Lesley Garner meets the legendary actress as she
prepares for this week's Unicef gala performance
Lesley Garner, The Sunday Telegraph, May 26, 1991
Two years ago, Audrey Hepburn was walking through a primitive hospital in the
remote Southern Sudan, as incognito as a world-famous Unicef Goodwill Ambassador
can only be in territory where My Fair Lady would be as exotic as Dinka dancing
might be to us. As she made her rounds she came upon a malnourished boy of 14,
lying on the earthen floor. Something about him made her stop and ask the doctor
what was wrong with him.
"He had acute anaemia, respiratory problems and oedema - swelling of the
limbs," she tells me. "And that was exactly the same way I finished the war;
that age, with those three things, all as a result of malnutrition. I still have
stretch marks on my ankles from where the skin was stretched by the oedema. And
I thought, how strange to hear those same three things. And it was also a moment
of glory for me, because just then a big Unicef truck came by full of lots of
food and lots of medicine."
Unicef saved Audrey Hepburn's life as a child in Holland at the end of the
war just as it was going to save the Sudanese boy's life, and that is one reason
why she is so proud to be a Unicef ambassador. It is the repaying of a very
personal debt. But there is a deeper connection with the war years, one which
brings her to London this week, not only to raise money for Unicef through
public performance, but to pay tribute to the unquenchable spirit of the child
in trouble through the life of one individual, Anne Frank.
On Thursday, at the Barbican, Audrey Hepburn and Michael Tilson Thomas
conducting the London Symphony Orchestra will be presenting their version of the
life of Anne Frank through the words of her diary and Tilson Thomas's specially
composed music. It is a project which has returned both Tilson Thomas and Audrey
Hepburn to their own youth through their identification with the undisguised
turbulence of Anne Frank's own adolescence, one in which every emotion was
intensified by incarceration and fear of capture. This is powerful material
enough, but for Hepburn the connection with Anne Frank is even more personal.
When I met her to talk about it she was perched in a plush Claridges suite.
I was expecting sophistication, elegance and a polished film-star performance. I
had been told that she was every good thing from hard-working, generous and thoughtful
to charming and downright divine. This undersold her, making her
sound bland. The woman I met surprised me by being passionate, unpretentious and
extremely down-to-earth. It took only a few minutes to realise that with Audrey
Hepburn, what you see is what you get.
The first thing you get is the familiar face, one which, I suspect, doesn't
spend too long gazing at itself in angled mirrors, other than in the line of
professional duty. She wears very little make-up. Her hair is pulled back into a
basic stretch-towelling pony-tail band. Her only jewellery is two small rings.
She is wearing a white sweater and navy slacks and, when she leaves for the
airport, she picks up one swiftly packed overnight bag. This lady is fastidious
but not vain. At 62, she is also matter-of-fact about and comfortable with
ageing, as well she might be. Her immediately recognisable beauty comes from a
truly wonderful smile and a nice arrangement of slender bones which give her the
kind of fashion-drawing outline other women sigh for. I suspect she will become
very impatient if she reads this guff and wonder when I am going to get to some
serious point, but it is a fact that when I tell people I'm going to see Audrey
Hepburn, 90 per cent of them automatically say "elfin" and the other 10 per cent
say "gamine". So, unfortunately, looks count.
When I raise the subject of beauty she sighs and says: "I still don't see
it." What I suspect she sees - as most of us do in our own looks - is her
adolescent self, scrawny, gawky, sick and undernourished, but still full of life
and vigour, hanging over her window-sill to watch the passers-by, entranced with
the imagined drama of their lives. Like Anne Frank, who was in hiding in Holland
at the same time, she experienced the terror of the Nazi occupation and her own
family tragedies - her father walked out for good when she was six - along with
a child's natural irrepressible excitement about life which, in Anne Frank's
case found an outlet in her diary, and in Audrey Hepburn's case, was the
wellspring of the emotional energy she drew on in her film career.
"I was exactly the same age as Anne Frank," she explained in her curiously
accented, international English. "We were both 10 when war broke out and 15 when
the war finished. I was given the book in Dutch, in galley form, in 1946 by a
friend. I read it . . . and it destroyed me. It does this to many people when
they first read it but I was not reading it as a book, as printed pages. This
was my life. I didn't know what I was going to read. I've never been the same
again, it affected me so deeply."
While Anne Frank was watching the moon from her warehouse attic window and
listening to the news of Allied advances on the radio, Audrey Hepburn was trying
to lead a normal life in the heart of her mother's Dutch family, and
experiencing the Nazi occupation on the street.
"I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of
Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I
remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the
platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him,
and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child. I don't know
how much longer it was before we knew what was happening - sooner than you did
in Britain. Then I realised what would have happened to him. And reading Anne
Frank's diary, it all came back to me.
