We all know her, to an extent. She’s the queen of understated elegance. She’s the epitome of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s iconized in black and white prints on your best friend’s bedroom wall, her skinny cigar against her demure smile.
I always saw Audrey Hepburn as the definition of classy. She seemed graceful and mysterious, with her black turtleneck and winged cat eyes. I would run across her quotes on hopeful teens’ tumblrs: about Paris being a good plan of action and happy girls being pretty. They were sweet, yes, but they lacked depth. I felt like there was more to her and feared that that more was actually less. You see, I was scared that if I searched deeper, if I read more I would find just a shell of grace: that her icon wouldn’t match her true character. I was nervous I would discover that, actress as she was, she merely played the role of endearing so convincingly that it began to define her, when in reality she was rude or condescending or prideful or hard to work with.
But in a thrift store the other week, I found this beaten up copy of a biography on her life. I thought to myself, “Hey this would be a fun and easy read for this restful January! It’ll be light and interesting amidst these deep novels that make me question every nuanced moment of my existence!” Except the irony is that this book shook me more than most. It’s written by Donald Soto and titled Enchantment, which captures my newfound love for her pretty specifically. Granted, I never met her. She passed right as I was born. And, I’ll concede, the whole ultra-famous ordeal probably would have kept me from personal interaction. Plus, who knows what level of truth Mr. Soto wrote her biography in or what untruths he was told along the way. I’ve decided for myself I’m trusting their validity so I can learn and grow from her stunning story, instead of assuming their untruth and simultaneously assuming my position as a lethargic and skeptical pumpkin who finds zero things inspirational. After all those formalities of addressing the possible misunderstandings of her character, I must admit this collection of stories from her life has begun to convince me she was a woman of valor, of grace, and of immense kindness, with a kick-butt wardrobe to boot.
The first shocking news I discovered in the first few “light and interesting” page turns was that she barely survived the Second World War, living in Nazi-occupied Holland as a young girl. Her mother a baroness, they lost all their money and possessions to the Germans within the first few years, and Christmas of 1944 Audrey spent suffering from edema, with only ninety pounds on her 5’7” frame and with swelled legs due to malnourishment. I admire Audrey because her early experiences shaped her without hardening her. As an emotional and affectionate child, she continued to love deeply and care passionately as an adult, regardless of the pain and suffering she endured or the depressions that haunted her throughout her life. We all have spotty pasts, but Audrey taught me my past can change me without defining me. My previous encounters with the world will and should affect me, but I still get the choice of what I want to be known for and how I treat those around me.
After the war, Audrey and her mother had to start from the ground up, working odd jobs as secretaries and cleaning ladies. Audrey’s rise to fame was unexpected and unsought for. Within the course of a year or so, she went from being an extra in a comedy sketch show to starring in the classic film Roman Holiday (Basically, she started her career alongside heartthrob Gregory Peck in the most adorable movie of all time ever. Oh, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress. At age 24. HA. cool. I guess you don’t look to Audrey if you have a rough start post-grad.) This sudden rise to fame created an enduring sense of humility in Audrey. She was always shocked by the world’s adoration of her and throughout her journey as an actress, she kept the attitude of a dedicated learner: she never lost the spirit of being an aspiring actress even when she was a sought after movie starlet. She taught me to refuse the temptation to assume I’m utterly deserving of the praise I receive, because as a result of humility I will be anxious to push forward and to learn more. Pride is an ugly thing, and I’m convinced Audrey’s lasting sense of beauty was due to her refusal to wear it.
Despite her timidity in her ability, she fiercely protected her integrity. She cautiously accepted roles, avoiding movies with violence or vulgarity; rather she chose roles that she identified with, moving forward with thorough thought and deliberant steps. Her private life was hers to own; she wasn’t one to bask in stardom or dramatically flaunt her personal issues to whoever wanted to hear it. Introverted and sensitive, she chose to protect herself and those she loved over making herself a piece of gossip. I admire her because she wasn’t reckless. She knew who she was and who she wasn’t. She didn’t try to be Marilyn or Elizabeth, she daily chose despite her fears to embrace her Audrey-ness. She never thought she was above another and she didn’t let her insecurities keep her from doing her very best. She taught me the delicate balance of humility: daily battling my insecurities and daily safeguarding my character.
When I started this book, I wanted so desperately for the beloved Breakfast at Tiffany’s starlet to not be uptight and entitled: a director’s frustration and an assistant’s nightmare. I hoped so badly that she would be someone relatable, kind and sincere. And that’s what I read again and again: costars and directors alike spoke of her giving nature and her non-abrasive personality. Even when working with difficult actors or rude producers, she displayed grace and refused to say anything bad about another person. But she wasn’t someone constantly stepped on as a result of her unassuming nature: she still displayed strength and knew how to stand her ground when it counted most. She taught me another delicate balance: daily holding my own and daily choosing kindness.
