Published in the Delaware County Daily Times Friday, April 2, 2021
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
Audrey Hepburn owns a gigantic legacy among Hollywood actresses. Her accomplishments included what few in her profession have ever achieved: an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony. And she always “turned heads” with her special kind of beauty and gracefulness.
Many of Audrey’s leading film roles were classics! If you have not seen these movies, you should. Some of my favorites are: Charade (1963) with Cary Grant; Roman Holiday (1953) with Gregory Peck; Sabrina (1954) with William Holden and Humphrey Bogart; Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961) with George Peppard; The Nun’s Story (1959) with Peter Finch; My Fair Lady (1964) with Rex Harrison; and Funny Face 1957) with Fred Astaire.
But the greatness of Audrey Hepburn was much more than being a gifted actress. And that is because beyond her career success, she was a woman of deep conviction and commitment, a caring person whose advocacy for humanitarian causes poured out of her heart into her activism.
Born in Brussels, Belgium in 1929, to affluent parents, Audrey’s life should have been easy. But World War II changed everything.
Her family relocated to the Netherlands when the war began, and the Nazis soon invaded and subjugated the population. Her uncle was executed by the oppressors which affected her deeply.
Robert Matzen, author of Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and WW II, has uncovered some remarkable heroism of Audrey Hepburn who as a teenager worked with the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis in the Netherlands.
Hepburn allied herself with a doctor, Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft, who helped shelter hundreds of Jews in Velp (Netherlands) throughout the war. “He was instrumental,” Matzen wrote. “He knew where all the Jews were in Velp. And Audrey was involved. She knew some of the things he knew. She was one of the ones [bringing] messages to families protecting Jews.”
Because Hepburn spoke English and because of her youth, she was also involved by the Dutch underground as an unlikely suspect who carried messages and food to downed Allied pilots in 1944. If caught, she would surely have been executed!
“The stark reality of war was made evident to Audrey in a way a 15-year-old could never have expected,” Robert Matzen summarized.
Finally, the liberation of Europe by the Allies opened the USA’s doors to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey epitomizes the American Dream. She attained initial fame with her performance in Roman Holiday, winning her an Oscar for Best Actress. Many enormously successful movies followed including Audrey’s role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s which made her a fashion and glamour icon!
Towards the end of the 1960s Hepburn abandoned her acting career to devote herself to family life. She only returned for a few movies in the 1970s and 1980s.
During the 1980’s, Audrey Hepburn was wealthy and living in Europe. She could easily have settled in and enjoyed the life of opulence she had earned. BUT…she made a firm commitment to devote the final years of her life to UNICEF (The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund).
In 1988, Audrey became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She devoted herself to reaching out to the impoverished children in Africa, Asia and Latin America by working onsite in the field, nursing sick children, and creating awareness of the horrible living conditions of these young people.
Audrey Hepburn’s meetings with needy children around the world were remarkably personal. It was not unusual for her to hold (hug), mingle closely, and converse with impoverished children. And she never avoided close contact with the sickly.
Audrey’s great empathy for those in poverty was probably based in the fact that she had once being a starving child in the Netherlands during World War II. Audrey had then benefited from UNICEF’s aid when they brought much-needed food and medicine to her country.
Hepburn worked tirelessly for UNICEF. When not making field trips, she was a very visible UNICEF representative. She testified before the US Congress, attended numerous functions emphasizing child relief efforts, and gave many speeches promoting UNICEF’s work. “My primary role/purpose was to inform the world, to make sure that these suffering young people would not be forgotten,” she explained.
Audrey visited UNICEF emergency operations in multiple countries (Turkey, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam and Sudan) and gave dozens of interviews around the world about the needs of children there and UNICEF’s efforts and initiatives. She was involved in providing food and drinking water, training programs for women, health issues, projects for children on the street, and improving schools.
Hepburn received the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President George W. Bush in December 1992.
Soon after, she was diagnosed with a rare appendicular cancer and tragically, she died at her home in Switzerland on January 20, 1993.
In 2002, UNICEF honored the memory of Audrey Hepburn at the United Nations by unveiling a statue of her, The Spirit of Audrey.
Audrey Hepburn’s legacy should never be forgotten. Beyond her supreme acting success and stunning beauty, this was a woman of relentless compassion and activism. In this current age of rampant narcissism and greed, we could use more Audrey Hepburn’s today!
Joseph Batory is the author of three books and more than one hundred published articles on politics, education, and history.