Who was the REAL Audrey Hepburn?

Who was the REAL Audrey Hepburn? Granddaughter Emma Ferrer breaks down in tears in new documentary as she says the star was ‘sad’ and ‘just wanted to be loved’ after her dad walked out on her aged six

  • Documentary film Audrey: More than an icon paints the life of Hollywood icon  
  • Audrey Hepburn admits her father walking out left ‘very deep mark’ on her 
  • Granddaughter Emma Ferrer said best-kept secret about her was she was sad
  • Audrey’s son Sean Ferrer added ‘you can tell me how she adored’ her dad 

While many know Audrey Hepburn as a Hollywood icon, those closest to her have revealed she was a ‘vulnerable’ woman deeply scarred by her father’s abandonment.

Audrey Hepburn became a film sensation in the 1950s and changed the industry’s image of a star thanks to her big eyes, black pixie hair cut and thin frame – during an era when the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield were renowned for their curves. 

But new documentary, Audrey: More than an icon, which features interviews from those who knew her best – including her son Sean Ferrer and granddaughter Emma Ferrer – suggests life wasn’t as picture-perfect as it may have seemed. 

In a never-before-heard interview with the actress which forms the narration of the film, Audrey can be heard explaining how her dad Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston walked out on her when she was six, something she describes as a ‘trauma’ which left a ‘very deep mark’ on her.   

In a never-before-heard interview featured in Audrey, the Hollywood actress can be hearding explaining how her father walking out on her when she was six left a ‘very deep mark’ on her’

Speaking in the documentary, Audrey’s granddaughter Emma Ferrer (pictured) said: ‘For the woman who is most loved in the world to have such a lack of love is so sad’

In one particularly emotional scene, Audrey’s granddaughter Emma breaks down in tears as she explains: ‘My dad said about my grandmother that the best-kept secret about Audrey is that she was sad. It really makes me sad to think about. I really think she just wanted love, and to be loved. 

‘I think she got that in her life, but I don’t think she got that from a lot of people. You know, for the woman who is most loved in the world to have such a lack of love is so sad.’ 

Audrey Hepburn grew up during World War II in Belgium and suffered starvation while she was forced to hide from the Nazis.

‘There came a moment where we had to live in the cellar because parts of our house kept being shot away,’ Audrey explains in an interview during the film. ‘We were sleeping on mattresses and waiting for the shootings to stop. 

‘My uncles were taken from their homes and shot. One brother was sent to Germany, the other was always hidden. My uncles were the first hostages to be shot in Holland and it was actually the turning point because from that day on, an underground was formed.’ 

Audrey lived with her Dutch-born baroness mother Ella van Heemstra after her father – a supporter of the fascist movement – walked out just days before the broke out in September 1939. 

‘My parents divorced when I was six,’ Audrey says. ‘It certainly stayed with me for the rest of my life. My father leaving us left me insecure, for life perhaps. 

Audrey: More than an icon features interviews from those who knew her best – including her son Sean Ferrer, granddaughter Emma Ferrer and actress Mita Ungar

Audrey Hepburn became a film icon in the 1950s and changed the industry’s image of a star with her big eyes, black pixie hair cut and her thin frame. Pictured, in Breakfast and Tiffany’s

My mother explained very sweetly that he’d gone away on a trip and she didn’t think he was coming back. I thought my mother was never going to stop crying.’

‘She sobbed through the night. I would hear her sobbing in the next room. I would just try and be with her. I missed him terribly from he day he disappeared.’

‘As a child you can’t quite understand. That sense of helplessness…the strangeness of it too. Not really understanding and just knowing daddy’s gone away. That was the first big blow I had as a child. It was one of the traumas that left a very deep mark on me.’ 

Audrey’s son Sean also discusses a candid photograph that was taken of his mother and her father posing on some grass. 

‘She adored her father,’ he explains. ‘There’s one photo of my mother with her father. The photo is just a candid shot probably taken by her mother, but you can tell me how she adored him. Then he disappeared one day.’ 

