By Jocelyn Selim
The Fairest of All
Audrey Hepburn died of appendix cancer at 63, leaving behind a legacy of style and good works
By Jocelyn Selim
Toward the end of 1992, the public separation of Prince Charles and Princess Diana was making headlines, Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on national television, and Aladdin, Home Alone 2 and Batman Returns were well on their way to becoming the top grossing movies of the year. Meanwhile, Audrey Hepburn, an entertainment icon from an earlier age, was spending time in the most devastated parts of the globe. After mostly retiring from movies in the late 1960s to bake cookies and make Halloween costumes for her two sons, Sean and Luca—whom she was fond of referring to as “her greatest creations”—Hepburn had found a new role. Long before it was in vogue for celebrities to pitch in for refugees and starving children, Hepburn pioneered the part as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
UNICEF couldn’t have found a better person for the job. Hepburn had, after all, spent a career making people believe that grand transformations and happy endings were possible. Her life up to this point had been nothing if not the stuff of storybook reversals of fortune. Born into the privilege of aristocracy in 1929 in Belgium—her mother was the Dutch baroness Ella Van Heemstra—Hepburn spent most of her adolescence in the poverty and rubble of war-torn Holland. The Nazis had invaded the country just three days after Hepburn’s English father, who was separated from her mother, sent the 11-year-old home early from a trip to England, believing she’d be safer in Holland. Left destitute after World War II, Hepburn and her mother moved to England, where Hepburn took jobs as an advertising model and worked on small stage shows to make ends meet.
Her luck changed again after she was cast to play Princess Ann in the 1953 film Roman Holiday. Seemingly overnight, she became one of the biggest names in Hollywood, playing opposite Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. A lifelong friendship with French designer Hubert de Givenchy ensured her reputation as one of the most stylish women in the world.
Nobody could play a magical, improbable transformation as convincingly as Hepburn. With her elfin features, Hepburn made audiences believe the unbelievable: that flower girl Eliza Doolittle could, with “a little bit of luck,” become a grand lady; that an awkward schoolgirl could return from a sojourn in Europe as the lovely Sabrina; and that backwoods girl Holly Golightly could become the toast of New York high society.
Images of Hepburn attending to dying children as a goodwill ambassador were more than haunting—her thin, fragile frame echoed those of the emaciated children with whom she was photographed, while her large doelike eyes seemed to demand that people who could help must refuse to accept the unacceptable. She was aware of her effect, and that her iconic style meant that people wanted to emulate her. “She often said she was glad she hadn’t used up her image and people still wanted to see it,” recalls her elder son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer.
It wasn’t easy work, and on the way back from a sobering trip to Somalia at the end of September 1992, Hepburn began to have crippling abdominal pain. She’d been suffering from gas since the cesarean birth of her second son, Luca, in 1970, but this time she believed something was really wrong.