One of America’s most beloved actresses, Audrey Hepburn, dies on this day in 1993, near her home in Lausanne, Switzerland. The 63-year-old Hepburn had undergone surgery for colon cancer the previous November.
The daughter of an aristocratic Dutch mother and an English businessman father, Hepburn was born in Brussels, Belgium, and educated mostly in England. During World War II, the young Audrey and her mother were in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded that country. The war left a permanent mark on Hepburn’s family: An uncle and a cousin were executed, and one of her brothers was interned in a Nazi labor camp. At war’s end, Hepburn was finally able to return to England, where she modeled and began landing parts in movies as a chorus girl and dancer. While shooting one of these films in Monaco, the lithe and graceful Hepburn was spotted by the French author Colette, who recommended her for the starring role in the upcoming theatrical adaptation of her novel Gigi.
Gigi opened in November 1951 at New York City’s Fulton Theater, and Hepburn received glowing reviews for her performance. Impressed with her screen test, the director William Wyler held production on his film Roman Holiday while Hepburn finished her run on Broadway. “That girl,” Wyler is said to have remarked after filming was completed, “is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.” After the release of Roman Holiday in 1953, his prediction seemed well on its way to coming true: Hepburn won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as a princess on the loose in Rome who falls in love with a journalist (Gregory Peck). The same year, she won a Tony Award for her starring turn in Broadway’s Ondine.
Slim, elegant and unfailingly stylish, Hepburn turned the image of the bosomy blonde Hollywood starlet on its head, presenting a new ideal of beauty for millions of moviegoers. In Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957) and Love in the Afternoon (1957), she matched off with Hollywood’s leading men (William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, and Gary Cooper, respectively). Hepburn’s embodiment of Holly Golightly, the ultimate free spirit, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was one of her most enduringly popular roles, and earned her a fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress. (She was also nominated for Sabrina and 1959’s A Nun’s Story). In 1964, controversy flared when Hepburn was chosen to play Eliza Doolittle in the film version of the musical My Fair Lady, beating out Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on Broadway. Playing opposite Rex Harrison, Hepburn acquitted herself well, although her singing was dubbed (by Marni Nixon).
In 1967, Hepburn got her fifth Academy Award nomination for her performance as a blind woman whose house is burglarized in Wait Until Dark. Soon after that, she left full-time acting and lived mostly in Switzerland, appearing infrequently in movies that were both praised (1976’s Robin and Marian with Sean Connery) and panned (1979’s Bloodline and 1981’s They All Laughed). Married to the actor Mel Ferrer in 1954, Hepburn had two sons with him before they divorced in 1968; the following year she married Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist, with whom she had one son. They later divorced, and she began a relationship with Robert Wolders, a Dutch actor, in 1980.
Hepburn’s most significant work over the last two decades of her life was not captured on film. Named a special ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nation’s children’s fund, in 1988, Hepburn traveled extensively raising money and awareness for the organization. Her UNICEF field trips spanned the globe, from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador, to Turkey, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sudan. In addition to field work, Hepburn was an eloquent public voice for the organization, testifying before the U.S. Congress, participating in the World Summit for Children and giving numerous speeches and interviews about UNICEF’s work. In 1992, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Even after she was diagnosed with cancer, Hepburn continued her travel and work for UNICEF. Mourned by countless fans, she was posthumously given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1993 Academy Awards, which her son accepted on her behalf. In her last screen appearance–Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989)–Hepburn played an angel guiding the movie’s protagonist to heaven, and the role served as a fitting reflection of the screen goddess’s public image during the last years of her life.