Our fair lady

Hollywood princess Audrey Hepburn’s greatest role was UNICEF ambassador 

When it came to class, Audrey Hepburn was in a class by herself.

The clipped, cultured voice, the dark, brimming features that had us at “Roman Holiday,” the sylph silhouette that could be elegant in casual Capri pants or Givenchy couture, the real-life dancer’s carriage and swan neck, shown to great advantage in “My Fair Lady.”

If Hepburn’s Eliza was a might less convincing before Henry Higgins transformed her than after, well, the fault was ours not hers. It was simply impossible for us to think of her as anything but dignified and poised, incapable of getting her hands dirty.

That was the legend anyway. As with another of our greatest stars – Cary Grant, who teamed with Hepburn charmingly in “Charade” – the reality was far grittier; the class, hard-won.

Born on May 4, 1929 in Belgium to a Dutch aristocrat and a banker of Austrian-English descent and raised in the Netherlands, Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston was a child of Nazi terror and deprivation. As Edda van Heemstra – adapted from her mother’s German-sounding maiden name – she spent what should’ve been an innocent youth watching other youngsters being herded to death camps, carrying secret messages for the British soldiers who parachuted into German-patrolled woods and helping her family grind tulip bulbs into flour to make bread. The famously slender figure wasn’t merely the luck of genetics or the product of discipline. It was the consequence of malnutrition.

Like many children who grow up amid misery, she escaped into the arts – literature and especially, the ballet. Dance was her entrée to London. But at 5 foot, 7 inches and rail-thin, Hepburn was deemed both too tall and too fragile for the deceptively arduous life of the ballerina. Instead she modeled and took jobs as a chorus girl, which paid better than the ballet, then turned to acting.

Hollywood princess

It was a small role in “Monte Carlo Baby” that led the novelist Colette to recommend her for the Broadway adaptation of her novel “Gigi.” And though Hepburn would not reprise the role on screen – that honor went to another dancer turned actress, Leslie Caron – the success of “Gigi” gave Hepburn her big Hollywood break, the role of an incognito princess playing hooky, who falls for a newsman chasing her story (Gregory Peck) in “Roman Holiday” (1953).

Hers was a performance of great wistfulness. Indeed, no one who watches the final scene – in which she sacrifices love for duty, her pooling eyes hinting at the pain beneath her composure – will ever forget it. “Roman Holiday” earned her a BAFTA (British Oscar), a Golden Globe and an Academy Award as best actress. Hollywood had found its new princess.

The movie also crystallized the Audrey Hepburn persona – the enchanting gamine transported to a fairy-tale life (“Sabrina,” “Love in the Afternoon”). When she stretched beyond its confines, she sometimes stumbled. Critics and audiences alike didn’t buy her as the bird-girl Rima in “Green Mansions” or the adopted Native American daughter of white settlers in “The Unforgiven” – a demanding western that resulted in a broken back and a miscarriage for the actress, then married to actor-director Mel Ferrer. (Ultimately, Hepburn would become the mother of two sons – Sean, with Ferrer, and Luca, with her second husband, Dr. Andrea Dotti.)

Still, Hepburn continued to test the confines of her on-screen persona – as a missionary  tried by her love for a gruff doctor in “The Nun’s Story”; a teacher accused of lesbianism in “The Children’s Hour”; a wife on an odyssey through her troubled marriage in “Two for the Road”; and the Cockney Galatea in “My Fair Lady,” where she exhibited class off-screen as well by swallowing her pride and allowing her songs to be dubbed by Marni Nixon despite a distinctive contralto. (Apparently, you can hear snatches of Hepburn’s voice in “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”)

Breakfast you know where

But the movie-star image and the actress’ willingness to play against type found their most iconic fusion in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). By now, film buffs are familiar with the movie’s movie-like backstory – how Truman Capote conceived of his novella and its heroine, idiosyncratic New York City call girl Holly Golightly, as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, whose deliciously naughty sensuality was about as far removed from Hepburn as you can get. But Hepburn gave Holly’s sex class, bringing out different colors in the character, who had been reinvented for the film as a party girl with an independent streak.

In his cinematic book “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ and the Dawn of the Modern Woman” (HarperStudio), Sam Wasson suggests that without Hepburn’s Holly, there would be no “Sex and the Single Girl” or “Sex and the City.” Hepburn showed women they could be both ladylike and carnal.

“Because it was Audrey who was doing it,” he writes, “living alone, going out, looking fabulous and getting a little drunk didn’t look so bad anymore. Being single actually seemed shame-free. It seemed fun.”

It helped, of course, to have that Henry Mancini score, with the oft-recorded “Moon River,” which Hepburn actually sings in the movie; the little black dress by Givenchy;  the streaked hair.

Though the look was glamorous, it remained simple. And that, Wasson writes, was key:

“Audrey’s Holly showed that glamour was available to anyone, no matter what their age, sex life or social standing. Grace Kelly’s look was safe, Doris’s Day’s undesirable and Elizabeth Taylor’s – unless you had that body – unattainable, but in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ Audrey’s was democratic.”

And yet, what makes “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” so heartbreaking is the loneliness Holly’s independence masks, along with the gulf between her veneer of classiness and the absent social status that would give it backbone. The ironic title and the opening scene, with its poignant Mancini undertow, establish the gulf:  Arriving by cab at Tiffany’s in the wee hours, presumably from an all-night party and a lover’s bed, Holly has coffee and Danish as she window-shops for jewels she can’t afford.

The distance between her and those jewels is as slender and as strong as that window pane.

The art of discipline

Hepburn never forgot the gulf between the haves and have-nots. The multilingual actress had begun doing work for UNICEF in the 1950s. But in the 1980s, she took to the field as a Goodwill Ambassador, with missions to Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Somalia – work that earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Always she would be surrounded by yearning children. Years before, she had been one of them. Now she sought to assuage their suffering.

On these missions, the woman who was said to prefer skirts and dresses was garbed simply but elegantly in crisp pants and shirts, hair styled, makeup applied just so. She carried on in this manner despite the cancer that would claim her life in Switzerland on Jan. 20, 1993.

In one of the last interviews Hepburn gave, Diane Sawyer asked how she could go on. What was the essence of her beauty and style?

Hepburn’s answer summed up her classiness, too: “You should always make the effort.”

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