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Audrey Hepburn Timeline 1929 - 1949

Audrey had a difficult childhood. At at age 5 she was sent to boarding school in England, at 6 her father walked out on the family, and as a teenager she lived in occupied Holland during the war.


On May 4, Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston is born in Brussels to a Dutch mother, Ella van Heemstra, and British father, Joseph Hepburn-Ruston. She has two older step-brothers by Ella's previous marriage - Alexander and Ian, who are eight and four years her senior, respectively. Her father's work means that he is often abroad and her early years are spent travelling between London and Brussels, Arnhem and The Hague.


At age 5 Audrey is sent to boarding school in England by her mother. Ella arranges for her to spend holidays with a coal miner's family to further immerse her in English language and customs.


Audrey's father walks out on the family leaving no forwarding address. He will settle in England. Audrey would relate her father's disappearance as "the most traumatic event in my life."

Audrey begins to take ballet classes, her desire to dance first kindled by being taken to several ballet performances in Brussels as a very small girl.


Her parents formally divorce. At Audrey's pleading her father is given visitation rights" but he subsequently fails to exercise them.


Preceding the outbreak of WWII, Ella wrongly considers neutral Holland safer than the risk of staying in England, and moves Audrey back to live with the family in Arnhem.

Audrey is forced to quickly learn Dutch, her being fluent only in English at this time. Years later, when asked if she felt more Dutch or English, she said she leaned towards English "because I was more English than Dutch when I went to Holland."


In May, German troops and artillery march through Arnhem. Dutch resources are exploited fully by Germany and, in time, virtually all of the van Heemstra family's property will be confiscated: property, homes, bank accounts, securities, jewelry.

Due to her British citizenship, and fear of internment, Ella warns Audrey not to speak English in public: "My mother was worried about [my] speaking English in the streets with Germans all around."

At this time, in England, Joseph Ruston is among hundreds of fascist or pro-Nazi activists imprisoned without trial" this unknown to his wife and daughter.


Audrey begins her first serious ballet training under Winja Marova at the Arnhem School of Music. She will study there through to mid 1944, becoming the teacher's star pupil in the process.

Food rationing becomes increasingly severe. By spring it is hard to get the single weekly rationed egg, let alone meat; by summer there is no tea of coffee. During winter the fuel shortage means that only one room per home is allowed to be heated.


Audrey's Uncle and four others are executed by the Nazis purely for publicity and retribution for a Dutch underground attempt to blow up a train. Audrey witnesses other such reprisals in Arnhem: "We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they'd close the street and then open it and you could pass by again...Don't discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It's worse than you could ever imagine."

Alexander goes underground to avoid being rounded up to work in forced labor for the Germans. Ian is caught and is sent to work fourteen hours a day in a munitions factory in Berlin or "for all his family knows” to his death.

Ella and Audrey, now on their own, are taken in by her grandfather, Baron van Heemstra, and Ella's widowed sister, in nearby Velp.


Despite the occupation Audrey draws herself more deeply into music and dance, finding an outlet for her talents in a series of "blackout performances," held in secret with locked windows and drawn blinds. They also serve as a fundraising activity for the Resistance. During the war Audrey also acts as a courier and occasional secret messenger for the Resistance, as children often did, carrying messages and illegal leaflets stuffed in socks and shoes.


Sufficiently advanced in her dancing, Audrey helps instruct the youngest students in the School. She also earns her family money by giving under-the-table private lessons. Eventually, however, food becomes so scarce that it weakens Audrey enough so that she must stop dancing temporarily.

The Battle of Arnhem begins on September 17. After several days fighting the victorious Germans order all citizens to leave within twenty-four hours or risk being shot on sight. Ella and her daughter watch the exodus from the relative safety of the Baron's villa: "It was human misery at its starkest" masses of refugees on the move...hundreds collapsing of hunger... We took in forty, but...there was literally nothing to eat."

Winter, 1944 - 1945

The fifteen-year-old Hepburn starts dancing again, giving classes in one of the rooms of the house. But soon, the Germans order everybody out. "It was unspeakably hard to turn [them] into the cold night. Even my brother, who was hiding there, had to leave."

Audrey appears with other students at Arnhem's municipal theater in a recital that wins attention from a magazine critic, who writes: "She seems obsessed by a real dance rage, and already has a respectable technical proficiency."


