Audrey Hepburn: The life story you may not know

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April 16, 2021
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Audrey Hepburn: The life story you may not know

Actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn's timeless style and grace were the stuff of legend and remain unrivaled in their scope and influence. The Belgian-born actress first caught the world’s attention as a wide-eyed young Parisian in the Broadway production of “Gigi” and then as a rebellious princess in “Roman Holiday.” Later, she was a strong-willed Cockney flower vendor in "My Fair Lady" and a free-spirited escort in “Breakfast in Tiffany’s.”

To commemorate Hepburn's prolific career and inspired life, Stacker compiled a list of 25 facts from Hepburn’s life story that you may not know. To do so, we consulted newspaper articles, magazine accounts, biographies, film archives, film recordings, and reviews.

On and off the screen, Hepburn epitomized elegance, sophistication, and taste. A muse of French designer Givenchy, she was one of the greatest style icons of the 20th century. Her signature look in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”—little black dress, oversized sunglasses, updo, and pearls— remains a classic to this day. But Hepburn was much more than the sum of her numerous film roles and storied love affairs. When she was still a young ballet student during World War II, Hepburn aided the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. Later in life, she was a deeply committed goodwill ambassador who traveled the globe for the United Nations’ International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Some of the most iconic photographs of the actress are not those of her as a young startlet but rather as a confident, empathetic woman greeting children with open arms as part of her humanitarian work.

Audrey Hepburn's image is among the best known, and the world remains enthralled by her story decades after her death at age 63. Keep reading to learn more about this

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1929: Born in Brussels

Audrey Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston on May 4, 1929, in Brussels. During World War II, her mother, Dutch Baroness Ella Van Heemstra, changed her child’s name to Edda Van Heemstra to mask her British roots. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, born to English and Austrian parents, changed his surname to Hepburn-Ruston, as he believed he was descended from an English earl, James Hepburn. He left the family when Audrey was 6 years old.

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1930s and ‘40s: World War II hardship

Hepburn attended boarding school in England as a child but lived in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II. Her mother started as a Nazi sympathizer, but when Audrey's uncle was imprisoned and killed, mother and daughter fled to a nearby town and Audrey's mother quickly began supporting the resistance.

Years later, Hepburn recalled that the hardship during the war was so great and her family was so hungry that they ate tulip bulbs.

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1930s and ‘40s: A role in the resistance

Hepburn served as a volunteer nurse in a hospital that treated wounded Allied soldiers. A ballet student, she gave dance performances to help raise funds for the Dutch Underground and was at times a courier delivering messages for the anti-Nazi resistance effort.

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1948: Stage debut as a chorus girl

Following World War II, Hepburn modeled and studied ballet in Amsterdam and London. In 1948, she debuted on stage in London as a chorus girl in a musical called “High Button Shoes.”

 

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J. Arthur Rank Organisation

1951: First starring role

Hepburn’s first film role was an uncredited appearance in the 1951 movie “One Wild Oat.” She also appeared that year in “The Lavender Hill Mob” starring Alec Guinness. Her first starring role came with the 1951 Broadway release of "Gigi," which was made into a film in 1958 starring Leslie Caron in the title role.

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1951: Tapped for 'Gigi'

While filming a movie in Monte Carlo, Hepburn was spotted by the French author Colette, who wanted her to play the title role in the stage production of her novel “Gigi.” In 1951, at age 22, Hepburn starred in the Broadway hit.

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1953: A 'Roman Holiday' Oscar

Hepburn won an Academy Award for her role as Princess Ann, a character making a brief escape from her royal duties, in the 1953 hit “Roman Holiday.” The film co-starred Gregory Peck, who played a reporter.

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1954: Award-winning Broadway role

In what was her last appearance on a Broadway stage, Hepburn won a Tony Award for her lead role in the 1954 Broadway show “Ondine.” Her co-star was actor Mel Ferrer, whom Hepburn married in Switzerland in September that year.

 

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1954: 'Sabrina' with Bogart and Holden

Hepburn played the title character in 1954’s "Sabrina," which also starred Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. The actress got an Academy Award nomination for her role in the romantic comedy about the daughter of a chauffeur and the competing attention of two wealthy brothers.

