Audrey Hepburn: An Intimate Portrait

BOOK: Audrey Hepburn: An Intimate Portrait
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Audrey
Hepburn: An
Intimate Portrait

By

Diana Maychick

For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of
health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a pink darkening of her cheeks.
Truman Capote,
Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Chapter 1

She had no idea even how cold it was, except for the fact that her
paper-thin fingertips were already turning blue.

All she knew was that for the last month, she had kept warm by keeping
going. She was running around town from after-theater parties to acting classes
to afternoon teas in her honor. There ladies who usually lunched skipped their
meal to ogle her figure, one disparaged, at least at the beginning of her
career, by men used to the pinup curves of Marilyn and Jayne. But Audrey was so
busy, there wasn’t even enough time to search for her heavy sweaters in the top
shelf of the closet of her furnished apartment. Just keep going.

March 25, 1954
, was an uncommonly brisk evening in
Manhattan
. Winds ruffled
theatergoers in midtown
Manhattan
as they hurried out of the Broadway houses trying to beat one another to the
few available taxis in
Times Square
. Men
holding on to their homburgs teetered on curbs and motioned for cabs. The
weather pleased a number of their escorts, charter members of the generation
who still wore minks and sables as a badge of pride.

But as they were stroking their pelts, they noticed that Audrey didn’t
even have a coat. Reed-thin, with a neck that recalled Modigliani, she exited
the stage door of the
46th Street
Theater and walked to the main entrance, where the white Rolls-Royce was
waiting. She had the same fishnet dress she had worn onstage. The wind seemed
strong enough to blow her down, but she pushed against it, and she won. She was
stronger than she looked.

The hired limousine deftly pulled away from the curb and negotiated a
path through the crowded streets. Pedestrians who watched her get in that night
just assumed that Audrey was pampered by her driver, at least to the extent
that he’d heated the car to a perfect temperature before her arrival.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The driver had no idea
at all who his scrawny passenger was or why she merited so luxurious a mode of
transportation. Although in the last month she’d received rhapsodic reviews for
her performance in Jean Giraudoux’s
Ondine,
she had not yet become a celebrity. Despite critical acclaim for
Roman Holiday, few had yet seen the
William Wyler dramatic comedy. Like the driver, most people had no idea who
Audrey Hepburn was. Sure, they read the
New
York Herald Tribune,
but mostly the sports pages and the household hints,
so most of them had missed what Walter Kerr said about her there: “She is
every man’s dream of the nymph he once planned to meet.”

The only reason the driver even opened the door for her is because she
whimpered about being unable to do it herself. Her hands had become paralyzed
in the cold.

Racing across town to the Century Theater for her first Academy Awards
show, Audrey bit the tips of her fingers to regain feeling in them. She had awakened
that morning—as she had every morning in
New York
for the last couple of weeks or
so—having forgotten that she was the toast of the town. It was her first
sustained encounter with fame, and it “unnerved me considerably,” she
said later. “I was too young really to have had a firm grasp on who I was
before all the attention. Then with all eyes on me, I became extremely
self-conscious. My mother helped me to see that the attention was a boost to my
career.”

As soon as her hands defrosted, she flung aside the blond wig she had
been wearing nightly as a water sprite, the title character of Ondine in the
stage fantasy.

Until the opening of the Giraudoux play, Audrey had comfortably taken
refuge in the idea of being a perennial student—studying dance, taking acting
lessons, improving her voice range. But now that her show was a success, and
she was up for an Oscar in her first big movie, she felt a bit like an
impostor. As she fingercombed her unruly dark bangs, she felt she was getting
ready for her next performance. She adjusted a few bobby pins in her hand-done
bun. There was no time to fuss, let alone to think.

In a few minutes, she’d be escorted into the Century Theater, where
she’d be expected to sit serenely dead-center orchestra. It would be an acting
job of supreme will, given that she would be flanked by the two people she
loved best—her mother, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra, and her future husband,
actor Mel Ferrer—who had lately revealed themselves to be one another’s mortal
enemies. She was expected to sit quietly and regally in her gown and await news
of the winners of the Academy Awards from
Hollywood
,
where the show was being simulcast from the Pantages Theater.

That night, Audrey was on the verge of becoming an international star,
and she could barely contain herself while waiting for the results. At
twenty-four, she had captured the hearts of theatergoers. The film industry had
already anointed her a shining light, thanks to an Oscar nomination for her
first leading role.

Roman Holiday,
the modern fairy talc about a princess who
skips her stultifying royal obligations to pal around and sightsee in Rome with
an impoverished, somewhat shady American newspaperman (played with brio by
Gregory Peck), impressed audiences with its reverse-Cinderella theme. And as
the princess who panted after life as a commoner, Audrey was one of the most
charmingly believable royals in the history of the screen. You couldn’t help
but notice breeding and sophistication in her demeanor and hear boarding school
in her voice, yet she desperately wanted to be just like you and me. The
combination was an extremely winning one. Anyone who had ever felt like an
outsider identified with the role.

Roman Holiday
wasn’t Audrey’s first movie, but as her best
and biggest to date, it gave viewers their first taste of her enchanting blend
of impishness and regality. And that night in the grand white limousine, the
young woman who had spent the war years scavenging for food like tulip bulbs
and hiding from the Nazis actually felt just like Cinderella at her first ball.

