Audrey Hepburn’s compassion intensified during early hardship, growing up in Europe during World War II. Travelers to Europe today would find it difficult to imagine that enduring near-starvation was the plight of one who lived to become the most iconic movie star of her era.
World War II left its ugly mark on many people, but blessed with physical beauty, a delightful personality, and great stamina, Hepburn survived to brighten lives around the world with her presence onscreen. This month, at a very different time, she brightens our lives once again as we watch the movie, Charade (Donen, 1963).
Charade, released in 1963, featured an exquisite actress dressed in magnificent Givenchy, matched with a debonair leading man in the glamorous City of Lights.
This unassailable trois of Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Paris made for a gem of a film over which audiences swooned. It is a movie that should be watched at least twice: first, just to admire the clothes, and second, to pay attention to the plot.
The Timing of Charade’s Release
The auspicious timing of the movie’s release may have contributed to its success. As Michael Newton writes in The Guardian (2013),
Pauline Kael, the best of all American film reviewers, was writing: ‘I couldn’t persuade friends to go to see Charade, which although no more than a charming confectionery trifle was, I think, probably the best American film of last year.’ For Kael, the film’s invisibility was a sign of the times, a refusal of all that was vibrant and vulgar and wonderfully frivolous in American movies.
Maybe its silliness attracted American audiences shocked by JFK’s assassination. It was “lightweight comic relief” and “the undeniable appeal of its two stars” (V, 2014).
Charade was among a cluster of 1950s-60s light-hearted romance films starring sought-after style icon Audrey Hepburn.1 Mere adjectives in the English language are not enough to describe how perfectly fashionable, charmingly delightful, alluringly elegant, and impossibly graceful Hepburn was in her prime. Her enchanting onscreen presence lifted her to a pedestal that enabled all women to admire and strive to emulate her.
Audrey Hepburn Revolutionized the Ideal Female Body Image
Hepburn’s childhood included ballet and malnutrition, each contributing an opportunity for developing a slender frame. At the time of her entrance into the field of entertainment, however, she started a trend in which the slender-framed female figure became desirable.
Cammila Collar wrote this about her in Outtake (2017),
…. her very slender silhouette was undeniably ahead of the curve as the exact physique that would become the most desirable in the realms of fashion and on-camera entertainment in general.
The curvaceous Marilyn Monroe was left far behind when Audrey Hepburn’s ethereal figure unintentionally ushered in a torturous era that continues today where women are pressured by society to be thin.
The famous model Twiggy, and her younger counterpart Kate Moss, made careers out of this ideal body type. To gain acceptance and praise from a society that values svelte bodies, women have resorted to unhealthy diets and dangerous weight loss pills, sometimes leading to anorexia, bulimia, and risky surgery.
Fortunately, since then healthier ways for achieving optimal body weight have been discovered —a gluten-free diet, reducing carbohydrates, dairy, and sugar. Still, an Audrey Hepburn figure is not attainable for most women. And it shouldn’t be.
Hepburn’s body was not genetically programmed to be that slim. Malnourishment did that to her.
Born to Ella van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston in Belgium in 1929, she was a mere child when World War II ravaged Europe. Trapped by Nazis in Holland, hallmarks of her childhood were terror, violence, and acute famine (Collar, 2017). Without food, the family drank water to ease their hunger and resorted to eating nettles and tulip bulbs to survive (James, 1993; McNeil, 2015).
And yes, Hepburn almost died of starvation. Hepburn’s son, Luca Dotti, writes (2015),
She suffered from asthma, jaundice and other illnesses caused by malnutrition . . . including acute anemia and a serious form of edema which Mum explained like this: ‘It begins with your feet and when it reaches your heart, you die. With me, it was above the ankles when I was liberated.’
At the End of the War, Audrey Hepburn Achieves Fame but Never Far from Memory of Near Starvation
After the war ended, Hepburn pursued ballet and modeling in London. Then the course of her life dramatically shifted when her beauty and talents were spotted by the right person at the right time.
French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette noticed her and soon afterwards insisted that she star in the Broadway version of Gigi (1944). This led to acting in Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953). While the rest of her history is success and glamor, the effects of starvation stayed with her as she remained an elfin 88 pounds.
Contrary to what many people think, Hepburn did not deprive herself of food. Rather, she ate with enthusiasm. Her favorite dish was pasta! Taking women’s obsession with Hepburn up another level, Madeleine Le of the University of Washington attempted to follow the famous actress’ diet (2016). Le’s study concluded with five general rules that Hepburn followed, testimony to the generalization that moderation is key.
- Have a small breakfast with lots of fruit
- No snacking between meals
- Eat a piece of chocolate daily.
After months of famine, liberation forces, which included Americans, had handed out cigarettes and chocolate. Her son Luca said she was known to have a stash of it (McNeil, 2015). “‘Still, the taste of chocolate for her was connected with liberation,’ says her son. ‘It was the real taste of freedom.'”