Audrey’s granddaughter Emma adds: ‘She really felt throughout her whole life the lack of her father and I know that’s something she really struggled with. 

‘That wasn’t really fixed through her relationships at all. There were many difficult times with the relationships she did have.’ 

Sean (pictured) referred to one photo taken of his mother with her father and said ‘you can tell me how she adored him’

Speaking of this snap of Audrey and her father, Sean said: ‘The photo is just a candid shot probably taken by her mother, but you can tell me how she adored him. Then he disappeared one day’

Emma continues: ‘She survived the Dutch famine on bread made of tulips and when they liberated her she was living in her basement in the Netherlands.

The first UNICEF agents who had been assembled to provide aid to children and women after the war literally pulled her outside of the famine. She would always talk about how they arrived and handed her a chocolate bar and that was her turning point.’ 

At the height of the Depression in 1936, Ella moved her family to Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1936 to stay with relatives. Audrey, who first husband was to be Mel Ferrer, was then packed off to boarding school in England.

While she was desperate to become a dancer, it didn’t work out so she started featuring in films – notably Roman Holiday – to earn some money.

‘She really hadn’t been training as an actress, but had been training to perform,’ says film director Peter Bogdanovich. ‘She had to draw on her own sad and difficult real life experiences so we feel closer to her, more familiar. Out of nowhere, this star was born.’

In 1964, after 25 years of total absence, Audrey expressed a desire to see her father. Pictured, together

Actress Mita Ungaro told how Audrey had a great career but that her ‘private life wasn’t that lucky’ (pictured)

But in 1964, after 25 years of total absence, Audrey expressed a desire to see her father.

‘Curiosity took over,’ Audrey explains in the film. ‘I wanted to know where he was, whether he was still alive. Through the Red cross I found where my father was – and that was in Ireland.’  

But Audrey’s friend and photographer John Isaac says how she was left upset following the reunion – despite still deciding to forgive him. 

‘When she was telling me the story she was crying,’ he recalls. ‘She said he was so cold. He did not receive her – and she said that really hurt her.’ 

The documentary then goes on to explain how in 1968, after marrying her second husband Andrea Dotti, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s actress decided to give up a career in Hollywood to put her family first. 

‘I wanted to be a mother,’ she says. ‘Ever since I was a child, I loved babies, and when I was grown up I was going to have lots of babies. I think that has been a conducting theme in my life.’

As her voice narrates a home recording which shows her firstborn, Sean, playing around in the grass, she continues: ‘It’s what has made my decisions always. And because I wanted it so much, I wanted to enjoy it very much and not rip myself from it all the time.

‘I don’t want to be made to sound virtuous. It was a very knowing and if you like, selfish decision. It’s what made me happy to stay at home with my children. It wasn’t a sacrifice because I thought I should take care of my children.

‘That feeling of family is terribly important. I think it’s essential. I learned as a child it’s terribly important for a child to have a father. For having my father cut off, or he cut himself off, I was desperate. 

The late Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn pictured with her mother in 1953

Actress and dancer Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) rehearsing at the barre, circa 1950 (pictured)

‘If I could have just seen him regularly, I would have felt he loved me, and I would have had a father, and I tried desperately to avoid it for my children. 

‘You become very insecure about affection, and terribly grateful for it, and you have an enormous desire to give it.’ 

And when pregnant with her second son, Luca Dotti, Audrey continued to focus on her family life and marriage – although the latter wasn’t to last.

She moved to Tolochenaz, Switzerland, where she could be away from the paparazzi, and worked as a UNICEF ambassador.

Commenting on Audrey’s decision to look after her children, her granddaughter Emma says: ‘I think she just had to kind of prove to herself that unconditional love was possible. I think she was just chasing that her whole life.’

‘I’m still understanding the level of fame. It’s a unique kind of fame that in my opinion, so few people have achieved and maintained. 

‘She had obviously this strength of character that was so appealing and you couldn’t help but just fall in love with her but she also had this incredible vulnerability.’  

