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21 Surprising Facts About Audrey Hepburn

Jennifer M Wood
Olivia Truffaut-Wong
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images / Hulton Archive, Getty Images
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Though she’ll always be known as the little-black-dress-wearing big-screen incarnation of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about Audrey Hepburn, who was born on May 4, 1929.

1. Audrey Hepburn's first role was in an educational film.

Though 1948’s Dutch in Seven Lessons is classified as a “documentary” on IMDb, it’s really more of an educational travel film, in which Hepburn appears as an airline attendant. If you don’t speak Dutch, it might not make a whole lot of sense to you, but you can watch it above anyway.

2. She almost starved to death during World War II.

It’s long been rumored that Hepburn had disordered eating, but her family has insisted that her famously slim figure was actually a result of growing up during the war. As a teenager during the Nazi occupation, she almost died. “By the end of the war, she was very close to death,” her son Dotti told People in 2017. By the end of the war, he said, she had “jaundice and edema,” which her son believes caused lifelong complications. “She suffered from anemia the rest of her life,” he added.

3. She joined the Dutch resistance.

Hepburn and her mother lived in Arnhem, The Netherlands, in 1940 when the Nazi occupation started, and she lived there throughout WWII. According to historian Robert Matzen’s Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, Hepburn was 14 when she was recruited by the Resistance. Fluent in English from years living in England, she was reportedly asked to bring food to American and British pilots and “tell them were to go and who would help them.” 

4. Hepburn was a classically trained ballerina.

Audrey Hepburn Holding Orange Parasol
Herbert Dorfman/GettyImages

Hepburn originally trained as a dancer and dreamt of becoming a prima ballerina. When she was 15, she moved from the Netherlands to London and studied ballet. According to Helena Coan, the director of the 2020 documentary Audrey, her malnutrition during the war made dancing professionally impossible. As Coan told Harper’s Bazaar, “She didn’t have the strength.”

5. She performed on stage to raise money for the resistance.

Per Dutch Girl, Hepburn participated in secret stage performances—musicals and ballets known as black evenings because of the blacked-out windows that concealed the goings-on from German soldiers—which were used to raise money for the Resistance. “I danced at recitals, designing the dances myself, I had a friend who played the piano and my mother made the costumes,” Hepburn said of those covert performances, according to Matzen.

6. She met her first husband at a Roman Holiday premiere.

Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer
Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer / Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

Hepburn met actor-director Mel Ferrer at the British opening of Roman Holiday in 1953. The two went on to star in a production of Ondine on Broadway together, and were married in 1954. At the time, she wrote to a friend, Sir Felix Aylmer, “We want to keep it a dark secret in order to have it without the ‘press.’” 

The two were married for 14 years, despite reports of infidelities on both sides (though mostly on Ferrer’s), and had one son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, together. They divorced in 1968, and she later married Andrea Dotti, with whom she had another son, Luca Dotti.

7. Gregory Peck was afraid Hepburn would make him look like a jerk.

Hepburn was an unknown actress when she was handed the starring role of Princess Ann opposite Gregory Peck in 1953’s Roman Holiday. As such, Peck was going to be the only star listed, with Hepburn relegated to a smaller font and an “introducing” credit. But Peck insisted, “You've got to change that because she'll be a big star and I'll look like a big jerk.” Hepburn ended up winning her first and only Oscar for the role (Peck wasn’t even nominated).

8. Hepburn was nominated for five Oscars.

Over the course of her career, Hepburn earned many award nominations, including five from the Academy Awards. She won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role on her very first nomination, for Roman Holiday, and picked up four more nominations in that same category in the next 15 years. She was also posthumously awarded the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993.

9. She's an EGOT.

In 1954, the same year she won the Oscar for Roman Holiday, Hepburn accepted a Tony Award for her title role in Ondine on Broadway. Hepburn is one of only 16 EGOTs, meaning that she has won all of the four major creative awards: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Unfortunately, the honor came to Hepburn posthumously; her 1994 Grammy for the children’s album Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales and her 1993 Emmy for Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn were both awarded following her passing in early 1993.

