'WHAT WAS the worst thing you saw in Somalia?' Audrey Hepburn was asked at a press conference in London last week. The cameras, which had been stuttering and flashing ever since she walked into the room, burst into a frenzy of picture-taking as she returned in her mind to her recent encounters with dying children.
'When a child cannot smile any more, it doesn't bear description,' she said. The photographers recorded her grief over the innocence lost to the world. The smile of this 63-year-old woman had lit up the room as powerfully as the smile of the same woman had lifted the spirits of a generation in cinemas in the Fifties and Sixties. Now, unsmiling, she wrapped the assembled journalists in her sorrow. From the back of the room, there was even a sob.
Later, I met her in her suite at Claridge's. I had been in Somalia a couple of weeks before she was there, and was curious to know why she of all people had gone to one of the most depressing and dangerous places in the world. A slip of a thing in beige polo- neck sweater and slacks, hair pulled back making her big eyes even bigger, she welcomed me warmly and correctly, the voice that seduced Cary Grant and Gregory Peck a little roughened by the years but none the worse for that. Robert Wolders, the Dutch actor-turned-businessman who is her companion of 12 years, poured each of us a Scotch and water and left to attend to other matters.
It does not come easily, exposing her raw nerves so that others will feel through her the horrors of our time. 'There's nothing like a delicious actor to do the scene with,' she says. 'I was nervous as a twitch before talking to all those people.' But, for Unicef, she puts herself through it, allowing the organisation to use her to make desperate corners of the earth newsworthy; to help the children who live in them get their pictures in the paper.
It is a mission that takes her into nightmares. When she arrived in Baidoa, a Somali town that attracts the starving from a vast rural hinterland but does not have the means to sustain them, the light little bodies of the newly dead were being loaded on to a truck. Then she met those waiting to die: 'Nothing could have prepared me for the unspeakable agony I felt at seeing countless fragile, emaciated children . . . their huge eyes in tiny faces and the terrible silence.'
She has hardly slept since her visit, except in snatches during the day. Yet in a sense, she has been prepared: she recalls her mother's voice to prevent her from feeling sorry for herself. 'That doesn't matter, dear,' her mother would have said.
AUDREY HEPBURN was born in Belgium, to an English father and a Dutch mother. Her father left them when she was six, returning to work as a director of the Bank of England. She spent the war years, her early teenage years, with her mother and grandfather in the occupied Netherlands, near Arnhem. The family was by no means poor but war was 'a great equaliser' and by the winter of 1944-45 she was badly malnourished. The Dutch remember the time as the Hunger Winter, and 20,000 people are thought to have died. When Unicef brought relief after the war, the ground was laid for future commitment and unswerving loyalty. She denies, however, that the impulse behind her humanitarian work today is simply that of repaying a debt: 'It's automatic . . . It's an absolutely instinctive reaction. If a child falls you pick it up. It's that simple. It has no great merit to it.'
As a girl she trained in ballet and at 21 joined the chorus of a London musical. Her career simply took flight. Gigi on Broadway; a part opposite Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday; an Oscar; Breakfast at Tiffany's; Wait Until Dark; Funny Face; Charade; My Fair Lady; Two For the Road. Fred Astaire sang in Funny Face that she was 'the world's darling' and it was no exaggeration. Those famous eyes, the girlish animation of face and body, the waif-like figure, the fashions, the silken, lightly accented voice combined in a romantic innocence that was captivating.
But in 1965 she stopped making films. Along the way there had been two marriages - to the actor Mel Ferrer, then the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti - and a son by each. Being 'potty about children, bananas about my own' she could not work thousands of miles away from them; they might have a temperature and need their mother. So the career ended. She lives - happily, her publicity handout assures us - in Switzerland.
Since 1988 she has been a Unicef ambassador, dividing much of her time between seeing for herself the blighted regions of the Third World - Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, Sudan, Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam - and returning to the more comfortable countries to tell people there how the other half is living.
