6 Lesser-Known Facts About Audrey Hepburn

In honor of Audrey Hepburn's birthday, we look at six facts that may surprise you about the charismatic muse and humanitarian.
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In honor of Audrey Hepburn's birthday, we look at six facts that may surprise you about the charismatic muse and humanitarian.
A portrait of Audrey Hepburn

Hepburn in her iconic role of Holly Golightly in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Truman Capote had wanted Marilyn Monroe cast as Holly and was upset when Hepburn was given the part. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Audrey Hepburn would have celebrated her 86th birthday on May 4th. The actress was only 63 years old when she died of cancer in 1993, but she packed more living into her time on earth than most people could do in a century. Everyone knows that she was the designer Givenchy’s muse, that she retired from acting to do relief work for UNICEF and that women still show up at Tiffany’s with bags of pastries thanks to Hepburn’s iconic performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, though seemingly every moment of her adult life was documented, there’s still a lot that most people don’t know about the glamorous movie star. Here are six lesser-known facts about Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Hepburn Helped The Resistance During World War II, But Her Parents Were Nazi Sympathizers

Audrey Hepburn's activism during World War II was always a part of her official biography. The British-born actress moved to Holland during the war because her Dutch mother believed they would be safe in a country that had pledged to stay neutral. The Nazis invaded anyway. Hepburn, like millions of others, nearly starved when the Nazis cut off food supplies. Her envied slender figure was the result of being malnourished during adolescence. 

According to legend, the teenaged Hepburn did what she could to support the Resistance. During her screen test for Roman Holiday, she recalled performing ballet for audiences that were afraid to applaud because they didn't want the Nazis to catch them. She donated the money she earned from her recitals to the Resistance. Like many other Dutch children, she occasionally acted as a courier, delivering papers and money from one group of resistance workers to another. Children were given this work because the Nazis were unlikely to search them. Hepburn's Hollywood handlers would publicize her bravery during the war, but they did their best to hide the fact that her parents were rooting for the Nazis.

Audrey Hepburn Photo

A young Audrey Hepburn. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Hepburn's father, Joseph, who abandoned her when she was a little girl, and her mother, Ella, were members of the British Union of Fascists. In 1935, they toured Germany with other members of the organization, including the notorious Mitford sisters, British aristocrats who were jailed for their Nazi sympathies. After Hepburn’s parents divorced, Ella returned to Germany to attend the Nuremberg rallies and wrote an enthusiastic account of the experience for fascist magazine The Blackshirt. Joseph was investigated by the British House of Commons for receiving seed money to start a newspaper from Germans with ties to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. He was imprisoned as an enemy of the state for the duration of the war.

During the 1950s, it would have been disastrous for Hepburn's squeaky clean image if it were known that her parents were Nazi sympathizers. By today’s standards, her rejection of her parents’ racist ideology makes her even more admirable.

Audrey Hepburn Had A Passionate Affair With William Holden During the Filming of Sabrina

Audrey Hepburn William Holden Photo

Hepburn and William Holden in a film still of 'Sabrina.' (Photo: Studio publicity still. Wikiwatcher1 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)

Hepburn had cemented her position as America's Sweetheart by the time she began filming Sabrina. Little did the public know that her relationship with her costar William Holden was anything but innocent. Their strong on-screen chemistry blossomed into an off-screen affair. Holden was a notorious womanizer. His wife, Ardis, tolerated his indiscretions because she believed they were meaningless flings. Holden even used to introduce his wives and his mistresses to each other. However, Ardis immediately realized that the educated, glamorous Hepburn was a threat to her marriage. Holden was indeed prepared to leave his wife for Hepburn. There was only one problem: Hepburn desperately wanted to have children. 

When she told Holden she dreamed of starting a family with him, he informed her that he had gotten a vasectomy years ago. She dumped him on the spot, then quickly rebounded with actor Mel Ferrer, who was as eager to procreate as she was. Paramount was concerned that the tabloids might reveal Holden and Hepburn's affair. To quash rumors, they forced Hepburn and Ferrer to announce publicly their engagement at Holden's house in the presence of both him and his wife. That must have been the most spectacularly awkward party ever.