Actress and Audrey’s family friend Mita Ungaro adds: ‘She had a great career but I think her private life wasn’t that lucky.’

Audrey, who spent the last decade of her life with Robert Wolders, Dutch widower of film star Merle Oberon, died in 1993 in Switzerland at the age of 63 after battling colon cancer. 

Her father Joseph died in Baggot Street Hospital, Dublin, on October 16, 1980, aged 91. 

Audrey Hepburn’s life 

Hepburn’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch-born baroness who had two sons with her first husband, and in 1925, divorced him and married Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston.

Ella took her family to London in 1928 and then Brussels in 1929. Her daughter Edda Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born on May 4, 1929, in Belgium.

Hepburn’s father amended his surname to Hepburn-Ruston, and Audrey dropped the Ruston when pursuing her career.

At the height of the Depression in 1936, Ella moved her family to Arnhem in the Netherlands in 1936 to stay with relatives. Meanwhile, Hepburn was packed off to boarding school in England.

Those were rootless, chaotic years for the young girl, but she became fluent in five languages.

It was the time of the ‘Winter of Hunger’ that followed the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1944.

Curator and photographic preservationist David Wills reveals in his tribute book Audrey: The 50s: ‘One of Audrey’s brothers was forced into a labor camp, relatives lost their lives, and the family moved about for safety and shelter, coming to a tense rest near Amsterdam.’

Hepburn’s mother, Ella, clinging to her baroness status, remained an aloof presence in the young girl’s life.

‘I became a rather moody child,’ Hepburn confessed at the time, ‘quiet and reticent, and I liked to be by myself a great deal.’

She preferred the company of pets – dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds to playing with dolls.

The family barely survived on endives, tulip bulbs and water – ‘a diet that rendered an already slender girl alarmingly thin and anemic’.

After the United Nations liberated Holland and the war was over, the Hepburn-Rustons returned to London and Hepburn enrolled in ballet classes.

Her teacher, Madame Marie Rambert noted, ‘she had lovely long limbs and beautiful eyes, but her tragedy was being too tall’.

Hepburn continued to study ballet and never became a true ballerina. And though she never studied acting, she went on to become an extraordinarily successful actress.

By the war’s end, she worked as a model for commercial photographers who were taken by her ‘bone structure, fine complexion, and lack of model self-regard’.

Dancing in the chorus in shows in London’s East End, she was asked to introduce comedy acts and stole the show. Chorus girls resented her audience appeal.

‘They’re always looking at bloody Audrey,’ quipped one fellow dancer. ‘We don’t stand a chance when she’s onstage.’

Small movie roles soon followed: She played a stewardess, a receptionist and a cigarette girl.

One director on seeing her for the first time said, ‘I saw a dream coming into the room’, and immediately offered her the job.

‘I am not an actress. You will regret it,’ Hepburn told the director, but he never did.

She proceeded to inch her way up the ladder of an acting profession and secured an agent and a contract at Associated British Pictures Corporation.

She was borrowed by Ealing Studios in London to play opposite Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob and she was on her way up the proverbial ladder.

More acting roles and her Broadway debut in Gigi led to an offer to test for the lead role in William Wyler’s film, Roman Holiday – a romantic comedy following the lives of a crown princess of an unidentified country and an American reporter – to be shot on location in Rome.

Paramount Studio executives declared, ‘The test is one of the best ever made in Hollywood, New York or London’.

She was the perfect Cinderella in reverse and could appear royal with her long-necked, ballerina posture yet vulnerable with her large wide-set eyes and her square, strong jawline.

And because of her model-like body frame, she could wear any and every costume brought to her.

Gregory Peck was signed on to play an American reporter in Roman Holiday, who recognizes the princess when she escapes the palace in Rome wearing street clothes.

Peck said she was amazing: ‘She can do anything, without effort.’

Hepburn, however, was more loquacious.

She said: ‘Maybe there was a little chemistry between us that made our scenes work. I was in Rome being treated like a princess…and it was not difficult for me to believe I was in love with Gregory Peck.’

