Hepburn: ambassador of charm: David Connett profiles the life of a star who suffered wartime deprivation before achieving fame, then turned her back on Hollywood to help others

AUDREY HEPBURN, with her elfin looks, grace and elegance combined with a tomboyish charm, became one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

The celebrated film director Billy Wilder said of her: 'Most people simply have nice manners, Audrey has authentic charm and class.' Her charm and class were later put to use as a special goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.

Born in Brussels in 1929, her father was an English banker, her mother a baroness from a distinguished Dutch family. When her parents divorced, the family moved to the Netherlands shortly before war broke out in 1939. The family was involved in the Dutch resistance.

The war left her severely malnourished, anaemic and asthmatic and was one of the main reasons for many subsequent health problems she suffered.

Inspired by Margot Fonteyn, she studied ballet in Amsterdam and later at the Marie Rambert ballet school when the family moved to London.

In 1950 her dancing ability won her a place as a chorus girl in a British version of the Broadway musical hit High Button Shoes. Her career in showbusiness went from strength to strength with parts in films like The Lavender Hill Mob.

During this time she was romantically involved with the British businessman James Hanson, now Lord Hanson, but following her success in the lead role in Gigi which opened in New York in 1951 the romance ended.

She starred in the 1953 film Roman Holiday alongside Gregory Peck which won her an Oscar. Further hits followed including Sabrina Fair, War and Peace, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon and The Nun's Story.

The 1960s saw her star in a series of box office successes. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Charade, My Fair Lady, Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark made her the cinema's highest paid actress with Elizabeth Taylor.

Less successful was her marriage to the actor-director Mel Ferrer in 1954. Despite the birth of one son, their efforts to have a large family failed and the marriage was dissolved in 1968.

Hepburn's second marriage also ended in divorce. She married an Italian psychiatrist, Dr Andrea Dotti, in 1969 after meeting him on a Mediterranean cruise. One son and a series of miscarriages later the marriage ended in 1980. Since then she had been accompanied by Robert Wolders, the former husband of the actress Merle Oberon, whom she met at a dinner party in 1980.

In an interview this year she said: 'I always wanted lots of babies - that's been a conducting theme in my life. Even when I was little, what I wanted most in the world was to have a child. That was always the real me.

'The movies were fairy tales. I've never changed. A princess or a flower girl were all parts of me and I was parts of them.'

In 1988 the director Steven Spielberg lured her back to the screen for a cameo role in his film Always. Since that time she has employed her screen image on behalf of the United Nations, visiting children in trouble spots including Ethiopia and Somalia.

The Princess Royal presented her with a Special Award at the annual ceremony of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London last March.

Hepburn told a London press conference last September of the starving children she encountered in Somalia - and wept at how the memory of their emaciated bodies stopped her sleeping at night.

'The human obligation is to help children who are suffering. The rest is luxury. When you see what goes on in the world it makes the rest trivial. I'm very grateful for what God has given me.'

She became ill with cancer of the colon shortly after visiting Somalia.

(Photographs omitted)