Audrey Hepburn: From War-Torn Childhood to Hollywood Icon | History Hit

Audrey Hepburn: From War-Torn Childhood to Hollywood Icon

Amy Irvine

10 Aug 2023
Audrey Hepburn, photographed by Jack Cardiff, 1956
Image Credit: Flickr: 'fred baby' / original photograph by Jack Cardiff, 1956 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

From her challenging childhood amidst the tumultuous backdrop of World War Two, to becoming one of Hollywood’s most iconic actresses, Audrey Hepburn is an enduring symbol of resilience, elegance, and grace .

Her profound impact on popular culture is evident in the enduring popularity of her films, and alongside her numerous awards for her acting prowess (she is one of few entertainers who have won Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards), Hepburn’s timeless style, epitomised by her iconic “little black dress” in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, continues to inspire fashion trends.

However Audrey Hepburn’s most important legacy extends far beyond her cinematic achievements to the lives of the countless individuals touched by her compassion and dedication to her humanitarian work with UNICEF.

Here we explore more about the life of this Hollywood icon.

Early life

Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston (later known as Audrey Hepburn) was born on 4 May 1929 in Brussels to Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, an English banker, and Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch baroness. Her parents had been members of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930’s, and had toured Germany, attending events alongside figures like the Mitford sisters, including the Nuremberg rallies.

Audrey’s early childhood was divided between Belgium, England, and the Netherlands. Following her parents separation when she was aged 6, Audrey moved to Arnhem in the Netherlands with her mother, though attended boarding school in Kent from 1936-1939. (After their divorce, Hepburn’s father became deeply involved in Fascist activities, and was later imprisoned in Britain during the war as an enemy of the state after receiving seed money to start a newspaper from Germans with ties to Joseph Goebbels.)

After Britain declared war on Germany, Hepburn’s mother moved Audrey back to Arnhem, hoping the Netherlands would remain neutral and be spared a German attack.

German paratroops dropping into the Netherlands on 10 May 1940

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Dutch National Archives / CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Aiding the Dutch resistance

Audrey was aged 11 when the Nazi’s invaded the Netherlands in 1940. She witnessed the transportation of Dutch Jews to concentration camps, and along with the Dutch population, her family faced severe restrictions and shortages of basic necessities under the harsh Nazi occupation.

In 1942, Hepburn’s uncle was executed in retaliation for a resistance-led sabotage act. Audrey’s half-brother Ian was deported to a Nazi labour camp in Berlin, compelling her other half-brother Alex to go into hiding; Audrey’s family went to live with her grandfather in Velp. These events transformed her mother Ella’s perspective on the Nazis, prompting her to become an active supporter of the resistance.

Audrey found solace in her passion for dance, continuing her training at the Arnhem Conservatory during the war. Using the name Edda van Heemstra (to hide her English-sounding name), Audrey gave dance fundraising performances at zwarte avonden (‘black evenings’) – illegal musical performances at various invitation-only locations (often houses), which raised funds for the Dutch resistance.

Whilst not directly involved in the resistance herself, Audrey volunteered for local resistance leader Dr Hendrik Visser’t Hooft, distributing underground newspapers, aiding downed Allied pilots, and volunteering at a hospital central to resistance activities. Her family’s home even became a temporary refuge for a British paratrooper during the Battle of Arnhem.

Dan Snow visits Arnhem and the scenes of the vicious fighting that occurred in September 1944. Featuring contributions from veterans of the conflict and interviews with some of the world's leading World War Two historians: Paul Beaver, James Holland and Paul Reed.
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Further impact of World War Two

Following the D-Day landings, living conditions in the Netherlands deteriorated, initially from the heavy damage inflicted during Operation Market Garden, and later during the 1944-45 Dutch famine, when the Nazis retaliated against Dutch railway strikes by diminishing the already limited civilian food and fuel supplies.

Like countless others, Audrey faced extreme hunger during this period. Her family resorted to consuming nettles, and tulip bulbs ground into flour. Audrey’s slender figure, envied later in her life, was the result of this severe malnutrition.

After the war Audrey fell seriously ill. Her mother’s appeal to a former lover in the British army brought salvation when he sent cigarettes, which Ella then sold on the black market in order to obtain penicillin, saving Audrey’s life.

The liberation and her early career

Hepburn’s wartime experiences instilled in her a deep sense of empathy and fervent desire to make a positive impact. After the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, she pursued her passion for ballet (which contributed to her elegant demeanour on screen), training under Sonia Gaskell in Amsterdam, and later through a scholarship with Ballet Rambert in London from 1948. After being told that her height and weak constitution would make becoming a prima ballerina unattainable, she decided to venture into acting.