At the time, the press hinted that the co-stars were having an affair, but it was denied.

In the film, Hepburn’s hair was sheared from shoulder length to semi-short, and when the film Roman Holiday premiered on August 27, 1953, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the reviews were ecstatic.

Life magazine said Hepburn was ‘the most gifted star hired by Hollywood in years’.

Time put her on the cover of their September 7th issue the same year and wrote: ‘Paramount’s new star glows and sparkles with the fire of a finely cut diamond.’

Hepburn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1953 for Roman Holiday and won wearing a gown by designer Hubert de Givenchy, who became one of her most adored fashion designers.

It was the first time that the general public saw her pixie haircut, her Groucho-esque eyebrows and wide smile.

Gregory Peck introduced his co-star to actor, Melchior Gaston Ferrer in 1953. He was 12 years her senior and had starred opposite Leslie Caron in Lili.

Ferrer sent Hepburn a script for a French play, Ondine, to consider, and she agreed to star if Ferrer was cast as the knight, her professional Prince Charming.

Rehearsals began in January 1954 at the same time that he proposed.

She accepted by sending him a platinum watch inscribed, ‘Mad About the Boy’, a line taken from a Noel Coward song. They married in Switzerland that following September.

By January 1960, after having two miscarriages, she gave birth to a baby boy, Sean.

The baby was left with a nanny and Hepburn’s mother and the couple flew to New York for Hepburn to start work on the film adaption of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Her role of Holly Golightly brought her another Oscar nomination.

Ferrer was considered over-protective and kept Hepburn’s telephone number a secret even from her press agent and backstage managers. He always denied that he felt in competition with her and she asserted that he was not her Svengali.

But by 1966, a much-publicized romance with actor Albert Finney, her co-star in the marital comedy, Two for the Road, led to the Hepburn and Ferrer’s separation a year later.

Following their divorce, Hepburn spoke to Ferrer only on two occasions for the rest of her life.

A friend of the couple, Robert Flemyng, remembered ‘Mel’s success in Lili did not bear the fruits that he might have hoped for and in the course of time, he was not pleased to be Mr. Hepburn’.

Hepburn’s second marriage was to Count Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist, nine years her junior. The couple had one son, Luca now 46.

But the marriage was doomed by Dotti’s infidelity and they divorced 13 years later in 1982. This time, Hepburn stayed in touch with Dotti for the benefit of their child.

Hepburn spent the last decade of her life with Robert Wolders, Dutch widower of film star Merle Oberon, but they never married.

According to Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti, his mother never forgot what it was like growing up during World War II and having no money.

Throughout her life, she pursued an ardent work ethic and continued to get up in the morning between 4 and 5am. She was compensating for what she thought were her shortcomings.

She always saw herself as too thin. There was a bump on the arch of her nose and her feet were too big for her 5ft, 7in, height.

She wore a size eight shoe and always wore kitten heel pumps with 3.5cm heels, which she thought made her height a nonissue with screen partners and de-emphasized the length of her foot.

Buy she also couldn’t wear higher heels because ‘years of ballet had wreaked havoc on my feet’ she said – high heels were just too painful.

Mattel toy company created a Hepburn Barbie doll that was attired in small scale re-creations of clothes by designer Givenchy – Hepburn’s adored French fashion designer – or designer Edith Head.

She rarely wore jewelry and when not on the set, she preferred old jeans or pants and puttering in her garden.

Because of Hepburn’s style that rocked Hollywood, women stopped stuffing their bras and wearing stiletto heels.

Designer Edith Head declared that Hepburn knew more about fashion than any actress except Marlene Dietrich.

Throughout her life Hepburn became a legend of grace and compassion.

The mother of two sons served tirelessly as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to more than 20 countries, where she met children who struggled to survive.

She adored the humanitarian work she began in 1988 and continued until her untimely death from appendix cancer in January 1993, when she was just 63- years-old.

 

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