May 4 is Audrey’s birthday. Each year we remember her. I do and so many others. This portrait stood on the grand I played on at my grandparent’s home in Holland. It is a rare picture that you won’t find very easily among the thousands of Audrey pictures floating around on the internet. It was taken by Noël Mayne in London in the early fifties when Audrey was modelling and acting in cabarets, and not yet discovered. Her mother, who I used to call Aunt Ella, had left it with my Aunt Nini (the spouse of Count John Paul van Limburg Stirum who from 1916-1921 was Governor of the Dutch Indies where Aunt Ella, her niece, married her first husband). She visited Aunt Nini from time to time, and I met her there, too. She gave it to me, and so it landed on my piano.
Not so long after that she sent me the famous picture of Audrey in Gigi on Broadway, for which she had been selected when she visited Cannes in 1952. For a long time I thought this photo was just for me, until I found out it was all over the place.
I met Audrey for the first time in 1943 when she was just thirteen and I seven. That was during World War II when she lived with her mother and two stepbrothers in her grandfather’s house in Velp, near the city of Arnhem, close to my grandparent’s place. Her mother was then divorced from her second husband Mr. Ruston, who had stayed in England. Baron van Heemstra was Mayor of Arnhem before the war. He and my grandfather were related. Audrey came to visit on a horse-driven carriage, sitting between her mother and grandfather, on an afternoon for tea. She and I ran around the estate together. Though danger of bombs and fighter planes were a constant threat, and Germans were everywhere, even on my grandparent’s estate, we were only interested in my grandmother’s great cake. Audrey was enthusiastic about becoming a ballet dancer.
Both pictures are family pictures. The first (which slipped into the internet) is Audrey at age 13. The second is Audrey dancing in Arnhem at age 16, also given to me by her mother through my Aunt Nini. I gave the portrait and the dancing originals to the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund for keeps.
For some reason, I could never forget her smile. It had a brilliance I would never see again until I met my wife. Then war reached a pinnacle and we could not see each other. I lived in Amsterdam, and when everyone thought we were going to be liberated, we heard that the battle of Arnhem had failed. There were thousands of deaths. We feared Audrey and her family were dead too. We suffered a long very cold winter without food, the hunger winter of 1944/45.
Then, finally, on May 5, 1945, we were free, after five bitter years of war and suffering.
But things changed rapidly. My father died shortly after liberation when he was run over by a British truck while bicycling to his brewery in Amsterdam. My grandfather died shortly thereafter of illness. It was a horrible time for me. Then we moved in with my grandmother in the countryside. But Audrey moved in the opposite direction to Amsterdam with her mother, to continue her dancing lessons with Sonia Gaskell. I did not see them anymore before they left for London where Audrey – being British through her father Joseph Ruston – had received a scholarship at the Rambert Ballet. Audrey kept the name Hepburn her father had acquired from his grandmother’s maiden name.
I was at boarding school, about 16 or so, when my mother called me that Audrey had become a film star! It was “Roman Holiday,” with Gregory Peck. I still see myself standing at the “middle court” of the school being admired. All of a sudden I became “famous”, too, because I knew her. I think each time she made a new movie, we went to see it immediately with my family and family friends who knew her. I remember we did not like Sabrina that much, because she married Humphrey Bogart, who was much too old for her and an obvious mismatch. Gary Cooper with Audrey in Love in the Afternoon was better, although he was also too old. Couldn’t they find younger guys? It took years before she finally teamed up with George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 and with Cary Grant in Charade in 1964! Aunt Ella kept sending pictures, one with her first husband, Mel Ferrer, and their little son Sean, which was used for a Christmas card.
It was only years later in the mid-seventies that I saw Audrey again, at a surprise moment, when she visited friends for a birthday party in Geneva. It meant the world to me: finally. I had written to see her when she was filming Charade with Cary Grant in 1963 in Paris where I studied.
But, even though she wrote back she remembered, she was so busy she did not have time to put a stamp on an envelop. This time we could remember the war time and our first encounter in Holland.
I wrote a story about my fascination with Audrey. There are many books about her, including wonderful picture books issued by her sons, Sean, and Luca (from her second marriage to Count Andrea Dotti, her psychiatrist). My story is a personal one I cherish, because it is mine alone. It is for sale on Amazon and whatever proceeds I get from it I send to the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund.
Audrey was an icon for UNICEF and did so much good raising money for the many deprived orphans and malnourished children of the Third World. She traveled all over the world after her movie career, and then got felled by illness herself that took her away from us in 1993 in a very short time, only 63 years old.
Audrey in Ethiopia
It was a very sad moment to learn she had left us, but at the same time so enlightening, as I had had the privilege of knowing her, albeit at the outer edge of her fabulous orbit. I still benefit and draw strength from her brilliant beam of light in the difficult moments of human life. Who could have imagined that that little girl I met during a cruel war would turn into that magnificent woman for so many millions of people, as her son Sean titled her in his wonderful picture book, “An Elegant Spirit.” And Luca’s lovely photo book “Audrey in Rome” as well.
Luca Dotti’s Audrey Cook book!