Hepburn’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch-born baroness who had two sons with her first husband, and in 1925, divorced him and married Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston.
Ella took her family to London in 1928 and then Brussels in 1929. Her daughter Edda Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born on May 4, 1929, in Belgium.
Hepburn’s father amended his surname to Hepburn-Ruston, and Audrey dropped the Ruston when pursuing her career.
At the height of the Depression in 1936, Ella moved her family to Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1936 to stay with relatives. Meanwhile, Hepburn was packed off to boarding school in England.
Those were rootless, chaotic years for the young girl, but she became fluent in five languages.
It was the time of the ‘Winter of Hunger’ that followed the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1944.
Curator and photographic preservationist David Wills reveals in his tribute book Audrey: The 50s: ‘One of Audrey’s brothers was forced into a labor camp, relatives lost their lives, and the family moved about for safety and shelter, coming to a tense rest near Amsterdam.’
Hepburn’s mother, Ella, clinging to her baroness status, remained an aloof presence in the young girl’s life.
‘I became a rather moody child,’ Hepburn confessed at the time, ‘quiet and reticent, and I liked to be by myself a great deal.’
She preferred the company of pets – dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds to playing with dolls.
The family barely survived on endives, tulip bulbs and water – ‘a diet that rendered an already slender girl alarmingly thin and anemic’.
After the United Nations liberated Holland and the war was over, the Hepburn-Rustons returned to London and Hepburn enrolled in ballet classes.
Her teacher, Madame Marie Rambert noted, ‘she had lovely long limbs and beautiful eyes, but her tragedy was being too tall’.
Hepburn continued to study ballet and never became a true ballerina. And though she never studied acting, she went on to become an extraordinarily successful actress.
By the war’s end, she worked as a model for commercial photographers who were taken by her ‘bone structure, fine complexion, and lack of model self-regard’.
Dancing in the chorus in shows in London’s East End, she was asked to introduce comedy acts and stole the show. Chorus girls resented her audience appeal.
‘They’re always looking at bloody Audrey,’ quipped one fellow dancer. ‘We don’t stand a chance when she’s onstage.’
Small movie roles soon followed: She played a stewardess, a receptionist and a cigarette girl.
One director on seeing her for the first time said, ‘I saw a dream coming into the room’, and immediately offered her the job.
‘I am not an actress. You will regret it,’ Hepburn told the director, but he never did.
She proceeded to inch her way up the ladder of an acting profession and secured an agent and a contract at Associated British Pictures Corporation.
She was borrowed by Ealing Studios in London to play opposite Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob and she was on her way up the proverbial ladder.
More acting roles and her Broadway debut in Gigi led to an offer to test for the lead role in William Wyler’s film, Roman Holiday – a romantic comedy following the lives of a crown princess of an unidentified country and an American reporter – to be shot on location in Rome.
Paramount Studio executives declared, ‘The test is one of the best ever made in Hollywood, New York or London’.
She was the perfect Cinderella in reverse and could appear royal with her long-necked, ballerina posture yet vulnerable with her large wide-set eyes and her square, strong jawline.
And because of her model-like body frame, she could wear any and every costume brought to her.
Gregory Peck was signed on to play an American reporter in Roman Holiday, who recognizes the princess when she escapes the palace in Rome wearing street clothes.
Peck said she was amazing: ‘She can do anything, without effort.’
Hepburn, however, was more loquacious.
She said: ‘Maybe there was a little chemistry between us that made our scenes work. I was in Rome being treated like a princess…and it was not difficult for me to believe I was in love with Gregory Peck.’
At the time, the press hinted that the co-stars were having an affair, but it was denied.
In the film, Hepburn’s hair was sheared from shoulder length to semi-short, and when the film Roman Holiday premiered on August 27, 1953, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the reviews were ecstatic.
Life magazine said Hepburn was ‘the most gifted star hired by Hollywood in years’.
Time put her on the cover of their September 7th issue the same year and wrote: ‘Paramount’s new star glows and sparkles with the fire of a finely cut diamond.’
Hepburn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1953 for Roman Holiday and won wearing a gown by designer Hubert de Givenchy, who became one of her most adored fashion designers.
It was the first time that the general public saw her pixie haircut, her Groucho-esque eyebrows and wide smile.
Gregory Peck introduced his co-star to actor, Melchior Gaston Ferrer in 1953. He was 12 years her senior and had starred opposite Leslie Caron in Lili.
Ferrer sent Hepburn a script for a French play, Ondine, to consider, and she agreed to star if Ferrer was cast as the knight, her professional Prince Charming.
Rehearsals began in January 1954 at the same time that he proposed.
She accepted by sending him a platinum watch inscribed, ‘Mad About the Boy’, a line taken from a Noel Coward song. They married in Switzerland that following September.
By January 1960, after having two miscarriages, she gave birth to a baby boy, Sean.
The baby was left with a nanny and Hepburn’s mother and the couple flew to New York for Hepburn to start work on the film adaption of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Her role of Holly Golightly brought her another Oscar nomination.
Ferrer was considered over-protective and kept Hepburn’s telephone number a secret even from her press agent and backstage managers. He always denied that he felt in competition with her and she asserted that he was not her Svengali.
But by 1966, a much-publicized romance with actor Albert Finney, her co-star in the marital comedy, Two for the Road, led to the Hepburn and Ferrer’s separation a year later.
Following their divorce, Hepburn spoke to Ferrer only on two occasions for the rest of her life.
A friend of the couple, Robert Flemyng, remembered ‘Mel’s success in Lili did not bear the fruits that he might have hoped for and in the course of time, he was not pleased to be Mr. Hepburn’.
Hepburn’s second marriage was to Count Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist, nine years her junior. The couple had one son, Luca now 46.
But the marriage was doomed by Dotti’s infidelity and they divorced 13 years later in 1982. This time, Hepburn stayed in touch with Dotti for the benefit of their child.
Hepburn spent the last decade of her life with Robert Wolders, Dutch widower of film star Merle Oberon, but they never married.
According to Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti, his mother never forgot what it was like growing up during World War II and having no money.
Throughout her life, she pursued an ardent work ethic and continued to get up in the morning between 4 and 5am. She was compensating for what she thought were her shortcomings.
She always saw herself as too thin. There was a bump on the arch of her nose and her feet were too big for her 5ft, 7in, height.
She wore a size eight shoe and always wore kitten heel pumps with 3.5cm heels, which she thought made her height a nonissue with screen partners and de-emphasized the length of her foot.
Buy she also couldn’t wear higher heels because ‘years of ballet had wreaked havoc on my feet’ she said – high heels were just too painful.
Mattel toy company created a Hepburn Barbie doll that was attired in small scale re-creations of clothes by designer Givenchy – Hepburn’s adored French fashion designer – or designer Edith Head.
She rarely wore jewelry and when not on the set, she preferred old jeans or pants and puttering in her garden.
Because of Hepburn’s style that rocked Hollywood, women stopped stuffing their bras and wearing stiletto heels.
Designer Edith Head declared that Hepburn knew more about fashion than any actress except Marlene Dietrich.
Throughout her life Hepburn became a legend of grace and compassion.
The mother of two sons served tirelessly as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to more than 20 countries, where she met children who struggled to survive.
She adored the humanitarian work she began in 1988 and continued until her untimely death from appendix cancer in January 1993, when she was just 63- years-old.