The sale on 27 September of more than 300 lots from the personal collection of Audrey Hepburn offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to glimpse the woman behind the Hollywood legend, as Meredith Etherington-Smith explains
In my columns over the weeks ahead I will be going into more detail about many of the items in this once-in-a-lifetime sale, including film-related pieces such as Hepburn's own annotated scripts for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Charade, and treasured mementos from co-stars.
But for me, the most deeply personal items are the pieces offered from her wardrobe. These include the dresses and accessories she loved and kept carefully: from her Burberry trench and collection of pure white shirts, to the scarlet André Laug shift worn at an awards ceremony. There is also the heavy cardigan made for her by Givenchy, which she wrapped herself in to stay warm while waiting in the wings. So many parts of Hepburn’s life are in this sale.
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From her very first film, Hepburn was a star, while her career in its entirety would cement her status as one of last great artists of the golden era of the Hollywood studio system. But she was also a fashion immortal, of whom The New York Times wrote, ‘what a burden she lifted from women! Here was proof that looking good need not be synonymous with looking bimbo. Thanks to their first glimpse of Audrey Hepburn, in Roman Holiday, half a generation of young females stopped stuffing their bras and teetering on stiletto heels’.
With the advent of Hepburn, there was suddenly an alternative to the buxom look of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Her extraordinary slimness and balletic mien prompted Cecil Beaton to compare her to a portrait by Modigliani, ‘where the various distortions are not interesting in themselves but make a completely satisfying composite’.
Her road to stardom was anything but easy. Born in Brussels to a British businessman and a Dutch baroness, she moved to Holland with her mother when the Second World War broke out. During the subsequent occupation, Hepburn assumed a Dutch name — Edda van Heemstra — and spoke only Dutch.
Then came years of poverty and struggle in London, first with a scholarship to the Ballet Rambert (hence her love of ballet shoes and black trousers) where she was told she was too tall and too thin to be a prima ballerina; then in the back rows of various chorus lines and in bit parts in British and Dutch B-movies.
Her big break finally came when she was spotted by Colette, the Nobel Prize-nominated French novelist, on a Monte Carlo film set. Colette thought Hepburn would be perfect to play the lead in the 1951 Broadway adaptation of her novel, Gigi. Despite her inexperience of the stage, Hepburn scored rave reviews.
Next came her star turn, in Roman Holiday, as the princess who throws off her royal trappings to zip around Rome on the back of Gregory Peck’s Vespa. ‘Everyone on the Roman Holiday set was in love with her,’ Peck, a lifelong friend, remembered long after. ‘She was as funny as she was beautiful. She was a magical combination of high chic and high spirits.’
The 20 or so films she made subsequently — including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Funny Face and Sabrina — still play all over the world; the minimal-chic outfits created for her by Givenchy and other designers, notably Valentino, continue to influence generations not yet born when she died in 1993. Audrey Hepburn was a real old-fashioned movie star: her look still resonates, while the humanitarian sorties that she made for UNICEF in later life continue to inspire admiration. We will surely never see her like again.