"We saw reprisals. We saw young men put against the wall and shot and they'd
close the street and then open it and you could pass by again. If you read the
diary, I've marked one place where she says, 'Five hostages shot today'. That
was the day my uncle was shot. And in this child's words I was reading about
what was inside me and is still there. It was a catharsis for me. This child who
was locked up in four walls had written a full report of everything I'd
experienced and felt."
The focus of their collaborative work on Anne Frank's diary, for both
Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn, is not the arousal of guilt through
horror - though Tilson Thomas has drawn on traditional Jewish music and admits
he found the Holocaust peculiarly difficult to make into music - but the
indestructability of the human spirit. Children may be destroyed, but the
optimism of childhood cannot be defeated. "The Anne Frank spirit," says Tilson
Thomas, "was optimistic and forgiving. This is not a grim, horrific piece,
although it is sad and disturbing. Here is a special person, a wonderful spirit,
even though we know she had an unhappy ending. The piece ends on a hopeful, if
"People say," says Audrey Hepburn, "wasn't it all dreadful, the war, but
five years of your life can't all be horrifying. As a child you live daily life.
I see this in camps in the Sudan. As long as children have even a very little
food they will still run around and want to play. I see it at its strongest
where situations are worst. If they have strength, children go on living. You've
seen the Kurdish children barefoot in the snow, children holding children,
holding babies and still struggling on. This spirit of survival is so strong in
Anne Frank's words. One minute she says, 'I'm so depressed.' The next she is
longing to ride a bicycle. She is certainly a symbol of the child in very
difficult circumstances, which is what I devote all my time to. She transcends
As a young actress, Audrey Hepburn, with her natural exuberance and dark,
animated looks, was a natural to play Anne Frank, but she could never do it. She
was offered the film but she re-read the diary and fell apart again. She had a
deep instinct that she couldn't exploit Anne Frank's life in order to further
her own career. Even now she has resolutely refused, despite, as Tilson Thomas
says mischievously, the many temptations he has put in her path, to play the
part of Anne Frank. Instead she acts the narrator, as she has already done in
concert with Tilson Thomas in Miami, Houston, Philadelphia and New York. This
time her devotion to Anne Frank has found a proper outlet, a way to raise funds
for Unicef which doesn't involve Audrey Hepburn in yet another gala dinner at
which, elegant in Givenchy, she could charm funds out of wealthy patrons.
It was very tempting, and not being made of as stern stuff as Audrey
Hepburn, I couldn't resist the temptation to suggest that this phase of her life
involved the coming together of all kinds of separate strands; her debt to
Unicef, her wartime childhood, her experience as an actress, her connection with
Anne Frank, the beneficial uses of international celebrity, a fusion of the
public and the private person. She was quite severe about this piece of
journalistic romanticism. More than any other public figure I have ever met she
sees herself not as separate personae but as all of a piece. What she is now she
always was. There is not a public or a private person, simply the same one. "I
was always in the same place. I was always myself. I never retired or
She even denies being an actress, despite a remarkably successful, if
concentrated, film career. When I asked her at what point she ceased thinking of
herself as the dancer she trained to be and began to think of herself as the
actress who still wins awards and honours, she said energetically: "An actress
is not something I ever became. I think actresses are people with a very high
level of professional technique. I act now the same way I did 40 years ago. By
trying to sense, feel. I am never backed up by anything professional. I did no
Shakespeare at school, none of that. It's not like a great musician who has
worked at his instrument, none of that. I've had to skip all that and do it with
"I am a very reserved person. When I did Gigi and Roman Holiday, I was 24
with the mentality of a 12-year-old. I was very green and naive, not a bit
worldly. I worked very hard. I learned my lines. I was punctual and I had
directors who let me learn. I've been more than lucky with directors. If I may
use the word, I've been blessed. In my short career, in the sense that I didn't
do many pictures, I had Wyler, Zinneman, Huston, Cukor. What a good director
does is make you feel you're doing all right, doing great. In concert it's the
same. I don't read music. I've never worked with an orchestra. I do Anne Frank
on pure feeling. There's an emotional relationship between Michael and myself
during the piece. It's exhausting, but my life with Unicef is also exhausting."
Everyone I spoke to about Audrey Hepburn impressed on me how hard she worked
once she was committed to a project. She has no need to do so. She lives
comfortably in the Swiss countryside with her companion of 11 years, Robert
Wolders, a former actor who was previously married to Merle Oberon and clearly
has taste. "Robbie," says Hepburn creamily, "thinks I'm the cat's whiskers."
This compensates for two earlier divorces, from the actor Mel Ferrer and the
psychiatrist Dr Andrea Dotti. Sean, her American son by Mel Ferrer, and Luca,
her Italian son by Dotti, are the first to know of any major event in their
mother's life. Sean works in films, Luca in graphic design, and she says she is
potty about them. She is also potty about any number of Jack Russell dogs.
