Audrey Hepburn: queen of the LBD, muse to a small army of designers, and the woman behind characters that we return to time and time again. But beyond the ballet flats and slim pants, the captivating portraiture and perfectly coiffed pixie cuts, Hepburn fizzled with a natural effervescence and exuded a charm that will continue to live on for generations. The amount of magazine articles, blogs and Pinterest boards dedicated to attaining a kernel of her sartorial prowess seem endless, but the true secret to her charm is made of stronger stuff than a few wisps of silk and spritzes of perfume. More than a physical beauty, but a beautiful soul, too.
Known for her work as a humanitarian, Hepburn had experienced poverty firsthand during her childhood—an experience that moved her to charitable work in her later years. Born to a wealthy family (her father was an Anglo-Irish banker and her mother a Dutch baroness) Hepburn fell prey to the Nazis, who forced the Dutch people into famine after taking control of the people’s already limited supply of food and water. Life was difficult for the 15-year-old Audrey, who developed several health problems as a consequence of malnutrition. Her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, wrote: “She told us about how her brothers ate dog biscuits when there was nothing else to eat… how the bread was green because the only flour available was made from peas. She spent the whole day in bed reading so as not to feel the hunger.” Indeed, to distract herself from the crippling hunger, young Audrey read extensively and danced ballet to collect money for the underground movement. The extent of her health problems—and her 5’7″ frame—dictated that a ballet career was now off the table; this was no less than a tragedy for Audrey, who was committed to carving a career for herself out of dancing. Instead, she and her mother moved to London to see if Audrey could make money as a chorus girl. She was dancing in Monaco for a film when she was chosen to play the lead role in the Broadway show “Gigi” and enjoyed six months in this role, winning a World Theatre Award for her debut performance. Her acting career blossomed from there on out.
It would be all too easy to pass Audrey Hepburn off as a mere actress: Her legacy is wholly connected to her passion for charity. Hepburn’s rise to stardom and the subsequent fortune she accumulated from it gave Hepburn an opportunity to reach out to those in need. Her personal experience of starvation and distress deeply entrenched itself within her soul and moved her towards charitable deeds, to give something back to hungry and sick children in parts of the world that were in turmoil. This passion for philanthropy was no publicity stunt; Hepburn deeply cared for the cause and work tirelessly to raise awareness and funding for children’s charities like UNICEF, for whom she was appointed the duty of special ambassador shortly after her final film role. While her looks, her style and her characters gained her fame, her passion for charity sculpted her legacy.
Furthermore, Hepburn was a mother: a loving and big-hearted family woman. Her love for children, and her desire to take care of them, extended not simply from personal experience, but from her great maternal instinct. She believed not simply in giving food and physical aid to children living in poverty, but in nurturing them emotionally, too. “[S]he believed that one of the priorities in our society should be to address the children who are in need. Not just for a cup of soup or another vitamin, but to see what war does to children and protect them as much emotionally as we should physically,” wrote her son, Sean, in a recent memoir about his mother. Audrey’s breed of charity was whole-hearted and complete; it was about providing a stable emotional growth for the children who are born into (or drawn into) poverty or abuse.
Of course, Hepburn also exuded an elegance and poise that is, quite simply, incomparable. But is any one element of her style, her talent, or her grace the real “secret” to her eternal charm? What lessons, then, can we learn from her? Quite simply: Style alone is not enough to command the world’s attention. Beauty is fleeting, but a loving spirit and a genuine passion for giving back is enduring. Many of Hepburn’s characters are frivolous and scatter-brained—the original manic pixie dream girl—but there is a deep, intangible “something” in her aura that stays with audiences beyond the end credits. That “something” is all Audrey. It is a beauty that truly glows, because it is boundless and organic.
Ultimately, Audrey Hepburn’s charm is inextricably connected to her warmth and kindness. It is giving—giving funds, time, care, laughter—that gave Hepburn an edge over her predecessors, contemporaries and the modern celebrities who hanker after the same stellar reputation. Hepburn’s legacy lies not in the roles she played or the outfits she wore, but rather the sincere, passionate and generous person that she was. True beauty is more than a facade, but alas, one cannot write a “how-to” guide for genuine kindness. Instead may we simply be inspired by Audrey’s remarkable life to live a life less ordinary of our own.