The mother whose voice drives her on is not an austere or forbidding figure; the word she chooses is 'strong'. 'It's that wonderful old-fashioned idea: that others come first,' she says. 'You come second. This was the whole ethic by which I was brought up. Others matter more than you do so 'don't fuss dear, get on with it'.' This she describes as 'commonsensical'. Last week, she spoke of the panic that hits a mother when there's nothing she can do for her child.
'I remember my own mother during the war, I had bronchitis, and she said, 'Oh, I wish I could get you some orange juice. I wish I could get you some milk. I wish I could get you eggs.' And I thought, very nice, she wants to spoil me a bit. But today I see what it must have been like to go to bed at night not knowing how you are going to feed your children the next day. And - unlike so many Somali children - we still had enough vitality to have some resilience and have fun and be children.'
With the children of Somalia, she says, 'you are longing to touch them, to pick them up, to cuddle them, to soothe them, and I'm a perfect stranger so I'd probably scare them, but . . . what's the most disturbing to me is when something is irremediable. When we really are too late. A child that's so traumatised . . . seen its parents killed or tortured or whatever . . . you can't give him his parents back.'
I mentioned children I had met, who kept returning to the mind. 'You will never forget,' she said. 'There was one little girl, standing, leaning against a sort of wooden door, motionless. There was this little white cotton thing that someone had tied around her. I couldn't stand it. I tried to get a flicker of reaction. It's peculiar, you hitch your memory on certain pictures.
'And this boy who was sitting heaving for air.' She gasped and panted, as he had done. 'And finally, he pulled the blanket around him . . .' She curled her arms into herself, as he had done. And her voice became fainter, her words indistinct, till she was silent.
I said that, seeing the pictures of her in Somalia, I was struck by the strangeness of seeing this woman in that environment. 'Why?' she asked. She did not see it.
But she was, as someone observes in Funny Face, a bird of paradise. The film titles say it: Roman Holiday, Charade, My Fair Lady - she was a lightener of hearts. Was there something more to her, something we missed? Hepburn on screen was never weak, never quite a victim. She was irresistible because she was knowing and innocent at the same time; exquisitely vulnerable but also quite prepared to take the lead in seducing her man, and perfectly capable of getting him back on the right track when he strayed. Very often the price - or prize - of falling in love with her was to submit to a degree of moral improvement. Here perhaps was a hint of the woman formed on the periphery of the Holocaust, trading the family's last trinkets for food when money had no value, glimpsing Jews being herded into trains.
The influence of the 'Anglo-Saxon/ Dutch Calvinistic disciplinarian childhood that I had' in the company of a mother 'born in 1900 - imagine the upbringing she had' - that influence lives on. Nevertheless, her life is less an ode to duty than an ode to joy. How come? 'Instinct,' she said. 'I trust my instincts. Little by little over the years, I've learned to depend on them. They've rarely let me down.' By this wisdom, she freed herself from hellfire and brimstone, which her instincts eventually taught her did not threaten her, and at the same time escaped the rigidity that puts theoretical principle before people.
After her divorces from Ferrer and Dotti she was careful not to undermine the fathers in the eyes of the sons - just as her mother had not undermined her own father in her eyes. It is terribly important, she says, that children should be able to feel proud of their parents, especially, perhaps, when their parents have divorced.
And so the plea around which she built her presentation this week, the plea on behalf of children facing 'unspeakable atrocities . . . children killed, orphaned, displaced, conscripted, tortured, traumatised and disabled' is given an extra edge of credibility.
In Roman Holiday in 1953, Hepburn told Gregory Peck: 'What the world needs is a return to sweetness and decency.' 'I couldn't agree more,' Peck replied, 'but . . .' The princess Hepburn was playing was under the influence of some kind of drug at the time, but the idea is an unspoken undercurrent in her films.
Today, Hepburn says: 'The human obligation is to help children who are suffering. The rest is luxury.'
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies