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Audrey Hepburn: A Son's Reflections

By Ted Kreiter May/June 2004

Audrey Hepburn, most pleasing to the eye, is the subject of a new book by her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer. The book offers from the family archives photos never before seen by the public. Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit is Ferrer's attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the beautiful film star whom Cecil Beaton described as "the embodiment of a feminine Ideal."

In 1954, the famous photographer summed up "the person of Miss Audrey Hepburn" in an article for a women's magazine. "Nobody ever looked like her before World War II; it is doubtful if anybody ever did, unless it be those wild children of the French Revolution who stride in the foreground of romantic canvases.... She is a wistful child of a war-chided era, and the shadow thrown across her youth underlines even more its precious evanescence," he wrote.

In the late 1940s, Audrey had risen from the ruins of WWII like a phoenix. Growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland, she had suffered poverty and malnutrition. Once, rounded up with a group of young girls by a Nazi soldier to be part of a work detail, Hepburn bolted and ran through alleys to escape. She hid in a cellar for days before dragging herself out and finding her way home. She also was heroic; like many other girls in Holland, she hid secret messages in her shoes for the Dutch underground.

In the 1950s, Hepburn was asked to play the role of Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, a movie about the young Jewish girl who died in the Holocaust. Anne Frank and Hepburn had much in common; they were even the same age. Hepburn considered, but declined the role. "Reading her diary," she said, "was like reading my own experiences from her point of view. I was quite destroyed by it."

"Going back to that place would be too hard for her." Ferrer writes.

But it was something other than the wartime experience that cast a shadow over Audrey Hepburn's life, according to Ferrer. The abandonment by her father when she was six and his inability to connect emotionally with her when she found him again 20 years later affected her all her life. It is the reason she had such a deep desire to keep her family together.

During two marriages (which both had many happy years, according to Ferrer), Hepburn was successful at insulating her children from her Hollywood fame. They grew up in Europe, going to school with local children and hardly aware of her day job.

"When people ask me what it was like to have a famous mother," Ferrer writes, "I always answer that I really don't know." His mother never watched her movies after they were made, he writes, and she shied away when anyone would bring up one of her roles in conversation. If she had a favorite movie, he adds, it was Funny Face with Fred Astaire, in which she was able to kick up her feet and show off her dancing skills. She had studied throughout her youth to become a prima ballerina, but at 5'7" and 110 pounds she was too tall and too heavy for male dancers of her age. She settled instead for being a model and actress.

Having read none of the seven biographies written about his mother, Ferrer nevertheless sympathizes with the writers who had to struggle and still couldn't find anything scandalous, to say about her. As Barry Paris wrote in a recent book about Hepburn, "The worst thing she ever did, it seems, was forget to mention Patricia Neal at the 1964 Oscars" when she subbed for the ailing Neal in presenting the award for Best Actor.

"She really was like those characters you saw in the movies," Ferrer writes, "emotional, courageous, delicate, romantic." As an actress she was always on time and always knew her lines. And she never would be heard speaking ill of fellow actors or director--seven Humphrey Bogart, who was so icy to her on the set of Sabrina, apparently because he didn't like her acting. When Ferrer told his mother he thought that wasn't fair of Bogart, Hepburn looked him straight in the eye and said that Bogart probably had good reason. It is possible, of course, that Bogart was afraid Hepburn would steal the show as she had from Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. And she did.

Somewhat different was the strange case of Marlon Brando. In her first and only meeting with the famous macho actor early in her career at Paramount, the two were seated next to each other at an Actor's Guild luncheon. As they sat down, Audrey said a shy hello. Brando said not a single word to her during the entire dinner. For 40 years, Ferrer says, his mother believed that Brando had shunned her. But in the hospital near the end of her life, she received a letter from the famous actor. A mutual friend must have told him of Hepburn's feelings, and he wrote to set the record straight. Although she might have been shy of him at that luncheon, he recalled that he had been so much in awe of her that he was speechless. He couldn't think of a single thing to say.

Ferrer's touching account of his mother's final illness is the most personal part of his memoir. Hepburn spent her last weeks surrounded by family and friends at her beloved 18th century farmhouse, La Paisible, near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. In a photo taken just three days before she died, a young Ferrer and his mother stand smiling in the garden. Hepburn, wrapped in a blue poncho against the January chill, is still lovely. Ferrer has his hand on her shoulder as if to hold her down to earth.

In the weeks before her death, a helicopter with paparazzi had been flying over. Once Hepburn, walking in the garden, had been forced to hurry back inside. Ferrer called an old family friend, a retired Swiss Army colonel, and asked if it would not be possible to stop helicopters from flying overhead on the day of his mother's funeral.

"I was asking a man who had never bent a rule in his entire life," Ferrer writes. This wasn't Italy or France, where strings might be pulled and miracles accomplished, he adds. It was Switzerland, where such things don't happen. The man came to the funeral but never called back to say if he had been successful.

As 25,000 visitors lined the streets of the small Swiss village of 1,200 inhabitants to silently watch the funeral, Ferrer helped carry the coffin down to the village church. There was not a plane in the sky. He later learned, he says, that an order had come down from he did not know how high in the government, decreeing a no-fly zone over the entire area. It was an indication of just how much Audrey Hepburn was revered by the world.

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