- Eat pasta daily.
- Eat until 80% full.
Givenchy Made Audrey Hepburn a Style Icon
While it was Colette who first noticed Hepburn, it was Givenchy who made her a style icon for the ages. She was Hubert de Givenchy’s personal muse, and the one on which he staked his career in fashion. The devotion was mutual. In Givenchy’s obituary in the Washington Post (McDonough, 2018), Hepburn was quoted, “His are the only clothes in which I am myself . . . He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality.”
Their professional relationship started during the filming of Sabrina (1954), and their loyalty to each other was sealed in 1955 when Sabrina won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Edith Head, the lead designer for the movie, conspicuously left Givenchy out of her acceptance speech.
Furious that Head took all the credit, Hepburn aligned herself with Givenchy, insisting that he receive credit for costume design in her future films (McDonough, 2018).
Hepburn Declares Wrinkles Symbols of Wisdom
Try as we do, not a single one of us can escape Father Time. Not you, not me, and not the beautiful Audrey Hepburn. For all majestic life on Earth, youth is temporary. Audrey Hepburn, being Audrey Hepburn, shunned the idea of plastic surgery and graciously accepted aging as inevitable.
According to her granddaughter Emma Ferrer, when a well-intentioned photographer offered to Photoshop the wrinkles on Hepburn’s face, she responded (McNeil, 2017),
‘Don’t you dare touch any of those wrinkles. I earned every single one of them.’ . . . For [Hepburn], wrinkles were symbols of age, experience and wisdom.”
Beyond acting, Hepburn later heeded a calling to serve as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Beauty, inside and out, can arise from a hard childhood in the midst of a catastrophic war. Haunted all her life by the things saw, and the things she experienced, Hepburn several times politely refused the role of Anne Frank.
It was just too unbearable to her that the precocious Anne Frank died, while she, Audrey Hepburn, survived, and made it. “She didn’t feel like she would be able to relive that very painful past.” (McNeil, 2015)
To pay homage, and keep Anne Frank’s memory alive, Hepburn narrated parts of the diary for Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ symphony tour in the US and London. (McNeil, 2015). Sadly, Hepburn died from a rare cancer in 1993 before the tour reached Holland.
Returning to Holland, where both Audrey Hepburn and Anne Frank endured the worst of that which mankind is capable, would have brought her full circle.
1 To name a few . . . Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), My Fair Lady (1964).
- Collar, C. (2017, Jun 29). Stop worshiping Audrey Hepburn. Outtake. Retrieved from https://outtake.tribecashortlist.com/stop-worshiping-audrey-hepburn-3d4f0506f06
- Colette, S. (1944). Gigi. Lausanne: La Guilde du Livre.
- Donen, S. [Director] (1963). Charade [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal.
- Dotti, L. (2015). Audrey at home: Memories of my mother’s kitchen (1st ed.). New York: Harper Design.
- James, C. (1993, Jan 21). Audrey Hepburn, actress, is dead at 63. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/21/movies/audrey-hepburn-actress-is-dead-at-63.html
- Knight, K. (2008, Sep 8). What happened when I spent a week living like Audrey Hepburn. Daily Mail. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1053246/What-happened-I-spent-week-living-like-Audrey-Hepburn.html
- Le, M. (2018). I ate like Audrey Hepburn for 5 Days and learned her secret. Spoon University. Retrieved from https://spoonuniversity.com/lifestyle/audrey-hepburn-for-5-days-ate-like
- McDonough, M. (2018, Mar 12). Hubert de Givenchy, French clothing designer who transformed Audrey Hepburn into a style legend, dies at 91. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/hubert-de-givenchy-french-clothing-designer-who-transformed-audrey-hepburn-into-a-style-legend-dies-at-91/2018/03/12/f64f83f0-25fe-11e8-b79d-f3d931db7f68_story.html
- McNeil, L. (2015, Jun 23). Audrey Hepburn weighed 88 lbs. after World War II, son reveals. People Magazine. Retrieved from https://people.com/bodies/audrey-hepburn-weighed-88-lbs-after-world-war-ii-son-luca-dotti-says
- McNeil, L. (2017, Aug 24). Why Audrey Hepburn refused to have her wrinkles photoshopped. People Magazine. Retrieved from https://people.com/movies/why-audrey-hepburn-refused-to-have-her-wrinkles-photoshopped/
- Newton, M. (2013, Dec 13). Charade: The last sparkle of Hollywood. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/dec/13/charade-audrey-hepburn-cary-grant
- V, M. (2014, Feb 3). Charade: Audrey Hepburn as Reggie Lampert. Girls do film. Retrieved from https://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/charade-audrey-hepburn-as-reggie-lampert/
- Colette, S. (1944). Gigi. Lausanne: La Guilde du Livre.