Audrey Hepburn: Still the Fairest Lady

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John Kobal / Getty

Audrey Hepburn (1929 - 1993)

The movie world's first clear view of Audrey Hepburn was in a newsreel: the beginning of Roman Holiday showed the young actress, as the ruritanian Princess Ann, on a state tour of Europe. The world's final view of Hepburn was in 1992 TV newscasts of her visit to Africa last October - three months before her death at 63 - as she bestowed first her compassion on starving children and then her modulated anger at the causes of their condition.

In the 40 years between Hollywood's make-believe headlines and the horrifying reality of Somalia, Hepburn as actress and woman seemed an emissary from a finer world than ours. She taught, by example, what a lady was: a vessel of grace and gravity, ready wit, eldritch charm: a woman whose greatest discretion was to hide her awareness of her splendor. She refused to be tyrannized by her own beauty.

Today, these matters and manners may strike you as so very once-upon-a-time. Nobody "behaves" any more. In the post-Audrey age, when stars are in rehab before they're out of their teens, when British royals rut as strenuously as rock stars and a President gets impeached for accepting fellatio from an intern, deportment is a Victorian concept. Even in the 50s, a decade of such screen seraphs as Vivien Leigh, Claire Bloom, Grace Kelly and Jean Simmons (William Wyler's first choice for the role of Princess Ann), Hepburn was a glorious anachronism. She represented a moral and emotional aristocracy that no longer exists - if it ever did, outside of her pictures.

Hepburn, born on May 4, 1929, died 14 years ago today, and her ostensibly anachronistic glamour might have died with her. Yet it's that regality, along with her relentless generosity of spirit, that keeps her alive, burnishes her glow. Consider these recent reminders:

- Last year's Gap commercials, which had Audrey in her skinny black pants from "Funny Face" dancing to AC/DC's "Back In Black." (Proceeds to the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund.)

- Christie's December auction of the Givenchy "little black dress" that Hepburn wore as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". It sold for more than $900,000, the highest price ever for a movie costume. (Proceeds to the City of Joy charity for poor children in India. "There are tears in my eyes," said Dominic Lapierre, founder of the charity. "I am absolutely dumbfounded to believe that a piece of cloth which belonged to such a magical actress will now enable me to buy bricks and cement to put the most destitute children in the world into schools.")

- Katie Couric's Holly Golightly party at Tiffany's. This past Sunday, the CBS news anchor donned a Holly-style frock and long black gloves and threw herself a 50th birthday party at Tiffany's Fifth Avenue flagship store. (Proceeds to the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance.)

- "The Audrey Hepburn Treasures", a new biography and "scrapbook" of family mementos. (Proceeds to the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund.)

All these are testimony to Hepburn's twin legacies: her eternal, effortless chic in movies and her later, to her more important, career as an ambassador and consciousness-raiser for UNICEF. She often spoke of her lifelong craving for affection and her need to give it. She knew both privilege and want, as a baroness' daughter who nearly starved in the Netherlands during the German occupation in World War II. You can see why Hepburn essentially retired from movies at 38 to care for her two sons, and why the starving children of Africa and Asia were kin to her. The photos of Audrey with the Somalian children show a woman nearly as thin as they. It's anorexia as empathy — as if she didn't want to embarrass the starving children she met by looking too well-fed.

She was one of a kind, inimitable and irreplaceable, as is proved by the actresses who tried to replace her. A TV remake of "Roman Holiday" starred Catherine Oxenberg, a Yugoslav princess, and lineal descendant of Catherine the Great of Russia. Julia Ormond had Audrey's role in a "Sabrina" remake; Thandie Newton took her part in "The Trouble With Charlie", a very distant approximation of "Charade". And Jessica Love Hewitt starred seven years ago in "The Audrey Hepburn Story". All were put in the shade by Audrey's ghost. Who'd dare? Why bother?


Maybe one reason she was so lovely was that she didn't think she was. Voted the "most beautiful woman of all time" by the readers of New Women last year, Audrey had no high opinion of herself, her looks, her performance skills. Perhaps she got that from her mother Ella, who could lavish or, more often, withhold love.

You dip into the first plasticene packet in "The Audrey Hepburn Treasures" and find a photo of a three-month-old child. On the back Ella has inscribed: "This is Audrey but in reality she is 1000 times sweeter and more lovely." Yet Ella, who said she "grew up wanting to be more than anything else English, slim and an actress," seemed miffed that Audrey got all that, and more. She rarely showed pleasure in her daughter's success. She came backstage after Audrey's Broadway triumph in "Gigi" in 1951 and said, "You've done very well, my dear, considering that you have no talent." (A few years later Ella appears briefly as a sidewalk cafe patron in "Funny Face".) Audrey's son Sean Hepburn Ferrer called his mom "a star who couldn't see her own light." Could that be because her mother's jealousy obscured the view?

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