Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston was born in Brussels on May 4, 1929: although her mother belonged to the Dutch aristocracy, she did not spend her childhood and youth in wealthy circumstances. The prejudice that Hepburn came from a wealthy family because of her aristocratic background persisted throughout her life and was regularly denied by her.
When Hepburn was a teenager, her mother Ella van Heemstra managed to get her daughter out of England and into Holland immediately after the start of World War II. On one of the last passenger planes to cross the English Channel, Audrey Hepburn and her mother were on their way to Arnhem in the Netherlands.
Hepburn spent her youth in the Netherlands, which was scarred by war: Food was scarce, her family led a life of deprivation and shared the fate of numerous other families. Despite the external circumstances, Audrey Hepburn was able to pursue her passion at a young age: Ballet. When an English ballet group visited Arnhem in May 1940, it was a special event for young Audrey Hepburn: her mother had a dress specially tailored for her for the occasion.
Her mother helped the ballet group to realize the performance in Arnhem: Thus Audrey Hepburn came into contact with show business quite early.
After World War II, Audrey Hepburn went to England: due to her father’s British origin, she had British citizenship. There she worked for some time as a model for fashion photography and met, among others, the later James Bond actor Roger Moore.
Audrey Hepburn soon gave up her dream of one day becoming a successful ballet dancer. Not only would Hepburn have had to complete a very long training, at that time a ballet dancer could hardly make a living from her work.
At the end of the forties Audrey Hepburn received a special offer: a role in the musical High Button Shoes, which was a big hit in the USA at the time.
Necessity became a virtue
High Button Shoes premiered in London on December 22, 1948 and was performed 291 times. It was the first time that Audrey Hepburn stood on a professional stage and could show her talent as a dancer to the audience.
In England Audrey Hepburn appeared in various musicals and worked as a model. Later she said that actually it never occurred to her to become an actress. Rather, it was financial need that drove her to acting. Necessity became a virtue: in the early fifties, Hepburn performed two or three times a week in cabaret and thus attracted the first attention.
First film role
One evening, Robert Lennard, casting director at ABC, was sitting in the audience: He arranged for her to play a role in the film Laughter in Paradise (1951). Films from the British studio ABC were known at the time for being quota fillers: British movie audiences usually preferred American flicks. However, a quota regulation stipulated that cinemas had to show at least one British film for every two American films. But Laughter in Paradise was an exception: the film was well received. Although Hepburn played only a small role, this film launched her film career. However, she was still a long way from Hollywood – the dream of every young actress at the time.
First contact with Hollywood
The success of Laughter in Paradise persuaded the bosses of ABC to cast Audrey Hepburn in other smaller roles: She played a minor role alongside Roger Moore in the comedy One Wild Oat (1951). Hepburn’s role in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), which starred Alec Guinness, furthered Audrey Hepburn’s film career: Alec Guinness was impressed by the young Hepburn and recommended her to MGM director Mervyn LeRoy, who was shooting the monumental film Quo Vadis (1951) in London. LeRoy, however, felt that Hepburn did not fit any of the roles.
Audrey Hepburn’s time had not yet come: The roles in Quo Vadis went to other actresses. Her breakthrough was still a long time coming. But the established actor Alec Guiness remained convinced that her breakthrough would come one day.
So far, Hepburn had only played minor roles: In the drama Secret People (1952), the young actress played her first major film role. It was one of the last films in which Hepburn pursued her passion for dancing. Although the film passed as a flop, Audrey Hepburn’s part was well received: It was suspected that Hepburn would soon follow the same path as other successful British actors and settle in Hollywood. It was the first time that Audrey Hepburn’s name was mentioned in the same breath as Cary Grant, Vivien Leigh, David Niven and Charles Laughton.
But before her career would take her to Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn took a detour to France….
Main source: Paris, Barry: “Audrey Hepburn”, 1996 Berkley Books
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig