Audrey Hepburn (4 May 1929 – 20 January 1993) was a Belgian actress and humanitarian. Recognised as a film and fashion icon, Hepburn was active during Hollywood’s Golden Age. She was ranked by the American Film Institute as the 3rd greatest female screen legend in the history of American cinema and has been placed in the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. She is also regarded by some to be the most naturally beautiful woman of all time.
Born in Ixelles, a district of Brussels, Hepburn spent her childhood between Belgium, England and the Netherlands, including German-occupied Arnhem during the 2nd World War. In Amsterdam, she studied ballet with Sonia Gaskell before moving to London in 1948 to continue her ballet training with Marie Rambert and perform as a chorus girl in West End musical theatre productions. She spoke several languages including English, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and German.
After appearing in several British films and starring in the 1951 Broadway play Gigi, Hepburn played the lead role in ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953), for which she was the first actress to win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for a single performance. The same year, she won a Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Play for Ondine. She went on to star in a number of successful films, such as ‘Sabrina’ (1954), ‘The Nun’s Story’ (1959), ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961), ‘Charade’ (1963), ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964) and ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967), for which she received Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. Hepburn remains one of few people who have won Academy, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Awards. She won a record three BAFTA Awards for Best British Actress in a Leading Role.
Three months after the birth of her son, Sean, in 1960, Hepburn began work on Blake Edwards’ ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961), a film loosely based on the Truman Capote novella. The film was drastically changed from the book. Capote disapproved of many changes and proclaimed that Hepburn was “grossly miscast” as Holly Golightly, a quirky New York call girl, a role he had envisioned for Marilyn Monroe. Hepburn’s portrayal of Golightly was adapted from the original: “I can’t play a hooker”, she admitted to Marty Jurow, co-producer of the film.
Despite the sanitisation and resulting lack of sexual innuendo in her character, her portrayal was nominated for the 1961 Academy Award for Best Actress and became an iconic character in American cinema. Often considered her defining role, Hepburn’s high fashion style and sophistication as Holly Golightly within the film became synonymous with her. She named the role “the jazziest of my career” yet admitted: “I’m an introvert. Playing the extroverted girl was the hardest thing I ever did.” The little black dress which is worn by Hepburn in the beginning of the film is cited as one of the most iconic items of clothing in the history of the twentieth century and perhaps the most famous little black dress of all time.
She also appeared in fewer films as her life went on, devoting much of her later life to UNICEF. Although contributing to the organisation since 1954, she worked in some of the most profoundly disadvantaged communities of Africa, South America and Asia between 1988 and 1992. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in December 1992.
Upon return from Somalia to Switzerland in late September 1992, Hepburn began suffering from abdominal pains. She went to specialists and received inconclusive results, so she decided to have herself examined while on a trip to Los Angeles in October. On 1 November Hepburn checked in at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with her family. Doctors performed a laparoscopy and discovered abdominal cancer that had spread from her appendix, a rare form of cancer belonging to a group of cancers known as pseudomyxoma peritonei (PMP). Having grown slowly over several years, the cancer had metastasised, not as a tumour, but as a thin coating over her small intestine. A few days later, she had an obstruction and medication was not enough to dull the pain. She underwent further surgery on December 1. After one hour, the surgeon decided that the cancer had spread too far to be removed fully and was inoperable.
After coming to terms with the gravity of Hepburn’s illness, her family decided to return home to Switzerland in order to celebrate her last Christmas. Because Hepburn was still recovering from surgery, she was unable to fly on commercial aircraft. Hubert de Givenchy offered to help and arranged for Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon to send her private Gulfstream jet, filled with flowers, to take Hepburn from Los Angeles to Geneva. She spent her last days in hospice care at her home in Tolochenaz, Vaud, Switzerland and occasionally was well enough to take walks in her garden, but gradually became more confined to bed rest as she grew weaker.
On the evening of January 20 1993, Hepburn died at home in her sleep of appendiceal cancer. After her death, Gregory Peck went on camera and tearfully recited her favourite poem, “Unending Love” by Rabindranath Tagore.
Audrey’s son Sean is now patron of the pseudomyxomasurvivor charity dedicated to providing support to patients of the rare cancer she suffered from pseudomyxoma peritonei and is also the ‘rare disease ambassador’ for 2015 on behalf of European Organisation for Rare Diseases.