March, and Audrey barely escapes as German soldiers round up young women to staff their military kitchens. Her hiding place is back at home where she stays indoors for the next month.

Holland is liberated on Audrey's sixteenth birthday, May 4. Audrey would later recall the earlier liberation of Arnhem by Canadian troops: "We whooped and hollered and danced for joy. I wanted to kiss every one of them. The incredible relief of being free "it's something that's very hard to verbalize. Freedom is more like something in the air. For me, it was hearing soldiers speaking English instead of German, and smelling real tobacco smoke again from their cigarettes."

Audrey is now five-foot-six and weighs ninety pounds, suffering from asthma, jaundice and other diseases due to malnutrition, including anemia and severe edema. Also, her metabolism is permanently affected, leading in future to difficulty gaining weight, as well as erroneous rumours of eating disorders for years to come.

Alexander emerges from underground hiding, followed soon by the arrival of Ian who has walked most of the way from Berlin. Audrey would say: "We lost everything, of course "our houses, our possessions, our money. But we didn't give a hoot. We got through our lives, which was all that mattered."

Ella reapplies herself to Audrey's career, and decides to relocate them both to Amsterdam. Audrey starts studying there with Sonia Gaskell, the leading name in Dutch ballet. Audrey can't pay for the lessons, but Gaskell thinks she deserves a chance, and she becomes a very serious pupil. "Sonia taught me that if you work really hard, you'd succeed, and that everything had to come from the inside."


Audrey is chosen to dance with Gaskell's top student star in a matinee performance at Amsterdam's Hortus theatre. Wrote a critic: "She didn't have a lot of great technique, but she definitely had talent."

Audrey is introduced by a friend to a photographer, at whose studio she begins to do some posing, quickly developing a natural feel for it. At this stage, largely ignorant of the film world, Audrey's ambitions lie in dance.


With her mother, Audrey visits London briefly where she auditions for the celebrated Marie Lambert ballet school. She is accepted with scholarship, however her enrollment is postponed due to lack of funds.

Back in the Netherlands, Audrey performs a screentest for a pair of freelance Dutch filmmakers, who give her her first small film role" that of a stewardess" in the film Nederlands in Zeven Lessen (Dutch in Seven Lessons).

Late in the year, Audrey and her mother leave for London to partake of her scholarship. Ella would try to track down Ruston in England but fail. Ella supports them through a series of humble jobs, and finally obtains a job "combined with a flat" managing a block of Mayfair flats. Meanwhile Rambert generously takes Audrey into her home, housing and feeding her there for six months. Audrey concentrates totally on dance until the need for money leads her to weekend work as a model.

Despite her ambitions for the ballet, Audrey increasingly acknowledges that because of her limitations" her height and comparative lack of training" that her future is not to be in the ballet. Audrey declines an offer from a company for an overseas tour and instead tries out for the chorus line of High Button Shoes. Audrey is one of the ten" out of a thousand that try-out" that get the job. She has one line, "Have they all gone?". The show runs for 291 performances.


After being noticed in High Button Shoes, Audrey is cast in Sauce Tartare. After 433 performances the play is refreshed as Sauce Piquante" in which Audrey returns to a bigger part. She would also do a "bit of TV" at this time. Marcel le Bon, a young French singer in Sauce Piquant becomes her first serious boyfriend, if only briefly. In between the two Sauces, Audrey works to develop her performing skills with choreography and elocution lessons.

Audrey is offered by Associated British Pictures Corp. a major role in Laughter in Paradise, however she only signs after the bookings for a show fall through and le Bon leaves for America. By now she is only able to secure a small part as "cigarette girl."

Audrey performs another small part in One Wild Oat, and then goes on to a small role in Young Wives' Tale. She is then loaned out to Ealing Studios for The Lavender Hill Mob. The film is named best film of 1951, although Audrey's contribution goes unnoticed by the studio.

Shortly after finishing The Lavender Hill Mob, Audrey finds a serious relationship in 28 year-old James Hanson, multimillionaire scion of a Yorkshire trucking family. Audrey's mother thinks him a good stable match for her.

Next Page: Audrey Hepburn Timeline 1950 - 1959

This article is taken from Graham's Audrey Hepburn Page.

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