Audrey's glittering career hid star's secret heartache
A major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London will showcase 35 previously unseen images of Audrey Hepburn from her sons' private collections. Julia Molony profiles the star who escaped the Nazis to become a true style icon, but always craved a simpler life
Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30
In the mid 1950's Hollywood was obsessed with breasts. Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor dominated popular culture. The female archetype of the time was exaggeratedly curvy, overtly sensual, and emotionally tempestuous. Then came Audrey Hepburn. Descended from aristocracy she was waif-like, fragile, and even when playing a prostitute (as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's) somehow always slightly prim.
At just 23, while still an unknown, she snatched the lead role for her first big picture Roman Holiday, from Elizabeth Taylor and won a Best Actress Oscar for her efforts. When she was subsequently cast to play the titular role in Sabrina, alongside William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, such was her burgeoning influence that the film's director Billy Wilder said she "might single-handedly make bazooms a thing of the past."
Hepburn's dancer's form and graceful bearing were products of her childhood. She was born into a privileged existence in Belgium to Baroness Ella van Heemstra - a Dutch aristocrat, and her second husband, Joseph Hepburn-Ruston a highly-educated Anglo-Irish banker who had connections to the fascist party. Initially raised with her two step-brothers from her mother's first marriage, she studied dancing as a child and was educated in England.
But the first big tragedy in Hepburn's young life occurred when her father abandoned the family when she was still very small. "I was destroyed at the time and cried for days and days," she recalled half a century later. "My parents' divorce was the first big blow I had as a child ... I worshipped my father and missed him terribly from the day he disappeared. Having my father cut off from me when I was only six was desperately awful. If I could just have seen him regularly, I would have felt he loved me. But as it was, I always envied other people's fathers. I came home with tears because they had a daddy. My mother had great love for me, but she was not always able to show it. I had no one to cuddle me."
It was a loss that continued to resonate throughout Hepburn's life. Though they were estranged for decades, Audrey and her dad Joseph finally reconnected in the 1960s when the actress, by then a big star, managed to locate her father living quietly in Dublin. They kept in contact by post and she even spoke of plans to come and visit him in Ballsbridge. However when he died in the 1980s, she didn't attend his funeral. In 1939, a few short years after her parents separated, fighting had broken out in Europe and Audrey and her mother moved from England back to the Netherlands in the belief that it would stay neutral. But the Nazis invaded soon after and they spent several years living under German occupation.
Towards the end of the war food was scarce, and Audrey was said to have survived by eating bread made from ground-up tulip bulbs. Starvation took its toll on her health - leaving her with severe malnutrition and anaemia.
Nonetheless, she continued to pursue her passion for dance, and after the war she moved with her mother to London where she'd won a ballet scholarship. It was there that she eventually began her professional life in showbusiness, winning work initially as a chorus girl in West End musicals, and bit-parts in British movies.
Hepburn was not destined to languish for long in supporting roles. From London, she won the lead role in a Broadway production of Gigi. She arrived in New York to a frenzy of excitement in the press about this exotic new import with the middle-European accent and aristocratic heritage. Before her opening night on Broadway, she'd already been cast in her first Hollywood film.
For the casting department on Roman Holiday she was a no-brainer for the part of the young, bored princess on the run from the ennui of a life of royal duty. Indeed, she seemed born to play the role.
And yet despite this runaway success Hepburn was shy; a chain-smoker who felt awkward about her appearance and undeserving of all the attention being showered upon her. There remained a naivety about her despite all she had seen.
It was on the set of Sabrina that she struck up her first life-changing, adult affair with her co-star, Bill Holden. He was married with three children, and initially Audrey was another in a long-line of mistresses. When she met Bill, she was in her mid-twenties and recovering from a messy break-up after a long engagement to British Industrialist James Hanson. She'd also been involved in a brief flirtation with fellow actor Mel Ferrer, but had decided he was unsuitable as a prospect as he had already had four children from three failed marriages.
Audrey was looking to build the domestic stability and solid family life that had eluded her as a child, but at the same time, was in the middle of a dramatic transition, adjusting to life in America and global stardom.
By the time she met Holden, (handsome, tall tanned, an all-American male) her status was secured. Holden was struck by her immediately, saying; "I felt as if we were old friends, and I was rather fiercely protective of her."
Quickly their relationship became more than just a casual affair - Holden later described her as the "love of his life," and recalled with nostalgia the time they spent together. "Sometimes at night," he recalled, "I'd get a portable record player and we'd drive out to the country to a little clearing we'd found. We'd put on ballet music. Some of our most magic moments were there."
Holden's wife, Ardis (herself a former actress who had given up work to look after the couple's children) though aware of his indiscretions, was nonetheless territorial. According to one of Hepburn's many biographers, Edward Epstein, when Holden and Hepburn had been together for some time, Ardis took the unusual step of inviting Audrey to their family home, as a means of sizing up her rival. Spotting immediately that this was more than just a fling, she demanded her husband end it at once.
Instead, Holden proposed marriage. And when the end of the affair arrived, it was Audrey who initiated it, according to Epstein.
Despite the strength of her feelings, there was one, insurmountable hitch. From an early age, Audrey was determined that having a family, rather than acting was her main priority. In his book Audrey and Bill, Epstein writes that 'Once, while chatting brightly about the names of their future children, suddenly an embarrassed smile, tinged with fear, crept into Bill's face ... 'He told her that the one thing, the only thing they could not have together, was children'. He would recall the fixed expression in her eyes; 'How she stood looking at him like a hurt, bewildered child.' According to Epstein, it wasn't out of loyalty to his wife that he made this declaration, but rather because he had, at her insistence, undergone an vasectomy several years previously."
