Audrey Hepburn: The model of style and desire

The bidding frenzy at the auction of a black Givenchy dress, worn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's, which sold for a record sum at Christie's this week, shows that the mystique surrounding the actress is still present 13 years after her death

Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 09 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Ten years ago, Harpers & Queen conducted a poll of the most fascinating women of our time. Audrey Hepburn came first, even though she had been dead for three years.

It might be tempting, in our high-speed, skin-deep, media-driven age, to think of the luminous, elfin figure of Hepburn as a phenomenon from a distant, even unattainable past.

She came of age, after all, in the 1950s, when movies were in black and white, innocence was still sold as a commodity to cinema audiences, and nobody, not even James Dean, used profanity on screen.

But the fascination clearly transcends that kind of time and cultural distance. In China, digitally-altered images of her in her first starring role, in Roman Holiday, are now being used to advertise green tea. Here in the West, Gap's latest advertising campaign uses some of her dancing scenes from Funny Face, along with the AC/DC track Back in Black, to push its new line of skinny black trousers.

Hepburn is not only remembered as a much-loved actress. She has become a fashion icon, something she never really was during her lifetime, and a symbol of celebrity royalty at its very best.

That helps explain how one of the black Givenchy dresses made for her for the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's could sell for close to half a million pounds at Christie's this week, a record for any piece of clothing from a film wardrobe.

The record is even more remarkable given that this was not actually the dress she wore. Hubert Givenchy, her couturier of choice, made three dresses in all, and this was the spare - of the other two, one is in the Givenchy archives, and the other in the Museum of Costume in Madrid.

The buyer didn't want to be identified, and it could have been anybody wanting to be reminded of that indomitable spirit, munching on a meagre breakfast and staring at the jewels in the storefront of Tiffany's in New York to ward off an attack of what her character, Holly Golightly, described as the "mean reds".

Hepburn is not only venerated, she is also sorely missed. It doesn't take long to conclude that an awful lot of people want to be her, or at least recapture her spirit. Would Disney's Princess Diaries movies ever have come into existence without the precursor of Roman Holiday, and Hepburn's iconic performance as a European blue-blood taking pleasure, even briefly, in ordinary plebeian life?

How else to account for What A Girl Wants, the updated version of William Douglas Home's impossibly anachronistic play The Reluctant Debutante, starring Amanda Bynes as a free-spirited teenager reconnecting with her estranged aristocratic father?

Hepburn, who endured terror and near-starvation in Holland during the Second World War, was also the prototypical United Nations goodwill ambassador in the last 20 years of her life, publicising and attempting to alleviate the sort of suffering she had known as a girl. She's an obvious inspiration to Angelina Jolie, who works with UN High Commission on Refugees rather than Hepburn's agency of choice, UNICEF, and she blazed the trail now being followed by Bono, Bob Geldof, George Clooney and others to draw attention to poverty, AIDS, war and genocide.

Her admirers and imitators know they can never quite live up to her example, either as an actress or as a human being. But it would be unfair to expect them to. Billy Wilder, who directed her in Sabrina and Love In The Afternoon, put it this way when he reminisced about her a few years ago: "She had it. And there will not be another. You cannot duplicate her, or take her out of her era. If the 'element X' could be distilled, you could make all the Hepburns you wanted. But you can't. Today there is Julia Roberts. She is quite capable, very funny ... But no actress should be expected to be Audrey Hepburn. That dress by Mr Givenchy has already been filled."

Hepburn's elegance, her warmth, the unassuming gentleness expressed in the deep wells of her big black eyes, her ability to capture a certain winning eccentricity in her characters - inspire an awe that transcends simple admiration or physical attraction. Those who knew her, or just enjoyed watching her on a movie screen, felt they had been touched by the divine. "In a cruel and imperfect world," the critic Rex Reed once wrote, "she was living proof that God could still create perfection."

Wilder concurred: "God kissed her on the cheek, and there she was." And so did Elizabeth Taylor, a woman more classically and more famously beautiful in her youth,who frequently competed with Hepburn for film parts but who ultimately had no trouble recognising that she was outclassed.

"Audrey was a lady with an elegance and charm that was unsurpassed, except by her love for underprivileged children all over the world," Taylor said when she first heard the news of Hepburn's death. "God has a most beautiful new angel now that will know just what to do in heaven."

Hepburn's patrician manners were not an accident: her father was an Englishman descended from royalty and her mother a Dutch aristocrat with French noble ancestry. Born in 1929, she experienced the last golden period of the British aristocracy before the social upheavals of the Second World War and the collapse of the Empire. After her father walked out on the family, when she was six, her mother decided to move her and her two brothers to Arnhem, never quite believing that the Nazis would ever invade the Netherlands.

