Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Audrey Hepburn

Episode Summary

Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) remains a style and beauty icon. While her poise and timeless looks made her the ultimate Hollywood it-girl of the 1950s and 60s, she was also a member of the Dutch resistance in WWII and an international humanitarian. Emma Ferrer, Audrey's granddaughter, joins as a special guest host for this episode.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! I’m Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, and today I’m excited to introduce and host today’s episode of Encyclopedia Womannica, featuring my grandmother Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born on May 4, 1929 in Ixelles, Belgium to noble parents. Her mother Ella Van Heemsra was a Dutch baroness and her father, Anthony Joseph Ruston was an insurance executive who claimed English and Scottish nobility. He would later add the surname of one of his  noble ancestors, Hepburn, to the family name.

Audrey’s home life was tumultuous. Her parents frequently fought, and In 1935, Audrey’s dad walked out on the family. Four years later, with the rise of World War II, Audrey’s mother moved her and her brothers to her own father's home (Audrey's Grandfather) in the supposedly neutral Netherlands where Audrey was enrolled in the Arnhem Conservatory.

During her childhood Audrey’s parents had both been members of right-wing facists political group, but when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, a few days after her 11th birthday, Audrey and her mother saw firsthand the horrors of fascism and left the political beliefs  behind -- instead joining the Dutch resistance.

During the war, Audrey danced in underground performances to raise money for the resistance and even couried secret correspondences in her shoes. She continued this work despite the intimate run-ins with danger. Audrey witnessed the execution of two of her family members, her uncle being the first officially executed of the occupation, and her half-brother was hauled off to a labor camp by the Germans.

After the war, Audrey found work modeling and was cast in a dutch film. She then  moved with her mother to London to pursue her love of ballet studying under Marie Rambert, the famed ballet teacher and Nijinsky collaborator. After a few years, Audrey asked Marie whether she miight have a chance at becoming a prima ballerina. Unfortunately, Marie gently replied, her being too tall and not having sufficiently developed her muscles during the war, would become an impediment. Unable to stop working, she went on to acting further, ultimately landing a role in Monte Carlo Baby. This led to her fortuitous encounter with french novelist, Colette. In a fairytale-like sequence of events, Colette spied Audrey on the set from a hotel terrace in Monte Carlo and knew instantly that she wanted her for the lead in the upcoming Broadway adaptation of her book, Gigi.

Audrey’s performance in Gigi won critical acclaim and garnered immediate attention from the press and Hollywood. The New York Times called her, “spontaneous, lucid and captivating”. The Paramount scouts came to New York looking for a European Princess for the upcoming film Roman Holiday. Once cast in the part, filmmaker William Wyler delayed the production until Gigi closed in early 1952 .

Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s breakout Hollywood role. She played a princess who sneaks away from her royal obligations to live life as a regular girl, who quickly becomes enraptured with an American reporter, played by Gregory Peck. Following the release of Roman Holiday, Audrey’s face was splashed across TIME magazine, claiming that she, “glows with the fire of a finely cut diamond.” She won the Best Actress Academy Award for the role at only 23 years of age.

Audrey’s career took off. She starred in Sabrina -- which earned her another Oscar nomination -- opposite Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. While filming, Audrey and Holden began an affair. But Audrey wanted a family and Holden was still married and could no longer have children, so the couple eventually split up. Holden seemed to take it particularly hard and even several years later, while filming another movie, he drunkenly climbed a tree outside her window and fell onto a parked car on the street below.

Shortly after her split from Holden, Audrey was introduced by Gregory Peck to American actor Mel Ferrer. They starred together in the Broadway production of Ondine, for which Audrey won a Tony award, and later wed in 1954.

Audrey continued to star as romantic leads in 1957’s Funny Face opposite Fred Astaire and Love in the Afternoon opposite Gary Cooper. In 1959, she starred in A Nun’s Story, which followed the feelings and doubts of becoming a nun in Belgium. It was deemed her most “demanding film role” and “finest performance” by Variety and earned her yet another Oscar nomination.

After enduring several miscarriages, Audrey gave birth to a son, Sean, in 1960.

Following the birth of her son, Audrey hit her stride over the next four years with box office hits including Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, Paris When it Sizzles and Charade in 1963 and finally My Fair Lady in 1964.

Famously, author Truman Capote objected to casting Audrey in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, having written the role with Marilyn Monroe in mind. Regardless, her performance in the film garnered Audrey yet another Oscar nomination.

Around this time, Audrey reconciled with her father, who had abandoned the family when she was a child. Her husband had worked with the Red Cross to locate her father and arranged a meeting between the two of them in Dublin. While it is reported to have been an uncomfortable reunion, Audrey would continue to support him financially until his death.

In 1966, Audrey suffered another miscarriage. Depressed with her marriage, she threw herself into the film, Two for the Road opposite Hollywood up-and-comer Albert Finney, with whom she had  a fling.  Her husband Mel would produce  the thriller, Wait Until Dark, for her before their final separation and for which she earned her last Oscar nomination.

Audrey and Ferrer ultimately divorced in 1968 and she temporarily retired from show business to raise her son Sean.

Just a year later, Audrey met and remarried a psychiatrist, Dr. Andrea Dotti with whom she had her second son, Luca in 1970.

From 1976-1981 Audrey starred in a few films that were met with mixed reviews. In 1987, she turned to humanitarian work and became the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. She traveled the world fundraising and advocating for poverty-stricken children.

Her final performance was in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 film, Always. She played an angel that briefly appears to help a dying hero pass into the afterlife.

Audrey Hepburn died of colon cancer in her home in Switzerland in 1993 at the age of 63.

Audrey remains a symbol of inner and outer elegance and one of the most iconic figures in the world today.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. Jenny Kaplan will return to speak about the headstrong Katharine Hepburn. 

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Have a great day!