Hep­burn’s mes­sage of hope

Twenty-five years af­ter Au­drey Hep­burn’s death, her son Luca tells Han­nah Betts why her legacy must live on

The West Australian - - AGENDA -

Ay­oung woman in sun­glasses and evening dress chews a crois­sant while gaz­ing through a win­dow; a neck­er­chiefed princess whizzes around Rome on the back of a moped; a gamine model struts her stuff in beat­nik black.

The im­ages we have of Au­drey Hep­burn are so vivid and so ubiq­ui­tous that it is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve 2018 marks 25 years since this great 20th cen­tury icon left us, dy­ing aged 63 of ap­pen­dix can­cer.

Last Satur­day, her younger son, Luca Dotti, vis­ited Lon­don to share mem­o­ries of his mother at a fundrais­ing din­ner at the Royal Lan­caster Ho­tel. Dotti, 48, is the son of Hep­burn’s sec­ond hus­band, An­drea Dotti, an Ital­ian psy­cho­an­a­lyst whose af­fairs saw the cou­ple sep­a­rate when their son was 13. Only then did the ac­tress find hap­pi­ness with Dutch ac­tor, and Merle Oberon’s wid­ower, Robert Wold­ers.

Hav­ing spent 20 years as a graphic de­signer, Dotti is now in the cu­ri­ous po­si­tion of manag­ing his late mother, a ba­ton handed to him by his brother Sean, son of ac­tor Mel Fer­rer. “He asked me to join the cir­cus,” he ex­plains, a role that in­volves manag­ing the Hol­ly­wood leg­end’s com­mer­cial in­ter­ests and sub­stan­tial char­i­ta­ble con­cerns.

Does Dotti find it cu­ri­ous, the emo­tional in­vest­ment so many of us share in his mother? “For a long time, I had dif­fi­culty bring­ing the two parts to­gether — the real Au­drey and the fan­tasy — but, now, thank you; all of you. You per­ceived her for what she was and not as some­one else. This wasn’t a Kar­dashian-type celebrity. She was a sin­cere per­son — you got what you could see. In many of her movies, she’s not re­ally act­ing — she is her­self — with the ex­cep­tion of Break­fast at Tif­fany’s be­cause Holly was a dif­fer­ent type of girl.”

In­deed, Tru­man Capote’s happy hooker was as far as one could imag­ine from Hep­burn, the im­pec­ca­ble baroness’ daugh­ter, as the au­thor com­plained at the time (he had favoured Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe for the role). In­stead, Hep­burn was so stately that the Queen Mother fa­mously de­clared her “one of us”.

Born in 1929, Hep­burn’s early priv­i­lege was dis­rupted by a trau­matic war­time in the Nether­lands. One fam­ily mem­ber was ex­e­cuted, an­other sent to a labour camp, and she al­most starved. Small won­der her goal be­came not star­dom, but do­mes­tic­ity.

As her son re­calls: “By the time she had me and my brother, she was in her 30s. She’d had the war, her ca­reer, lived all over the world. She wanted a home, a gar­den, dogs, chil­dren. She’d played her part. Her at­ti­tude was, ‘I did enough, and now I want to en­joy my fam­ily’. Her dream was to be a mother, which she’d wanted all her life.”

As a teenager, how­ever, he found his mother “bor­ing”.

“An im­pres­sion you get from fa­mous peo­ple is that they have some kind of fa­mous way of life. My mother didn’t have one. When­ever friends vis­ited, they would say, ‘Your mother is so nor­mal.’ I imag­ined her with a se­cret life in which she was a su­per­hero with a dou­ble iden­tity. I al­ways in­sisted she should play a vil­lain: my dream was the head of Spec­tre in 007, with a white cat. But she told me, ‘I saw enough real-life atroc­ity in the war’.”

He has con­sid­ered our en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with her haunted elfin beauty. “I look at pho­tographs, and it’s some­thing I try to an­swer. She didn’t have the uni­form beauty of her time. Her own mother made fun of her, call­ing her the ugly duck­ling. My grand­mother al­ways joked that my mother was this tall, slim, thing with­out curves — never a sexy beast. And my mother kept that in­se­cu­rity: the thought that maybe to­mor­row would change and she’d be ugly again.”

Style-wise, he finds her ap­peal more ob­vi­ous: “When I look back, I see she was very el­e­gant. My mother had an in­nate charm whether in of­fi­cial pho­tos, or cap­tured by the pa­parazzi. That is some­thing you can­not buy. But she never wor­ried about wrin­kles or get­ting old be­cause, ac­tu­ally, she was look­ing for­ward to it — be­ing at home with her chil­dren, her grand­chil­dren, out of the lime­light.”

Heart­break­ing, then, that Hep­burn should die when Dotti was 22. But they were close, and had said all they wanted to say, which brings him con­so­la­tion. On the day it­self, Hep­burn sent her “small one” to the cin­ema, to spare him her death; a poignant refuge con­sid­er­ing her ro­mance with the sil­ver screen.

His own chil­dren are be­wil­dered by their grand­mother’s cul­tural om­nipres­ence: the first time his son went to a lava­tory on his own, it boasted pic­tures of Hep­burn. And he won’t al­low his daugh­ters, aged eight and six, to grow up with the pres­sure of be­ing mini-Hep­burns.

Hep­burn has lived on in her hu­man­i­tar­ian achieve­ments, con­tin­ued by her chil­dren. In­spired by her war­time ex­pe­ri­ences — be­ing among the first re­cip­i­ents of UNICEF aid — Hep­burn was a tire­less am­bas­sador for the char­ity.

“Peo­ple think of my mother as slen­der, frag­ile, but she was like a train, a force of na­ture when it came to her char­ity work. We would beg her to rest, but her at­ti­tude was, ‘As long as I am needed, I will go.’ That’s the real mo­tive be­hind my talk, to spread her mes­sage that in­di­vid­u­ally we can achieve lit­tle, to­gether we can save the world.”

“There is a magic in her be­ing re­mem­bered for who she was. Some peo­ple are ad­mired. She is loved.”

As Holly Go­lightly in Break­fast at Tif­fany’s.

With Gre­gory Peck in the 1953 film Ro­man Hol­i­day.

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