Hepburn and Holden began an affair during filming that consumed both stars to the point that Holden agreed to leave his wife and children for Hepburn. Hepburn, who wanted to have children of her own, broke things off on the spot when she learned Holden had undergone a vasectomy years earlier. Neither star fully recovered from the break-up, with each spiraling out into numerous affairs and Hepburn's obsession with having children driving her into two sorely mismatched marriages that ended in divorce.

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1957: Wearing Givenchy in 'Funny Face'

Hepburn danced across from Fred Astaire in 1957's “Funny Face.” Her costumes were designed by Hubert de Givenchy, who also designed her wardrobe in “Love in the Afternoon” in 1957, “Breakfast at Tiffany's” in 1961, “Charade” in 1963, and other films. The little black dress she wore in “Breakfast at Tiffany's” sold at a Christie's auction in 2006 for more than $920,000.

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1957: Mother and dog land roles in 'Funny Face'

Hepburn's mother, Baroness Ella Van Heemstra, made a cameo appearance in 1957's “Funny Face” as a patron in a sidewalk café. The actress's Yorkshire terrier, Mr. Famous, also appears in the movie.

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Warner Bros.

1959: Oscar nod for nun

Hepburn appeared in the movie version of “War and Peace” alongside her husband Mel Ferrer, whom she married on the rebound from William Holden, in 1956. In 1959, she played a nun struggling to fulfill her vows in “The Nun's Story,” a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination.

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1960: Injured on set

Hepburn's part in the 1960 Western “Unforgiven,” directed by John Huston, was one of her least favorite roles. While filming a scene on horseback, Hepburn was thrown from the horse and broke her back. She had a miscarriage several months later.

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1960: First son is born

In 1960, Hepburn had her first child, Sean. She had a late miscarriage during her next pregnancy, at six months. Hepburn's second son, Luca, was born in 1970.

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1961: Golightly lights up the screen

One of Hepburn’s most iconic film roles was playing Holly Golightly in 1961's “Breakfast at Tiffany's," based on a story by Truman Capote. The role earned Hepburn her fourth Academy Award nomination. Capote did not want Hepburn for the role; he had wanted it to go to Marilyn Monroe.

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1961: Singing 'Moon River'

Composer Henry Mancini said he wrote his famed “Moon River” especially for Hepburn, who sings it in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to enchant her writer neighbor (played by George Peppard). Mancini said of all the versions of “Moon River,” he thought hers was “the greatest.”

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1964: Dubbed out of 'My Fair Lady'

Playing Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 movie "My Fair Lady" was one of Hepburn’s most controversial roles. Many people wanted the part to go to Julie Andrews, who had appeared in the Broadway version. Hepburn's singing in the film was dubbed by singer Marni Nixon, and the actress revealed later that she would not have taken the part if she had known that producer Jack Warner did not want her to sing.

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Warner Bros.

1967: Oscar nod for thriller

Hepburn co-starred with Albert Finney in "Two for the Road" in 1967. Her fifth Academy Award nomination came later that year, for her role as a blind woman in the thriller “Wait Until Dark” with Alan Arkin.

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1968: Divorce and remarriage

After divorcing Mel Ferrer in 1968, Hepburn married Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti in 1969. Their subsequent divorce was finalized in 1982. Her companion from 1980 until her death was Robert Wolders, a Dutch actor once married to actress Merle Oberon.

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1980s: Humanitarian work with UNICEF

Hepburn became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1989, making more than 50 trips visiting UNICEF projects around the world. The trips, many dangerous, brought the star into communities where some of the world's most vulnerable children lived in order to raise global awareness of a number of humanitarian crises.

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1990: Narrating Anne Frank’s diary

The actress turned down the lead role in the 1959 movie adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank," saying she was too old for the part. In 1990, Hepburn narrated portions of the diary for a symphonic work by composer Michael Tilson Thomas, touring the United States and England with proceeds going to UNICEF.

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1992: A final trip and a diagnosis

Hepburn’s last trip for UNICEF was a mission to Somalia in September 1992, after which she complained of stomach pains. She was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer two months later.

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1992: A presidential honor

President George Bush awarded Hepburn the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 1992 to honor her work with UNICEF. The actress was too sick to attend the ceremony.

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1993: Death in Switzerland

Hepburn died on Jan. 20, 1993, at home in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, after her battle with cancer. Her gravesite in Tolochenaz is a major tourist attraction, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

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1993: Posthumous Academy Award

Hepburn received a special Academy Award for her work with UNICEF. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was awarded to her posthumously in 1993.

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