Cinemagic . . . . . .
Icon of film and fashion
My dream was to wear a tutu and dance at Covent Garden.” This aspiration was Audrey Hepburn’s childhood hope, keenly nurtured even whilst trying to survive the hardships of daily life in occupied Holland during the Second World War and it was an ambition that brought her to London in early 1947. Here, with a combination of much hard work and some liberal serendipity, and with her mother’s assistance, she would begin an exciting new life, initially enrolled as a student at Marie Rambert’s famous ballet school.
Born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in 1929 in Brussels ( the Hepburn came later) to a Dutch mother and an English father, Audrey was considered British and carried a British passport all her life, yet her appeal was quintessentially European, her gamine beauty and delightful personality one that would carve her an indelible place in the pantheon of cinema history.
Audrey had spent the war years in Arnhem and Velp with her mother Ella ( her father Joseph having abandoned the family when she was six) and the suffering she experienced during this period profoundly influenced the rest of her life.
For the future UNICEF ambassador her social conscience was shaped at an early age, the young Audrey carrying messages for the Dutch Resistance in her shoes — since children were less likely to be stopped by German soldiers — and she also participated in regular dance recitals given secretly in private houses, all funds assisting the Resistance. This may have placed her in constant jeopardy but, as she later reflected as an adult, “there is probably nothing in the world as determined as a child with a dream… and I wanted to dance more than I feared the Germans”.
Sadly, despite her unquenchable spirit the detrimental effect of longterm food shortages meant she ended the war severely malnourished, which was the real reason behind her famously thin figure, and she could only resume her dancing once she’d had time to properly rebuild her strength.
But Audrey, who would become fluent in several languages, was nothing if not determined and when offered the opportunity through her tutor Sonia Gaskell ( who’d worked with Diaghilev), to come to study in London she leapt at the chance. This wasn’t her first visit to England, though, as she had spent the years 1936 to 1939 ensconced at a small girls’ academy in Kent ( where she’d first discovered the joys of ballet), returning to Holland only when war broke out in September 1939.
After successfully auditioning in 1947 Audrey would study dance intensively by day and work part- time in the evenings as a photographer’s model, also appearing in ads for soap and shampoo. Sadly her dance dreams were soon thwarted when, after not being included on the Rambert tour of 1948, it was decided she was too tall ( at five foot seven) and too mature to have any realistic prospects of being a prima ballerina. Upset but aware of her pressing need to make a living, Audrey reluctantly turned her attentions from dance and out into the wider field of entertainment.
Her first break was being cast in the musical comedy High Button Shoes which opened at London’s Hippodrome in December 1948 and which cast Audrey as one of several bathing beauties in various dance sequences. Spotted by producer Cecil Landeau and subsequently cast in a piquant musical revue
entitled Sauce Tartare which opened at the Cambridge Theatre in 1949, Audrey was given a few lines to say in a series of satirical sketches which happily saw her able to employ her dance skills. Sauce Tartare was much enjoyed by the critics who relished its wit and it ran for over 400 performances, its success spawning the less- impressive and shortlived sequel Sauce Piquante which lampooned popular contemporary plays and films. For Audrey its most important contribution was that Landeau sent his favourite performers — which included her — over to the well- established Ciro’s nightclub nearby to feature in a sophisticated late- night revue entitled Summer Nights.
Today the National Portrait Gallery’s Public Archives occupy the space once inhabited by Ciro’s in Orange Street 65 years ago. Back in 1950 few could have realised that they were witnessing one of Hollywood’s brightest stars in the ascendant when Audrey appeared here. Amidst the intimate confines of Ciro’s, audiences were at last able to see her up close and her natural, fresh- faced charm made her immediately noticeable.
Working phenomenally hard and finishing in the early hours after her stint at Ciro’s, Audrey’s talent was noticed by at least two agents and, realising that film work might be forthcoming, she decided to enrol with well- known actor Felix Aylmer in order to improve her acting credentials. She possessed exemplary natural poise and energy but under Aylmer’s expert tutelage she also learned how to project her voice and to convey dialogue effectively.
Alongside her acting studies of the time Audrey also continued to model, her natural elegance a fashion photographer’s dream and long before her name gained widespread recognition her face graced Picturegoer and Film Review magazines as a rising star. Aylmer had many connections in showbusiness and sent Audrey to test for the Hollywood epic, Quo Vadis. Although she auditioned well, MGM Studios didn’t have the courage to cast an unknown and opted for Deborah Kerr instead. But unbeknown to Audrey fate had already taken a pivotal step in developing her embryonic career.