Audrey found regular work dancing and acting in revue in London’s West End. While performing in Sauce Piquante, she was spotted by the Ealing Studios casting director, and took on minor film roles. In 1951, while shooting a small role in Monte Carlo Baby, Audrey was spotted in the foyer of Monte Carlo’s Hotel de Paris by French novelist Colette, who cast her in the title role of the Broadway adaptation of her novel Gigi. She received glowing reviews.

Left: Hepburn in a screen test for Roman Holiday (1953). Right: Audrey Hepburn during ballet rehearsal for the film ‘Funny Face’ (1956).

Image Credit: Left: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain. Right: Flickr - 'fred baby' / David Seymour / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Breakthrough and stardom

Following Gigi’s success, Audrey was cast as Princess Ann in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953). The film’s box-office success catapulted her to fame, earning her an Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe, and establishing her as a star. She won a Tony Award for Best Actress the same year, for Ondine (where she met her husband Mel Ferrer).

Audrey’s charm, style and captivating smile endeared her to audiences, and she was signed to a 7-film contract with Paramount. Her collaborations with legendary directors such as Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and Stanley Donen showcased her versatility and ability to seamlessly transition between comedic and dramatic roles, and her performances were marked by a unique blend of vulnerability and strength, making her characters relatable and endearing.

While subsequent roles in films such as Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957) highlighted her acting prowess, it was her defining role as free spirit Holly Golightly in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) that solidified Audrey Hepburn’s Hollywood icon status (and her fourth Oscar nomination). Her character’s famous “little black dress”, accessorised with a statement pearl necklace and oversized sunglasses, became one of the most iconic clothing items of the 20th century and film history, and an emblem of timeless elegance and glamour, synonymous with Hepburn herself.

Left: Audrey Hepburn in the trailer for Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Right: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961 poster)

Image Credit: Both: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Following the success of films such as Charade (1963), Hepburn sparked controversy when she was picked to play Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady (1964), beating Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on Broadway. Hepburn gained her fifth Oscar nomination for Wait Until Dark (1967), produced by her then-husband, Mel Ferrer (filmed on the brink of their divorce). Shortly after, Hepburn left full-time acting to prioritise her family, though continued to appear in films sporadically, notably in Robin and Marian (1976), and as an angel in Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989) – her final film appearance.


Hepburn’s style and distinctive look differed from the prevalent curvaceous and more sexual ‘feminine ideal’ body shapes of stars at the time such as Elizabeth Taylor. Alongside model Twiggy, Hepburn contributed to making slimness fashionable, and her short hairstyle and thick eyebrows offered a more accessible and relatable look for young women.

Hepburn favoured simple silhouettes, often opting for monochromatic hues and occasional statement accessories. She formed a life-long friendship with renowned French fashion designer Givenchy, who designed many of her on-screen costumes including her iconic dress for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as her haute-couture outfits at public appearances.

Personal life

Following her acting retirement, Hepburn primarily resided in Switzerland. After divorcing Mel Ferrer in 1968 (with whom she had a son), a year later, she married Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, and they had a son together. However, infidelity resulted in another divorce in 1982, after which Hepburn embarked on a relationship with Dutch actor Robert Wolders in 1980.

Humanitarian work

Hepburn had narrated two radio programmes for UNICEF in the 1950s, re-telling children’s war stories. Having experienced the hardships of war firsthand, Audrey dedicated a significant portion of her life to helping those in need, maintaining a lasting partnership with the organisation. She was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF in 1989.

Audrey Hepburn in the Netherlands at the Danny Kaye Award, 28 September 1989

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Dutch National Archives / Rob Bogaerts, Anefo / Public Domain

In her role, Audrey travelled to numerous countries, witnessing the dire conditions faced by children and families. Her eloquent and tireless advocacy (including addressing the US Congress) was instrumental in raising awareness and funds for crucial humanitarian initiatives, including vaccination programmes, clean water projects, and education initiatives, and she earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.

Shortly after a UNICEF trip to Somalia in 1992, Hepburn was diagnosed with colon cancer. She continued her travel and UNICEF work, but died on 20 January 1993 at her home near Lausanne, Switzerland, aged 63. Numerous charities have since been founded in her memory to continue fundraising for the causes important to her, leaving a powerful legacy beyond her iconic cinematic achievements.

Amy Irvine