- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006


By Donald Spoto

Harmony, $25.95, 368 pages


There are those who still remember how Audrey Hepburn single-handedly took a rather trivial movie, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” to a memorable level when she simply took off her huge sunglasses to reveal huge eyes gazing into the display window of the famous jewelry store at dawn as she munched a pastry on her way home from an all-night party. It was also the film in which she sang “Moon River,” the Henry Mancini song that was retained only because Hepburn warned it would be thrown out “over my dead body” in response to the objections of a Paramount producer.

She worried that the role of Holly Golightly called for an extrovert, and she saw herself as an introvert. Yet that gentle, melancholy melody strangely captured the complicated woman who sang it. Talented, elegant and possessed of immense charm, her meteoric rise in the theater and in films apparently never made her happy, according to this biography.

She spun through a series of romantic involvements with men like William Holden, Ben Gazzara and Albert Finney as well as two bad marriages, yet she never achieved the comfort of a loving family that eluded her from childhood. With the balance and style that characterize his portrayals of the flawed and the famous, Mr. Spoto has produced a biography as restrained as his subject, whom he treats with compassion, yet without idealizing her.

As he put it, succinctly, Hepburn “inhabited gentility as if it were a role … She was apparently in all situations entirely herself and that self was neither inhibited nor intemperate. It amused her to know so many regarded her as without desire or passion, just as some people wrongly believed so slim a woman must have an eating disorder.”

Mr. Spoto tracks Hepburn’s ghosts to a childhood in which she was abandoned by her father and grew up with a rather distant mother, the Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra, in the dangerous and difficult world of Holland in World War II.

As a teenager, she volunteered to aid the Dutch resistance, once charming a suspicious German patrol with a gift of wild flowers, and almost died from starvation as food supplies diminished and she became too weak to climb the stairs to her room.

However, the trials and losses of her childhood lingered, as Hepburn seemed to spend much of her life on a quest for what she lost when the father she idolized rejected her. By the time she tracked him down, it was too late. It made it all the more poignant that her most lengthy relationship was her marriage to Mel Ferrer, who possessed little of the warmth she sought in a man.

Mr. Spoto noted her 40-year friendship with French designer Hubert Givenchy, who invented the fragrance “L’Interdit” for her and who said of her:

“She always knew what she wanted and what she was aiming for. She was a very precise person and a consummate professional. She was never late and she never threw tantrums … She did not behave like a spoilt star.”

Others spoke of the reserve that marked her relationships with others, of how the brilliant smile often did not reach the beautiful eyes.

Her leap to fame was stunningly swift. After a series of minor roles in London theater, in which she demonstrated her capacity to be captivating, Hepburn was lauded for her acting in “Gigi” on Broadway, a role for which she was recommended by no less than its celebrated author, Colette.

Her Hollywood career was launched with her role in “Roman Holiday” as a wandering princess, playing opposite Gregory Peck. Yet Mr. Spoto adds that she was capable of unflinching assessment of her capabilities. He relates how she turned down the role of the Japanese bride of Marlon Brando in “Sayonara” by flatly stating, “I know what I can or can’t do. And if I did do it, you’d regret it because I would be terrible.”

“Sabrina” was not one of her most successful films but it marked the beginning of a serious affair with the handsome and heavy-drinking William Holden. That was in between coping with the temperamental outbursts of her other costar, an aging and miscast Humphrey Bogart who was apparently uneasy about competing with two rising actors.

Hepburn’s professional life soared with films like “War and Peace,” “The Nun’s Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Children’s Hour,” “Love in the Afternoon” and “Wait Until Dark.” But her personal life never came up to the expectations of a woman who longed for a stable family life. Her affairs were passionate but fleeting, her marriages unfulfilling.

Mel Ferrer, married three times previously and an unsuccessful candidate for superstardom, could never adjust to the role of “Audrey Hepburn’s husband.” They had a son who remembered how they didn’t speak to each other for 25 years. After her divorce from Mr. Ferrer, she had a brief and unhappy marriage to an Italian a decade younger than she was and it was not until close to the end of her life that she became involved in a more mellow relationship with Robert Wolder, a widower.

Perhaps the celebration of Hepburn’s life came in her work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF when she traveled through the Far East and Africa on a crusade for refugee children orphaned and crippled by war. Her work was ultimately halted by the onset of cancer.

She voiced her own epitaph in characteristically deprecating terms at an awards ceremony two years before her death when she said, “I think it’s quite wonderful that this skinny broad could be turned into a marketable commodity.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.



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