Audrey Hepburn: Hepburn, her husband Mel Ferrer, and her son Sean did a lot of world wide travel because of Audrey and Mel's acting careers. (Photo:  Bettmann/CORBIS)

Hepburn, her husband Mel Ferrer, and her son Sean did a lot of world wide travel because of Audrey and Mel's acting careers. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Audrey Hepburn Sang 'Happy Birthday' to JFK the Year After Marilyn Monroe Did

Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe's images were diametrically opposed to each other. Monroe was the voluptuous, ditzy sexpot while Hepburn was sophisticated and elegant. In fact, Truman Capote, who wrote the novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, wanted Monroe to play Holly Golightly in the film because he thought she would be more believable as a call girl. The character had to be changed significantly to fit Hepburn, though the result was an iconic, influential film. 

Audrey Hepburn: Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden on the set of 'Sabrina.' Hepburn and Holden reportedly engaged in a brief but passionate affair during the filming though Holden was married at the time. (Photo:  Sunset Boulevard/Corbis)

Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden on the set of 'Sabrina.' Hepburn and Holden reportedly engaged in a brief but passionate affair during the filming though Holden was married at the time. (Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis)

If the two actresses ever went out for cocktails together, they might have discovered that they had a common ex: President John F. Kennedy. When JFK was still an unmarried senator, he dated Hepburn. Their relationship was neither scandalous nor serious. Monroe became Kennedy's mistress during his presidency and famously sang a sultry version of "Happy Birthday" to him at his birthday party. The next year, Hepburn was the movie star tasked with singing to the president on his birthday. Nobody remembers that far more appropriate performance.

Audrey Hepburn was an EGOT

The term EGOT is used to describe those rare individuals who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. Hepburn is one of the 14 people who have managed this feat. All of her fans know that she won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her very first film, 1953’s Roman Holiday. The next year she was awarded the Tony for Best Actress in a Drama for her performance in Ondine. Hepburn’s Emmy and Grammy are more surprising. She retired from acting long before it became acceptable for movie stars to take TV roles. She won an Emmy for hosting PBS’s 1993 documentary series Audrey Hepburn’s Gardens of the World, which, as the title implies, featured avid gardener Hepburn visiting some of the world’s most spectacular gardens. 

The series premiered on January 21, 1993, the day after her death. It is likely that she got some Emmy votes for sentimental reasons. Hepburn’s Grammy was also posthumous. She was considered a mediocre singer. Her voice was infamously dubbed in My Fair Lady because the film’s producers felt it was too weak to carry a musical. So it is not surprising that her 1994 Grammy was for Best Spoken Word Album for Children. She won for Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales, which featured her reading classic fairy tales. Hepburn’s accolades also include three Golden Globe Awards and three BAFTAs.

Walt Disney Prevented Hepburn from Starring in a Live-Action Film of Peter Pan

Hepburn would probably have been a great Peter Pan. Like Mary Martin, who played the role on Broadway, she was a petite woman who could have looked appropriately “boyish” and who certainly could have convincingly portrayed a child’s innocence and enthusiasm. It nearly happened. In 1964, following the success of My Fair Lady, Hepburn planned to reunite with director George Cukor for a live action film of the classic musical. Cukor began negotiating with London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which inherited the rights to the play from playwright J.M. Barrie. Unfortunately, the movie was never made because Disney Studios claimed it had exclusive cinematic rights to Peter Pan

The studio released an animated version of the story in 1953. The hospital launched legal action against Disney. Cukor wrote, “"[Disney] must or should recognise that he’s trying to appropriate something for himself that belongs to a hospital for sick children. I don’t think he’d cut a very good figure, in his eyes or anyone else’s, if this was generally known. All the more so because he represents 'wholesome entertainment’ to the world.” The legal matter was not resolved until 1969, long after Cukor and Hepburn’s interest waned.

A Tulip Breed Was Named After Audrey Hepburn

Hepburn had to eat tulip bulbs to survive during World War II. In 1990, her life came full circle when a new hybrid breed of tulip was named after her. According to the Netherlands Flower Information Society, the white flower was named for Hepburn, “as a tribute to the actress’s career and her longtime work on behalf of UNICEF.” Hepburn attended the dedication ceremony, which took place at her family’s ancestral home in Holland. In Dutch, she expressed her gratitude for the honor. She gave the first official Audrey Hepburn Tulip to her elderly aunt Jacqueline.