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The Iconic Class of Audrey Hepburn

Updated on November 14, 2014

A Simple Charm

As a member of classic cinema and pop culture, Audrey Hepburn, has stood the test of time and overall become an iconic figure through multiple generations. For example, who didn't stud their pasty dorm room walls with stock photos of the classic actress? Who hasn't pinned a quote of inspiration to their Pinterest board from the humanitarian? And who hasn't modeled an outfit or two after Hepburn's sleek and glamorous style?

She played opposite many of Hollywood's top leading men, who were often significantly older than her in character and life. Garnering praise in Love in the Afternoon (1957), with Gary Cooper and receiving an Oscar nomination for her career zenith performance as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), her roles were classy, full of depth and appealing to the audience who fell in love with her charm and natural personality.

Early Life

Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born in Belgium on May 4, 1929. It was the beginning of a struggling time for her family, Europe, and ultimately the world. Beginning with her father's philandering that lead to her parent's divorce, Hepburn and her mother were uprooted and placed in the tracks of WWII. Landing in the Netherlands where she practiced ballet and attended school, in 1940 Hepburn changed her name for the first time to the more European sounding Ella van Heemstra, after her mother, Edda van Heestra. If you're wondering where the "Hepburn" surname came from it is due to her father's mistaken assumption that he was a descendent of the man John Hepburn, who was a relation of Mary Queen of Scots. The divorce of her parents would remain a struggle in her future relationships in an effort to stay together for her children.

As the decade carried on, Hepburn, felt the struggle and saw the terrors of war on her doorstep and suffered from illness and malnutrition that would hinder her further down the road in her attempts to become a ballerina. But, not allowing such events to keep her down she kept busy learning and studying fine arts, often performing ballet in secret for change. She also learned to speak 5 languages. After the war she and her mother moved to Amsterdam. Here Audrey formally studied ballet, but when she found her progression would go nowhere she decided to focus on acting. When she moved to London she began appearing in British films and got her first large role playing the part of a ballerina in The Secret People (1952). Her big break and first starring role came in 1953 when she filmed Roman Holiday (1953) sharing top billing with Gregory Peck, who saw Hepburn's talent and future success in her performance. From there out roles weren't hard to find.

Hepburn with on and off screen love William Holden in Paris When it Sizzles (1964).
Hepburn with on and off screen love William Holden in Paris When it Sizzles (1964).

Life in Hollywood

Ultimately becoming the quintessential "It" girl of the 1950s onscreen, and a standard for decades after as a definition of "cool", Audrey Hepburn captured audiences appreciation with her simple, easy-going character. In films such as How to Steal a Million (1966) in which she co-starred with legendary thespian Peter O'toole, and Sabrina (1954), splitting the screen with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, she carved out a place for the modern woman in cinema that wasn't just another stereotype unable to survive on her own. She was independent. This is not to suggest other women of the silver screen were not showing strong character in their performances but that Hepburn (much like Katherine before her)introduced a new role for women who could fight just as hard as the boys and make it alright to be independent and intelligent. Her appearance in the musical adaptation of the classic play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady (1964), is perhaps how younger generations are most familiar with Hepburn's acting. But it is by no means her greatest performance. Others such as Paris When it Sizzles (1964) (reuniting with William Holden), The Nun's Story (1959), Charade (1963), or The Children's Hour (1961) show the depth of her performances as well as the range of character she could portray. With the help of streaming services many of her other films are easily available for curious viewers to watch as they please. She received much recognition for her acting and is one of the few personalities who can claim the title EGOT, which is a person who has won each and Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award at least once.

Private Life

Shortly after she became a success in Hollywood she married she married fellow actor Mel Ferrer with whom she had one child, a son called Sean. Though a popular couple for Hollywood tabloids the marriage was filled with rumor and suspicion, and the pair divorced in 1968 after 14 years together. Her second marriage to Andrea Dotti was more private and removed from the public eye. Hepburn took a break from acting in order to care for her children after she had a son with Dotti named Luca. They lived in Rome, which was Dotti's native home, for 13 years until Dotti's infidelities had reached their limit with Hepburn and they divorced. While her marriages might be classified as failures she had many close friendships with other actors that lasted, especially her co-stars William Holden and Gregory Peck, and fellow icon Elizabeth Taylor. After her divorce from Dotti Hepburn never married again but remained in a happy partnership with Robert Wolders who was a TV actor and widower to another Hollywood starlet, Merle Oberon.

In her later years she took on a large role in the humanitarian efforts put forth by UNICEF, due in large part to the memories she kept of her own childhood during WWII in the center of the Nazi regime. For her dedication she was posthumously awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in addition to many awards and nominations for her acting career. In between her busy work schedule he lived a calm life in Rome and later Switzerland, occasionally appearing in films and working on human rights for the world. Her last screen appearance was in Steven Spielberg's 1989 Oscar hit Always (1989) with Richard Dreyfuss. She was diagnosed with untreatable appendiceal cancer in late 1992 and passed away January 20, 1993 at the age of 63. Her funeral was attended by many friends and family, and did not go unnoticed by Hollywood.

A Lasting Icon

The effect of Audrey Hepburn's time in the spotlight can be seen even in today's pop culture phenomenon's and the parallel is hard to miss. Hepburn's effect on fashion as a woman of simple glamour and natural beauty can be seen the young stars of today, such as Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, or Taylor Swift. The style and elegance she possessed and brought to fashion put her on "Best Dressed" lists and she still frequents the yearly rankings of "Most Beautiful of All-Time". While her absence is felt, she will be forever remembered as an icon of the fashion industry, a pop culture sensation of the silver screen and passionate forge for the humanitarian rights of the modern world.

Plan your marathon:

Roman Holiday (1953)

Sabrina (1957)

My Fair Lady (1964)

How to Steal a Million (1966)

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Always (1989)


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    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 3 years ago from USA

      I would add "Charade" to your Audrey Hepburn movie marathon list - one of my fav movies starring two of my favorite actors, Hepburn and Cary Grant at their best. Great hub!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      A lady from my time, she was a class act for sure. I didn't realize she was in the movie "Always." I saw here in "Wait Until Dark" and that's the last I remember of her. Anyway, interesting article.