The Belgian-born actress, who charmed audiences with an almost ethereal beauty and sophistication, won an Oscar for her first major film, Roman Holiday. Among her best films were Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sabrina, Funny Face and My Fair Lady.
After ending her main acting career, Hepburn became an ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) and last September went to war-torn Somalia to publicise the plight of starving children. Afterwards she underwent surgery in America to remove a tumour before returning to her home on Lake Geneva.
Her own childhood had been scarred by fear and hunger during the German occupation of the Netherlands.
Born Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston on May 4, 1929, to a Dutch baroness and an English banker, Hepburn was sent to private schools in Britain but was on holiday in the Netherlands when the Second World War broke out.
She saw her brother dragged away to a labour camp and struggled to survive after her uncle and cousin were executed.
In 1988, more than 20 years after she gave up full-time acting, she became a goodwill ambassador for Unicef.
'My childhood made me more receptive to the ravages of war, violence and hunger and gave me the urge to do something,' she said in an interview in 1989.
Inspecting development projects in Africa and Latin America, and touring rich countries to persuade them to do more to help, she was one of the most prominent campaigners for third world children.
Robert Smith, Unicef's UK director, said last night: 'She gave those last years of her life totally to Unicef. She felt she was a voice for the children, she was giving them a voice.'
George Peppard, her co-star in Breakfast at Tiffany's, said: 'It's very sad. A silver bell has been silenced.'
Hepburn had two sons, one by Mel Ferrer, her co-star in the Broadway production of Ondine. They were divorced in 1968. She had another son with an Italian psychiatrist, Andrea Dotti, whom she married the following year. They later divorced.
Her funeral will take place on Sunday at the village church of Tolochenaz, Vaud, Switzerland.
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