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
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.