“Most people think of Audrey as regal,” Gregory Peck
recalled. “But I saw how hard she worked at that. It was part of her
heritage, yes, but circumstances—-the war, her missing father—tarnished her
crown. That was inevitable, but it was really a good thing. It rounded her
personality. Despite her clearly recognizable look—what I like to think of as
a sophisticated elf—she had a multidimensional personality. She had spunk. It
took tremendous courage to tackle a leading role like Princess Anne [in
Roman Holiday] without experience. But
she plunged right in. I’m sure there was fear, but she didn’t allow it to
paralyze her. She jumped! It was really my wonderful good luck to be her first
screen fellow. I didn’t have to work too hard in that movie. I feel like all I
did was hold out my hand and help her keep her balance while she made everybody
in the world fall in love with her.”

On
March 25, 1954
,
two continents fell in love with her. It was a landmark evening for the
retiring young actress who liked nothing better than to work hard all day, have
a minuscule meal, and dive into bed to start memorizing her latest script. For
the first time in history,
London
and
Hollywood
had scheduled their most important movie awards ceremonies for the same night.

As Audrey raced from the Rolls-Royce and into the Century Theater, she
was thankful that wooden horses and policemen helped keep her fans at bay. The
movie crowd was especially exuberant, having learned moments before her arrival
that Audrey had already won the
British
Film
Academy
citation as best actress of the year. They pawed at her, shouting their
congratulations. It was at once exhilarating and suffocating. For a brief
moment, she became scared. “I never dreamed I could elicit this much
attention,” she recalled, “and I must say, I didn’t like it. In
retrospect, I felt like a commodity. But at the time, I just wanted to hurry up
and get dressed. I felt awfully foolish in that stage costume.”

In the backstage dressing room, with the help of her ever-hovering
mother, Audrey hurriedly changed into a sleeveless white lace gown and demure
pearl teardrop earrings. She wiped the heavy stage makeup from her face and
took off ten years. She looked about fourteen. “Hey, Skinny, hurry
up,” yelled a photographer impatient to snap her picture. She and her
mother dashed to their seats, the matronly baroness excusing herself as she
nudged past the other members of their row. On the aisle, Lena Horne blew a
kiss to Audrey. Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows commented to one another
about how young she looked. “To see her in person that first time was a
clear indication to me that
Hollywood
was up to its old tricks again. I was composing a little essay about cradle
snatching in my mind,” Allen said. “The only thing that looked legal
about her was her eyes—and they were so deep, it was illegal.” She sat
stock-still in her seat, but what she really wanted to do was grab the hands of
her mother and Ferrer.

Audrey’s sultry competition that year intensified her image as an
innocent waif. She was up against bona fide femme fatale Ava Gardner (
Mogambo) and aspiring femme fatale
Deborah Kerr (who did her best to eradicate her straitlaced image by rolling
around on the beach that year in
From
Here to Eternity).
Her other opponents were Leslie Caron, as a fetching
orphan who joins the circus and falls in love with a magician (Audrey’s fiancé,
Mel Ferrer) in
Lili
, and another
newcomer, Maggie McNamara, in
The Moon is
Blue,
in an extremely suggestive role as a calculating young girl balancing
the attentions of two lovers (played, coincidentally, by David Niven and
William Holden, actors who would soon become Audrey’s close friends).
Moon outraged the censors by flouting
the Production Code. Up against all of these sexually suggestive performances,
Audrey’s insouciant charm seemed unbeatable.

She and Kerr were the only Best Actress nominees to appear at the
New York
ceremony, as
they were both currently appearing on the Broadway stage. Emcee Fredric March
oversaw the
New York
production, and Donald O’Connor was host of the
Los Angeles
ceremony. They teased one another
in a novel split-screen technique that had been perfected especially for the
event. “Hi, Dad,” the younger O’Connor greeted his older counterpart
in
New York
,
who bridled at the dig.

Gossip on both coasts that night centered on
Hollywood
‘s favorite shaky marriage—Ava
Gardner and Frank Sinatra. Columnist Army Archerd had reported they were
splitting up, and
Gardner
’s
absence that night, despite her nomination, did bespeak domestic trouble. So
did Sinatra’s “dates.”

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Maggio in
From Here to Eternity, the onetime idol
of the bobby-soxers brought along a couple of his kids from his first marriage,
Nancy Jr. and Frank Jr., to keep him company at the Los Angeles show.
“Don’t ask me anything,” pleaded Sinatra’s producer, Buddy Adler.
“I’m not responsible for what I say. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Adler was nervous Sinatra might say something demeaning about Ava Gardner.

According to Oscar chroniclers Mason Wiley and Damien Bona,
Sinatra-watchers were treated to a lot of fatherly behavior from the crooner,
who seemed engrossed in his children. In a move calculated to garner sympathy
from proponents of family values, Sinatra gave an interview to Hedda Hopper
designed to portray himself as a model father and paragon of Catholic virtue.
“The minute my name was read,” he said after his Oscar win, “I
turned around and looked at the kids. Little
Nancy
had tears in her eyes. For a second I
didn’t know whether to go onstage and get it or stay there and comfort her… I got
Nancy
a
little miniature thing for her charm bracelet, an Oscar medallion. The kids
gave me a Saint Genesius medal before the awards, engraved with `Dad, we will
love you from here to eternity.‘ Little
Nancy
gave me a medal and said, `This is from me and St. Anthony.’ That’s her dear
friend. She seems to get a lot done with St. Anthony. I guess she has a direct
line to him.”

BOOK: Audrey Hepburn: An Intimate Portrait
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