The Early Years Of Audrey Hepburn
Americans loved her. But she was actually European, born in Brussels in 1929. Her father was Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, a British subject who’d come from a section of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now the Czech Republic.
Her mother was Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch aristocrat, who’s father had been mayor of Arnhem. The family often traveled from Belgium to the Netherlands to England, and because of her international background she learned five languages.
World War II
During the 1930s her father became a Nazi sympathizer. But her parents got divorced because her mother found her father in bed with the nanny. In 1937 she moved with her mother to England, where she went to a small Catholic school and studied ballet.
In 1939 they moved back to Arnhem, as her mother thought the Netherlands would avoid the war, as it had during World War I. Instead, the Germans took over, and the young girl adopted her mother’s name to blend in with the locals. She suffered from malnutrition, developed anemia and respiratory problems, and as she said later, was horrified as she watched Jews being herded onto trains for deportation.
During the war she continued studying ballet. She took part in several secret performances to raise money for the Dutch resistance, and she occasionally served as a courier as well. In the final months of the conflict, as meager food supplies were cut off, she saw people starving in the streets, and resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake bread and biscuits.
A Turn To Modeling And Acting
After the war Audrey Hepburn continued her dancing lessons in Amsterdam. But her height and her weak constitution ruled her out as a prima ballerina, so she turned to modeling and acting.
She moved in London in 1948 and became a chorus girl. She appeared in several musical revues and landed her first film role — as a stewardess on an educational travel film. She took small roles in several minor films, until one day, so the story goes, the French author Colette happened to be on set, looking for the right person to play the title character in her Broadway play Gigi. “Voila!” Colette supposedly said. “There’s your Gigi.”
Gigi opened in New York in November 1951, where her name was featured on the marquee. The next year she went on the road with the play, ending up in California, where she did a screen test for Roman Holiday and beat out Elizabeth Taylor for the role of the Italian princess who falls in love with an American newsman played by Gregory Peck.
And by now you must know she is Audrey Hepburn, who for her performance was crowned Best Actress at the 1953 Academy Awards. Hepburn went on to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading actresses — and who more than once was named most beautiful woman in the world.
Best Actress Nominations
She was nominated four more times as Best Actress (although she never won again): for Sabrina, opposite Humphrey Bogart and William Holden; for her role as Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story; as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and as a blind woman in the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark.
In all Audrey Hepburn appeared in over two dozen films, including Charade with Cary Grant, Funny Face with Fred Astaire, and My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison. After the 1960s, she scaled back on her acting career, but became almost as well known for her charitable work with UNICEF. In 1993, she was posthumously awarded the Jean Hersholt Academy Award for her contribution to humanity.
Hepburn’s Personal Life
She was married twice. She suffered several miscarriages but was able to have two children — one son with her first husband, the actor Mel Ferrer; and a son by her second husband, the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, who was nine years younger than she was. They eventually got divorced; and Audrey Hepburn in her later years partnered up with actor Robert Wolders.
Unfortunately, she met an untimely death when she contracted a rare appendecial cancer. She died in January 1993, at age 63, and was buried in a small cemetery overlooking the village of Tolochenaz, Switzerland. European to the end.
But if her father’s name was Ruston, and her mother’s name was van Heemstra, where did the name Hepburn come from? From her father. At one point in England he found the name Hepburn buried in his family tree. He thought it sounded posh, so he doubled-barrelled his name to the more aristocratic-sounding Hepburn-Ruston. After World War II — when she went by van Heemstra — she adopted Hepburn as her name. And that answers the question: Was she related to Katharine Hepburn? No, not any more than you and I are.