The story of the early life of Audrey Hepburn could have been written by the Brothers Grimm, for it was that strange mixture of magic and horror that typifies the Fairy Tale. The only child of an unhappy union between an Anglo-Irish banker named Joseph Victor Hepburn-Ruston and the Dutch Baroness Ella van Ufford, Hepburn was born in Belgium in 1929, and was baptised Edda Kathleen Hepburn van Heemstra. Little Edda grew up in a castle – a moated building with grand halls and walls lined with ancestral portraits. She was waif-like, a little sickly, a dreamer who loved dancing and dressing-up. When Edda was six years old, her mother discovered her father in bed with the child’s nanny. Father was given his marching orders, and immediately set off for England to join Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. His only lasting influence on Edda was his insistence that she was to be educated at an exclusive English boarding school, but with the approach of the Second World War, Edda returned to the castle, her mother mistakenly believing that here they would be safe from any Nazi threat.
For a while, the fairy tale continued. Edda longed to be a ballet dancer and, when a touring company of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet came to her home town, she was selected to present a bouquet of flowers to the famous ballerina Margot Fonteyn. It was a night of pure magic, the last Edda was to experience for several years. Six weeks later, the Nazis occupied Holland and the dark side of the fairy tale descended upon her. Under-nourished and very frightened, Edda nevertheless ran errands for the Dutch Resistance, went on the run, and was forced to hide in a cellar for a whole month. It was an heroic existence, but it destroyed her dreams. By the time Holland was liberated, she had developed chronic asthma and an eating disorder, and her frame was too weak for her ever to become a prima ballerina. “I decided very early on,” she wrote later in life, “to accept life unconditionally; I never expected it to do anything special for me… Most of the time it just happened to me without my ever seeking it.” Such is the way of fairy tales.
Instead of becoming a ballet dancer, she became a bright, good-humoured, imaginative and slightly solemn chorus girl and bit-player in small budget British movies. And here she might have remained, repeatedly playing the part of the decent, loyal, pretty young wife in a prim dress whose movie role was to look after baby, cook for the husband, and emote only when there was an accident, a robbery, or her husband was required to work late unexpectedly.
In these bit parts that she played in her early movies, Hepburn somehow convinced people in the film business that she had that indefinable ‘something’. The camera – all cameras, still or movie, black-and-white or colour – loved her from the beginning, and Hepburn quickly learned to love the camera in return. She might have been an internationally famous model, and might have been happy to accept that as her fate. She might have married an exceptionally wealthy man – she was briefly engaged to the financier James Hanson. But in 1951, while playing a bit part on location in Monte Carlo, Hepburn met the French writer Colette. As happens in all good fairy tales, by chance Colette was looking for someone to play the part in a stage adaptation of her novel Gigi. And that same afternoon, Hepburn was offered the part in the forthcoming Broadway production.
Most of the next forty years of Hepburn’s life are in the public domain, a mixture of movie magic, romance, the misery of four miscarriages, the joy of having two sons, much cooking and gardening, and heart-break as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. And above all, how the young duckling – awkward rather than ugly – turned into a swan is to be seen in the publicity shots released by the film studios she worked for, in the stills from her films, in the informal ‘on set’ or ‘on location’ shots with her co-stars and film crews, and in the press photos of those parts of her private life that needs must be for public consumption.
It was a life that took her to the top of the movie tree, and the camera caught it all. There is Hepburn as a chorus girl; on a photo-shoot in Kew Gardens with the photographer Bert Hardy for Picture Post in 1951; resplendent as the young princess in a still from the denouement of Roman Holiday; in classic gamin-beatnik guise on a publicity shoot for Funny Face; and in numerous and gorgeous clothes created for her by the fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.
There is also a fascinating photograph of Hepburn with her first husband, Mel Ferrer, grooming one of the horses in the stables of their home in Burgenstock, Switzerland. Ferrer is relaxed, smiling. He has turned his head to the side, laughing at something that has happened off camera. Hepburn, however, is flirting with the camera. She knows why it is there, and she knows what she must do. “Everything I learned,” she wrote, “I learned from the movies.”
And there is, of course, the iconic image of Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The film was made over fifty years ago – a fairy tale of its own age… slight, amusing, and inconsequential. The New York Times called it “a completely unbelievable but wholly captivating flight into fancy”. It won no Academy Awards, save for Henry Mancini’s Best Movie Score and Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Best Original Song (“Moon River”). It made no fortunes. But that image – elbows on the table, tiara in the hair, cigarette holder held in black glove, and Hepburn’s eyes steady as a camera on a tripod, and that irresistible smile – still to be seen on posters, in shop windows, and reproduced in magazines and newspapers around the world as often as is decently possible. In many ways, it remains the highpoint of Hepburn’s life.
Text by Nick Yapp’s
In collaboration with http://www.endeavourlondon.com/