother had a job in a florist's shop in the City.
In 1950 there was a casting call for dancers for a British version of the Broadway musical High Button Shoes. Hepburn was hired as a chorus girl. And there were walk-on roles in British films including the Lavender Hill Mob.
But, as is so often the case, it was happenstance that made her a star. She was working on a film in Monte Carlo when the French novelist Colette saw her and decided she would be perfect for the lead role in the Broadway version of her book Gigi. Hepburn sailed to New York from Southampton.
And once there, her career took off. It ended her thoughts of marriage to James Hanson — now business mogul Lord Hanson — who was a member of a wealthy Huddersfield lorry manufacturing family. She had intended to marry him against her mother's wishes after the Broadway run of Gigi, but talent scouts for William Wyler, who was casting the princess for Roman Holiday, spotted her.
Reluctantly, she agreed to go to Hollywood and test for the role. Wyler, like just about everybody else, was enchanted.
When Gigi opened in November 1951 she received her first standing ovation, and it was still playing to standing room-only crowds when she left in May 1952.
She flew immediately to Rome to meet her co-stars for Roman Holiday. The film was completed by September and she then went on an exhausting road tour of America with Gigi. Huddersfield seemed a long way away. She quietly said that her romance with Hanson was over. Her one with the public was just about to begin.
"Lots of people thought it would go to her head but it didn't," says Gregory Peck.
"She thought of films as fairy-tales and being in them part of a fairy-tale existence. I think that's why she was never tripped up by her fame.
"If you believe it's all just a delightful story — and you're lucky to be part of it — then you avoid the dangers that threaten those who take it more seriously.
"Audrey took her work seriously but not all the trappings that go with it."
She worked with the legends. Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant. Grant confided to me once that he had three great screen "loves", or favourites. They were Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren (who he was a little more than platonically besotted by) and Audrey Hepburn.
Grant said: "They're all jewels, very precious. And Audrey is such a gem. She really cares."
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