Associated British Pictures Corporation had their headquarters just a stone’s throw from Ciro’s, in
Soho’s Golden Square, and their influential casting director Robert Lennard ( who’d started his career working with Hitchcock) swiftly spotted Audrey’s potential and soon offered her a three- picture deal. Although they would only initially be tiny roles, her £ 500 pay packet for the first picture was a relative fortune when one considered that her previous work had netted just £ 12 a week.
Reminiscing years later Audrey would reflect with gratitude on these times: “I was very happy when I was given an opportunity to earn a little extra money by doing bit- parts in movies as I needed money to live on.”
She would play a hotel receptionist in her first film and then a cigarette girl in The Lavender Hill Mob ( starring Alec Guinness), featuring in six films during 1950- 1951 ( her contract at ABC having being renewed) but all were cameo appearances. When she was loaned out to Ealing Studios for the political thriller Secret People, things moved up a notch as she was able to use some of her dance training in the film and was also assigned a leading role in the picture.
As she continued accruing invaluable experience it was her seventh picture, a frenetic comedy called Monte Carlo Baby, that would offer her next significant step forward. Filming in the Riviera in May 1951 she was spotted by the celebrated novelist Colette who declared that she had seen the living embodiment of her fictional heroine Gigi and lent her crucial stamp of authorial approval by recommending Audrey to those currently in the throes of casting the film version of the novel.
Simultaneously Audrey was also invited to do a screen test for a major new film starring Gregory Peck. An executive at the London office of Paramount Studios looking for a young actress to play a disenchanted European princess had seen her photo on the cover of a movie magazine and thought she had the necessary charm to convince; intrigued, Audrey met the film’s prospective director William Wyler at Claridge’s to discuss the project.
Her test was so enchanting she was swiftly signed to a sevenpicture contract ( ABPC securing an advantageous deal in the process) and celebrated her upcoming stage role in the heart of theatreland by dining at the Cafe Royal with her mother and her then fiance, wealthy playboy James Hanson.
Audrey herself was still bedazzled by the unexpected turn of events, a naturally modest, immensely likeable woman who, as her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer comments, was simply “a star who couldn’t see her own light. Instead she saw herself as too thin and treated everyone around her with courtesy and respect”, qualities that endeared her to everyone. Years of hard graft had suddenly brought two major opportunities at once and both would irrevocably transform Audrey’s life. Later she would ruminate on this swift change of fortune, saying “My career is a complete mystery to me… it’s been a total surprise since the first day. I
never thought I was going to be an actress, I never thought I was going to be in movies.”
The dance world’s loss had undoubtedly been cinema’s gain since Audrey would carve out a truly indelible niche in the history of film. Sean says of his mother that “she really was like those characters you see in the movies — emotional, courageous, delicate and romantic”.
And with her performance opposite Peck in Roman Holiday ( 1953) — which had happily been brought to fruition in London — she would become the first actress to win an Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA award for a single role, one that would become one of her most cherished screen appearances.
Audrey’s enduring screen legacy is one that will be duly celebrated this summer, 65 years after she first appeared at Ciro’s, with a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Pim Baxter, Deputy Director at the National Portrait Gallery, says, “It is particularly appropriate that the exhibition will be staged in such close proximity to where she performed as a young woman. Audrey Hepburn was one of the world’s most celebrated actresses and I am delighted that the National Portrait Gallery will hold a major photography exhibition exploring the life and work of such a significant and much- loved figure who spent the formative early years of her career in Britain.”
Film director Billy Wilder ( who’d overseen 1954’ s Sabrina) perhaps spoke for many when he once commented on Audrey’s singular appeal by saying, quite simply, “God kissed her on the cheek and there she was.” Acknowledgements: Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto ( Random House); Audrey Hepburn: Fair Lady of the Screen by Ian Woodward ( Virgin Books); Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit by Sean Hepburn Ferrer ( Sidgwick & Jackson).
Audrey Hepburn in Rome by Cecil Beaton, 1960.
As Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Howell Conant, published on the cover of Jours de France, 27th January 1962.
The actress photographed wearing Givenchy by Norman Parkinson, 1955.
Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton, 1954.
Audrey Hepburn by Bud Fraker, for Sabrina, Paramount Pictures, 1954.
runs at the National Portrait Gallery from 2nd July until 18th October 2015. It will follow Hepburn’s life, from her childhood in Holland and subsequently as a young dancer in London’s West End, to her career as a stage and screen icon, and will...