One of the stories that stuck with me most was her bold response to a simple wardrobe decision. Tall and slender and fraught with the same body-type insecurities I face, a director suggested she wear a different dress. Audrey’s reply was vulnerable and swift, “I’m just me. I am what I am, and I haven’t done too badly like this.” Working in a highly-pressurized image-centered industry, with a body type arbitrarily unacceptable at that period of time, she fought to accept herself (and to be allowed to be) as she was. Today, women face the same hypocritical critique Audrey endured: a woman must have luscious curves as well as be stick skinny. In other words, to be a desirable woman, you must be impossibly built. I admire Audrey because she fought insults with sass and smart fashion. Helped by her dear friend and designer Hubert Givenchy, she learned how to dress herself to suit her specific body type. She kept things simple but elegant, setting the standard for understated posh. Despite her insecurities about her body, she learned how to dress it in a way that has been adored and emulated for decades since. She taught me to own my style, to wear things that flatter and accentuate the body I’m housed in. She taught me to refuse to cower under societal pressures. Regardless of snide comments or backhanded compliments, I get to choose my own body image, not the media or some snippy remark.
I’ve learned from Audrey that sensitivity is a strength. She loved others with a full heart, giving herself endlessly to relationships. “People,” she said, “even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.” She was introverted and quiet, she trusted only those she felt had earned it. I feel like I can accept myself more deeply when I look at how she lived her life as an emotional soul. I’ve learned I don’t need to be embarrassed of my sensitivities, but I can learn to cultivate them with maturity. Audrey knew her needs and didn’t live contrary to herself: she learned to wield what could become a weakness into strong compassion and fearless care-taking. Even after two divorces and many heartbreaks in between, she never gave up hope on people. One of my favorite quotes from her is, “I was born with an enormous need for affection and a terrible need to give it.” As I read on, page after page she was described as cautious and fearless in relationships with others, whether romantically or otherwise. Her loyalty was unparalleled, and she never succumbed to slander. I admire her for her maturity and selflessness in spite of her pain and she taught me that no amount of emotional trauma is an excuse for rudeness.
Just when I thought that Audrey had proved herself enough to be seriously considered in my ‘Search for Strong, Kind, Fashionable, Talented Women to Serve Alongside Taylor Swift as Adorable and Admirable Role Models for My Grueling Journey Through My Early Twenties,’ I discovered in the closing pages of her biography how she spent her last years on earth. On top of being a fashion icon, a world-renowned actress, a caring mother, and a woman of courage, kindness and integrity, she added ‘Philanthropist Extraordinaire’ to the list. (like, c’mon Aud, give the rest of us common folk a shot at being .0008% as angelic as you.)
Miss Hepburn, (or should we rename her Wonder Woman at this point?! Can we posthumously elect her as Queen?! She was English by birth so I feel it’s only appropriate) worked tirelessly for UNICEF, a organization run by the United Nations to help suffering children around the globe. From her traumatic experiences as a child, Audrey’s compassion for the disadvantaged drove her to give of her time, her resources and her energy diligently from 1987 to her death in 1993. Unlike any other spokesperson, she researched tirelessly for her speeches, gave entire proceeds of acting jobs to help suffering nations, and personally travelled around the globe to work at medical centers in the poorest places. She didn’t get paid a penny for it. For Queen Audrey (regal right?), this wasn’t a publicity stunt to augment her fame, or an opportunity to speak at fancy dinners, putting on a charade of a philanthropic superstar to make herself more liked. She went above and beyond what she was asked because her heart was for people. This movie star accustomed to earning millions for a few days on set became accustomed to sitting on sacks of grain during transatlantic flights to visit dying children. When I read these descriptions, I wanted to cry. She taught me what it looked like to give for living’s sake. She taught me to live life with compassion that moves me towards the needy, not towards my own needs.
She considered this period with UNICEF the part of her life that really counted, seeing her fame as an opportunity to make their cause more famous than herself. She used her celebrity to bring attention to things that long needed to be addressed, to shine light on the suffering of others and urge the world to help. ”She generated hope and goodwill with dignity and compassion,” friend Martha Wallis explained. “She gave so much of herself to so many people.”
Miss Hepburn taught me to continue to care deeply, to always choose kindness, and to dress to impress. She taught me to never let my confidence get ahead of my talent, so I can continue to grow without the pride that stifles and ruins. She taught me how to live in the juxtaposition of seemingly opposite things: to achieve a balance of strength and sensitivity, of quietness and quirkiness, of giftedness and humility. She taught me that whatever I do, I should do it with grace and generosity. Thank you for teaching me, my Wonder Woman and newly inducted role model.
“Giving is living. If you stop wanting to give, there’s nothing more to live for.” -Audrey Hepburn
All quotes and information are straight from Donald Soto’s Enchantment. You should go read it.