When they did, the family became involved in the resistance. Audrey, then a teenager, was already an accomplished ballet dancer and put on performances to raise money for anti-Nazi militia groups. The Allied bombing of Arnhem in 1944, and the severe famine that followed, caused extraordinary privations - malnutrition, disease, and the loss of several family members.

Hepburn saw an uncle and a cousin shot before her eyes. When she first read Anne Frank's diary, she couldn't believe the extraordinary similarities to her own experience. "This was my life," she later said. "I've never been the same again, it affected me so deeply."

Hepburn initially wanted to be a dancer, and in 1948 she moved to London to study with Marie Rambert. Rambert assured her she could make a fine ballerina, but that her height - 5 feet 7 inches - and the malnutrition she suffered during the war made it unlikely she would ever reach the top, so she took up acting instead. It took only three years of bit parts on stage and in film for her to be picked to play the lead in the Broadway production of Gigi.

That helped her secure the lead in Roman Holiday, a part envisioned for Elizabeth Taylor. It was William Wyler, the director, who made the switch after seeing Hepburn's screen test. "She had everything I was looking for," he said, "charm, innocence and talent. She also was very funny. She was absolutely enchanting!" Her co-star, Gregory Peck, later said he had never had so much fun making a film.

There were even rumours that the two became romantically involved, something they denied. Hepburn did acknowledge, however, that "you have to be a little bit in love with your leading man and vice versa". She later became involved with William Holden, who appeared with her in Sabrina. When she returned to the stage in Ondine in 1954, she ended up marrying her co-star, Mel Ferrer.

Rex Harrison, who worked with her in My Fair Lady, called her his favourite leading lady. Cary Grant, who shared the screen with her in Charade, later joked: "All I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn."

It was Sabrina, the fairytale story of a chauffeur's daughter who warms the heart of a stiff patrician businessman, that brought her together with Hubert Givenchy for the first time. When Givenchy turned up for work, he thought he was going to meet Katherine Hepburn. Audrey, by her own definition, was just a "skinny little nobody". But they became fast friends, and collaborated for years.

From the moment Hepburn first graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1953, she was a huge star. Everyone recognised she was special. Wilder said: "After so many drive-in waitresses becoming movie stars, there has been this real drought, when along comes class... She may be a wispy, thin little thing, but when you see that girl, you know you're in the presence of something."

Stanley Donen, who directed her in Funny Face, was bowled over from the moment he saw her in Roman Holiday. "There have only been a few firsts in my life that have rattled me so much," he said, "the first time I saw Fred Astaire, the first time I saw Marlon Brando. It was obvious to me that she was going to join a group into which a few artists are admitted: Chaplin, Astaire, Brando."

She had her share of iconic moments. Everyone remembers Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to President Kennedy, but Audrey Hepburn did it to - singing "Happy Birthday, dear Jack" just a few months before his assassination in 1963.

By then her movie career was drawing to a close. Her triumphant performance in My Fair Lady was soured by the studio's decision to dub her vocals - one of the rare times she lost her cool. She walked off the set, although she returned the next day and apologised.

She all but retired in the mid-1960s to raise her children, returning only occasionally - including, memorably, in the 1976 film Robin and Marian, opposite Sean Connery. One of the more intriguing roles she took on before her retirement was a blind woman in Wait Until Dark. Her director, Terence Young, was a British tank commander at the Battle of Arnhem and the two joked that he had tried to shell her 23 years earlier.

Her marriage to Sean Ferrer, who produced Wait Until Dark, broke up in 1967, the year the film was made, after which she married an Italian psychiatrist called Andrea Dotti. That fell apart in the early 1980s. She then spent her final years with Robert Wolders, a Dutch actor who had previously been married to Merle Oberon. She described her years with Wolders as the happiest of her life.

As her children grew up, she became ever more involved with UNICEF, a pursuit in which she could use her love of languages, and which became more intensive as she neared the end of her life. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she went on a series of highly-publicised missions to famine-ravaged Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, to Turkey, to central and south America, to Vietnam and Bangladesh.

She said: "The 'Third World' is a term I don't like very much, because we're all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering."

No public figure was a more perfect advocate for the dispossessed - a role cut short when she was diagnosed with a rare form of colorectal cancer - she was a lifelong smoker - and quickly fell ill and died.

"I was born with an enormous need for affection," she once said, "and a terrible need to give it." That affection has been repaid many times over, in death as in life.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in