Hepburn promptly ended the affair.
As Audrey was left reeling from the disappointment, Mel Ferrer stepped back into her life, declaring his devotion and proposing marriage. Audrey dived into marriage as a refuge, and immediately started trying for a family. But there were further trials to come. She suffered two miscarriages before giving birth to her son, Sean. The second, came after she was thrown from a horse on the set of the ill-fated John Huston western, The Unforgiven. Production screeched to a halt and Hepburn, then in early pregnancy, was hospitalised. She lost the baby a few months after.
Her first, much-longed for child was finally born in 1960, when Hepburn was 31. Soon after, she was back at work, appearing in Breakfast at Tiffany's when Sean was still a baby. But her priorities had shifted, and a few short years later, at the height of her career, she went into semi-retirement. "I suppose people could blame me for ending Audrey Hepburn's career," her son Sean once said. "She knew her potential. If she had kept working, the parts were there for her, and her success professionally would have continued at a high level for years. But she wanted to be with her family. She wanted a private life. And she couldn't bear the thought that she might fail as a mother. It was too important to her."
According to Sean, her own early childhood experiences living under the Nazi's shaped her whole life. It made her appreciate the freedoms that most people take for granted, and it made her oppose any form of extreme government. It also turned her against Germany. She wouldn't have anything German in the house.
"She always surprised people when they saw her working in the kitchen. There was absolutely nothing pretentious about her and that showed when she was preparing a meal because her tastes were so simple. She loved a good plate of pasta with tomato sauce, and her big treat was to go to hotels and order a club sandwich from room service. That made her day."
But despite Audrey's fixation on the importance of the simple pleasures of family life, her marriage to Ferrer was not a success. As an actor himself, he was said to be resentful and jealous as Audrey's career eclipsed his own. According to the film director Alfred Lunt: "Ferrer used Audrey's crush on him to rule her with an iron fist".
Though he would go on to direct her in a couple of films, rumours circulated that Mel was domineering and overprotective. She gave an interview under the headline: My husband doesn't run my career. Ferrer, given the opportunity, has vehemently denied the speculation about the dynamic between them, telling People magazine soon after Hepburn's death; "I don't think anybody could compete with Audrey, I don't think there was any sense in trying to. I had a great deal to do with her career, and I'm delighted I was able to contribute. But I didn't benefit from it, I was not competitive nor was I controlling."
By the time My Fair Lady came out in 1964, her marriage to Ferrer was in trouble. The film was commercially successful but Hepburn's performance was criticised and she was mocked for her hammy cockney accent. Unaccustomed to the experience of failing to win over the critics, she took it hard.
Disharmony back at home was exacerbated by the fact that Mel had a difficult, fractious relationship with Audrey's mother - whom she adored. "It ate away at me that they couldn't get along," she said. In 1966 it became clear to the public that the marriage was in trouble when reports began to emerge that Hepburn was involved in an affair with her Two For the Road co-star Albert Finney. The following year, she began divorce proceedings. As her son Sean remembers; "My mum came and told me that she and dad were going to divorce, but explained that none of it was my fault. When she told me, I was very upset, naturally, because I loved them both, but I was also relieved in a way because it explained why things didn't feel quite right at home. Neither of them ever said bad things about the other to me. The marriage was simply a failure between two human beings."
For Audrey, the end of her marriage represented a crisis of faith. "When my marriage broke up, it was terrible," she said later. "More than that, it was a keen disappointment. I thought a marriage between two good, loving people had to last until one of them died. I can't tell you how disillusioned I was. I'd tried and tried. I knew how difficult it had to be to be married to a world celebrity, recognised everywhere, second billed on the screen and in real life. How Mel suffered. But believe me, I put my career second."
After they separated, she and Ferrer spoke only a handful of times. While coming to terms with the break-up of her marriage, Hepburn went into semi-retirement. Appearing only occasionally in films, she was focussed on rebuilding her personal life. And a year after splitting from Ferrer, she married again, this time to the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti.
She hoped to retreat into the simpler life as a doctor's wife, living far away from the public eye. At 40, she gave birth to her second son and threw herself determinedly into the parental role once again - walking her sons to school, happily pottering around in the kitchen. Terrance Young, whom Hepburn worked with on Wait Until Dark, one of the few projects she undertook after this time said of her; "First of all you spend a year or so convincing her to accept even the principle that she might make another movie in her life. Then you have to persuade her to read a script. Then you have to make her understand that it is a good script. Then you have to persuade her that she will not be totally destroying her son's life by spending six or eight weeks on a film set. After that, if you are really lucky, she might start talking about the costumes. More probably she'll just say she has to get back to her family and cooking the pasta for dinner, but thank you for thinking of her."
Her youngest son Luca, born during this period, says he was barely aware of his mother's fame when he was growing up, only realising the full impact after she died. "The greatest surprise was when she passed away, the public show of sorrow, love and admiration for her work was like 'Oh my God!' It was quite shocking back then as it was so different from the private and easy life we led.'
Though her marriage to Dotti lasted 13 years, ultimately, the family idyll she was hoping to build couldn't sustain and the couple split. By the time they split, she was already deeply entwined in a relationship with Robert Wolders, a Dutch actor, which would last until her death, from cancer in 1993.
Though they never married, she described the years they spent together as "the happiest of my life."
Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery in London from 2 July - 18 October.