Let’s face it, unlike many of the other women featured in this column, Audrey Hepburn was never the type you’d imagine lying on your flokati rug murmuring breathless expressions of carnal pleasure to a consistently expressing tempo. She was more the gamine you’d seduce through moonlight and stanzas, a soul and body of equal fragility.
In an era of big, blousy, blonde broads (and Liz Taylor), Hepburn was all diminutive elegance. Even in her young years, the starlet who trained as a dental assistant, in case she never made it on stage or screen, somehow blended sophistication with wholesomeness. Not to mention a beguiling, scatterbrained silliness that saw her leave her 1953 Oscar in the ladies’ room by mistake.
Beneath the translucent skin and gossamer sensibilities simmered a don’t-fuck-with-me toughness. Living in Germanoccupied Netherlands as a teen, there were times she subsisted on a diet of tulip bulbs and once tried to bake grass. “We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they’d close the street and then open it, and you could pass by again,” she would later recall. After the war, she struck out for the West End, where she was propelled from chorus girl to leading lady when headhunted by the French novelist Colette, whose work was to form the basis of a new play called Gigi. That was 1951. Two years later, she starred in Roman Holiday and became the first actress to take out an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for the same performance. And quietly, she won a Tony award in the same year for her turn in Ondine.
Yes, she was the elfin prototype for dozens who followed, but her characters were imbued with equal parts humanity and humility that resonated with whippet-ish Sloane Rangers to the same degree as it did with Minnesotan child brides who’d already resigned themselves to a life of cellulite, sweatpants and the eventual onset of type 2 diabetes.
Hepburn is best remembered for 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, although she was thought to have too much virginal quirk to play the obvious hooker in Truman Capote’s book. On its gold-plated kitten heels followed Hitchcock’s Charade, the musical My Fair Lady, and the unnerving drama Wait Until Dark. In fact, the threepack-a-day smoker is one of only 12 people to have won at least one of each of the four major American entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
The impact Hepburn had, and continues to have, on pop culture is immeasurable. She is remembered with ‘Moon River’ mistiness by every woman who ever slipped into a black cocktail dress to escape life’s harsher realities in the glimmer of a jewellery store window. But to remember her as just a style icon is an insult.