With March 8th just left behind, Medium is celebrating the International Women’s Day by commemorating one particularly remarkable woman. As a WWII survivor, a fashion and movie icon and a humanitarian, Audrey Hepburn has proved it is never too late, or too early, to do some good in the world. She has more than earned the right to be remembered not only for her beauty and elegance, but also for her perseverance, compassion and just overall badassness. So that’s what we are going to do.
Growing up under occupation
Hepburn was born in Bruxelles in 1929 into a noble family. Her childhood was tranquil and comfortable, until it wasn’t. Her family moved to Britain in the mid-1930s, as fascism was gaining popularity there. Her father was a member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by his close friend Oswald Mosley. He and little Audrey accompanied Mosley on a tour of Nazi Germany where they met Hitler before her father landed a job as a donations-collector and a recruiter for BUF. Because of his radicalisation, he abandoned his family which Audrey later said was “the most traumatic event of my life”.
After Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, her mother moved them to the Netherlands, in hopes of avoiding the war. Unfortunately, this attempt was not successful as German occupation began in 1940 and lasted for almost five years. During that time, Audrey witnessed first-hand the war’s impact, starting with her family’s properties being burned down and her uncle being executed for suspicion of taking part in the resistance. In an interview years later, she also recounted instances of street executions as well as seeing the Dutch Jewish population being loaded into trains and transported into concentration camps. In 1944, when the German forces restricted food supply, Audrey developed multiple health problems, including anaemia and respiratory issues, due to the malnutrition. Despite, or perhaps because of this, in 1942, she started giving silent ballet performances to raise money for the Dutch resistance.
Becoming an icon
After the war, the Hepburn family moved to Amsterdam, where Audrey quickly became a protege in the Dutch ballet. Her entertainment career started when she was working as a model and she caught an eye of a producer who offered her a role in his movie. For years, she starred in big European productions like Monte Carlo Baby as well as on Broadway, earning critical acclaim for her performances. In 1953, she was cast in the leading role of the hugely anticipated movie Roman Holiday. Since she was a newcomer in Hollywood, some had reservations but Hepburn’s performance enchanted even the sceptics. The film was a box office smash and Audrey won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her portrayal of Princess Ann. Only a year later, she appeared in a Broadway production of Odine, which earned her a Tony Award for Best Performance for a Leading Actress.
Alongside her blooming movie career, Hepburn was also praised for her unique fashion style. Her distinctive look enhanced by her longtime partnership with the designer Hubert de Chivenchy became her iconic brand. In her arguably most notable role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey wore the most famous little black in the cinematic history. The dress as well as her portrayal of the main character are considered to be symbols of the 20th century, both in cinema and in fashion.
Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicisation of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanisation of politics
On a mission
Hepburn first became involved with Unicef in the 1950s, when she took part in retelling of children’s stories of war. After spending some time with her family, instead of going back to Hollywood, she decided to pursue humanitarian work. In 1988, she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador of Unicef. Her first mission took place in Ethiopia in 1988, where she visited and brought food to an orphanage with 500 starving children. The same year, she went to Turkey on an immunisation campaign, of which later said: “The army gave us their trucks, the fishmongers gave their wagons for the vaccines, and once the date was set, it took ten days to vaccinate the whole country. Not bad.”
She worked with Unicef on a variety of projects but she was mostly passionate about helping children. Her work brought her to all corners of the world, including Bangladesh, El Salvador, Vietnam and Sudan. In 1991, President Bush presented Audrey with the highest US honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She continued her philanthropic work until she passed away in 1993, due to appendicular cancer. Posthumously, she was awarded an Emmy and a Grammy, for her late documentary productions and as such, Hepburn became one of the only fifteen EGOT winners ever. She was a survivor, an era defining icon, a philanthropist, and a mother; a woman whose legacy of elegance and humanity is worth celebrating.
Remember the AI humanoid Sofia? The first non-human citizen in the world? Yes, that one. She was modelled to look like Audrey Hepburn. Apparently, Hepburn’s classic beauty and delicate features were meant to make Sofia look more likeable.
Cover: / Final Editor: Ivo Martens