10. Truman Capote famously hated her as Holly Golightly.

Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s may be one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history, but it’s a miracle that the film ever got made at all. Particularly if you listened to Truman Capote, who wrote the novella upon which it was based, and saw only one actress in the lead: Marilyn Monroe. When asked what he thought was wrong with the film, which downplayed the more tawdry aspects of the fact that Ms. Golightly makes her living as a call girl (Hepburn had told the producers, “I can’t play a hooker”), Capote replied, “Oh, God, just everything. It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up.”

11. Holly Golightly's little black dress sold for nearly $1 million.

Keystone Features, Getty Images

In 2006, Christie’s auctioned off the iconic Givenchy-designed little black dress that Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a whopping $923,187 (pre-auction numbers estimated that it would go for between $98,800 and $138,320). It was a record-setting amount at the time, until Marilyn Monroe’s white “subway dress” from The Seven Year Itch sold for $5.6 million in 2006.

12. Hepburn’s relationship with Givenchy led to her most famous looks.

Throughout her career, Hepburn had a close friendship with designer Hubert de Givenchy, starting in 1953, and she wore his designs both on and off-screen. He helped dress her for seven films, according to The New York Times—including Funny Face, Sabrina, and, of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for which the two collaborated on the famous little black dress.

13. She didn’t sing in My Fair Lady, but she did in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

After singing “Moonriver” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed in My Fair Lady. The actor reportedly did record a few demos as Eliza Doolittle for the 1964 musical adaptation, which were later restored and released with a special edition of the film in 1994.

14. She had the same singing double as Natalie Wood.

Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed in My Fair Lady by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr’s in The King and I. She also reportedly recorded Marilyn Monroe’s part of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and sung the voice of Grandmother Fa in Disney’s animated Mulan.

15. She sang "Happy Birthday" to JFK in 1963.

One year after Monroe’s sultry birthday serenade to John F. Kennedy in 1962, Hepburn paid a musical tribute to the president at a private party in 1963, on what would be his final birthday.

16. She spoke five languages.

Hepburn was a true polyglot. The actor reportedly spoke at least five languages fluently—Dutch, English, French, Italian, and Spanish—and would even conduct interviews in all five languages.

17. There's a rare tulip named after her.

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1990, a rare white tulip hybrid was named after the actress and humanitarian, and dedicated to her at her family’s former estate in Holland.

18. Billy Wilder said Hepburn was one-of-a-kind.

Billy Wilder, who directed Hepburn in both Sabrina and Love In The Afternoon, sung Hepburn’s praises in a 1999 interview with Vanity Fair. “Again, that’s the element X that people have or don’t have,” he said when asked about the media’s incessant search for the next Audrey Hepburn. “You can meet somebody and you can be enchanted, and then you photograph them and it’s nothing. But she had it. And there will not be another.” 

19. She was a UNICEF Special Ambassador.

Audrey Hepburn In Ethiopia
Audrey Hepburn In Ethiopia / Derek Hudson/GettyImages

In 1988, Hepburn became a UNICEF Special Ambassador, and was named a Goodwill Ambassador the following year. With UNICEF, she traveled to Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Sudan. She was particularly interested in helping get resources to those in need, something she herself had benefited from after the war. In fact, according to her son, Luca Dotti, it was her experience in WWII that inspired her activism with UNICEF. “My mother always said that there is no greater evil than war because it affects the children,” he told People.

20. There is a statue of Hepburn at UNICEF headquarters.

The Spirit of Audrey’ sculpture by John Kennedy, was unveiled in 2002 at the James P. Grant Plaza in New York. The sculpture, which is reportedly 7-feet tall, features a female silhouette holding a child, and is meant to reflect Hepburn’s tireless work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. “I think that Audrey Hepburn was the best example of what to do with herself,” Harry Belafonte, a fellow UNICEF Ambassador, said at the ceremony, adding, “I loved her dearly, and I am very glad to be here to celebrate.

21. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1992, President George Bush honored Hepburn’s career as an actor and activist with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor. During the ceremony, President Bush declared that Hepburn’s “work with the International Children’s Emergency Fund put her in our hearts.” Unfortunately, the actor was unable to attend due to health reasons. She died the following year.

A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.

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