At home in Switzerland she is an early rising, early retiring, domesticated
part of the community. Tilson Thomas describes how, when he was staying at her
house, he had to change some plane reservations. Audrey Hepburn went round her
garden making up a bouquet of flowers to take to the village travel agent in
thanks. The image is pure My Fair Lady. With such an agreeable life, interrupted
by transatlantic trips to receive the odd accolade, she "was sure as hell not
looking for anything to do" when Unicef asked her to go to Ethiopia.
But once a workhorse, always a workhorse. Take a pinch of Dutch Calvinism.
Stir in wartime deprivation and austerity. Throw in a loving but disciplinarian
mother who believed in hard work and duty. Mix it up with the classical ballet
training that is the most personally demanding of any art and you have someone
in whom conscientiousness and graft is ingrained. Naturally, she is giving it
everything she's got. Other Unicef Goodwill Ambassadors - Peter Ustinov, Harry
Belafonte, Liv Ullmann - have other career irons in the fire. They do it when
they can. Audrey Hepburn has none, so she has set herself a pace which, at 62,
she knows she won't be able to sustain forever.
With the partnership of Robbie, who travels everywhere with her and takes it
upon himself to rustle up the hotels and air tickets in Unicef's name - Unicef
has no budget of its own and is entirely dependent on public donations - she
will go anywhere, any time. In the permanent spotlight which shines around a
really durable star, a small corner of Ethiopia or Vietnam may also be seen and
consciousness and funds will be raised.
About this, as about her career, Audrey Hepburn is undeluded and absolutely
"I'm always sent to places people don't know about. Unicef says, 'Will you
go to Ethiopia? There's a drought, worse than before, and we can't get the
media's attention so we're getting no money.' So off I go. I know it works.
There's a curiosity about the personality which I exploit. If the press does
turn up, it's because they want to hear me, want to see. They can always switch
"It's important to me to make them feel what I feel. I always hope I can do
for them what has been done to me. I was going up the wall seeing these children
dropping like flies and I have the opportunity to get across some of that. I
usually can get across something of how people can help. Emotion - the ability
to communicate emotion - that has to be a gift. I don't contribute anything
else. I don't have great knowledge, great expertise."
Although I was warned that she wouldn't answer questions about her private
life, she held nothing back. Her emotional energy and her willingness to
communicate as much as possible about her experience bore out her protests that
she was 100 per cent Audrey Hepburn, not a dual personality with a well-aired
public face. I was not aware of any practised celebrity evasion or camouflaging
charm. It was easy to see the teenage Audrey Hepburn in the older sophisticated
woman, an essential being, vibrant with curiosity and sheer interest in life.
She is even capable of enthusiasm about tomato soup, for instance.
But somebody who is so immediately engaged in life is at a disadvantage when
it comes to being exposed to life's horrors. There is an emotional as well as a
physical cost to what she does, meeting hunger and distaste at first hand and
then jetting to press conferences to let people know what she has seen. Her way
of dealing with emotion is the same now as it was 40 years ago. She limits its
damage and maximises its power by communicating it.
Audrey Hepburn could have been designed for this. Her slender body, her
animated gestures, her vividly expressive face are all tuned for the expression
of emotion. Add to these natural gifts the discipline of her upbringing and
training, and you have the human instrument that is as focused in the recounting
of life in ravaged Sudan as it was in broadcasting youthful joie de vivre in
Roman Holiday. The confidence to use her gifts in this way was given to her in
the post-war years by the Russian ballet teacher who prepared her for her
awe-inspiring audition with Marie Rambert in London.
"You know, I always tell this story when people ask about turning points in
my life. This Russian ballet teacher worked and worked with me, preparing me for
my audition, going through such paces, training, sweating. And on my last day we
went through it all again and she gave me a big hug and said, 'Now you forget
everything I told you. From now on it all has to come from inside you.'
"And this has got me out of any amount of scrapes. I've been constantly in
situations in my life and career where I've had no technique, but if you just
feel enough you will get away with murder."
She is wrong, of course. It is not enough to feel. Any number of
undisciplined, even violent people are full of feeling and it does nobody any
good. What is potent is emotion disciplined by some fundamental purpose or
belief. In Audrey Hepburn's case, she escaped Dutch Calvinism and even Christian
Science, which attracted her mother. "Optimism is my faith," she said. "I like
nothing better than to laugh, to have fun rehearsing. I was always happy and
directly sad only about specific things. I am no longer a Christian Scientist
but I believe in something."
"The human spirit?" I suggested, thinking of Anne Frank and all these
children surviving in different circumstances.
"Yes," she said, matter-of-factly. "That's enough." 'From the Diary of Anne
Frank' will be performed by Audrey Hepburn with Michael Tilson Thomas and the
LSO on May 30, 7.45pm, at the Barbican. Box office, 071-638 8891.