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Her own worst admirer

21 June 2006

4:34 PM

21 June 2006

4:34 PM

Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn Donald Spoto

Hutchinson, pp.288, 18.99

Audrey Ruston was born in Brussels in May 1929, of a Dutch baroness, Ella van Heemstra, and an English father, Joseph Ruston, some kind of toff, among whose distant ancestors was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. Ruston soon abandoned his wife and daughter for a long lifetime of alcohol and irresponsibility. Before he did so, he became an enthusiastic fascist. In 1935, he took the literally fellow-travelling Ella to Munich to have lunch with Hitler. After the war, Ruston hyphenated his name to embrace the Hepburn, from which his deprived daughter took her stage and film name.

Audrey and her mother were trapped in Arnhem when the Germans invaded the Low Countries in 1940. Holding British nationality, she was enrolled pseudonomously as a Dutch girl in the local school, and spent the whole war in a small village in increasing poverty. When a German convoy was ambushed in 1942, her favourite uncle and other family members were rounded up and shot. Her films seldom depicted savage reality, but her childhood was not short of it. She ran messages for the Resistance, beguiling German patrols with fraudulent ingenuousness. Her first acting was in real life, in which she continued to give adorable performances.

Donald Spoto attributes the timbre of her voice and its Eliza Doolittle-like careful elocution to the variety of tongues she had to learn in childhood. He points out, rather cleverly, that Audrey never had an authentic mother tongue: her inner life had no crude jargon. Her life was an impersonation, from which passionate love affairs (many) were her refuge.

Ella took destitution bravely, removed to London after the war and became the concierge in a block of Mayfair flats, where her daughter was later lodged in style. While her mother skivvied, Audrey went to dance classes, but she was too tall and met the demands of the ballet (and the fearsome tutelage of Dame Marie Rambert) too late in her young life. Bob Monkhouse, a cast-member, said that she was the worst dancer in the revue Sauce Tartare, and also the most flat-chested. The other dancers resented the way in which she nevertheless attracted every eye in the audience. Fashion photographer Anthony Beau- champ was the first to prove that she was a model in a million, the fee she later commanded for half a day’s work on a commercial.


At the height of her early fame (she was the star of Roman Holiday and also of Gigi, on Broadway, when she was 20), she married Mel Ferrer, already three times married, a rather cold and calculating man for whom she never had the feelings she had for Bill Holder, Robert Anderson (whom she would have married, probably, had he not confessed his sterility), and Albert Finney, with whom she had to end her affair — begun during the shooting of Two for the Road — when Mel, who had plenty of affairs of his own, threatened to sue her for divorce, citing adultery, which in those days (the mid-1960s!) might, so Audrey feared, have ruined her reputation with the public on whose adoration she was dependent for her self-esteem.

Her beauty seems to have given her little personal confidence: during Charade, the ageing Cary Grant advised her to learn to like herself a little more. He certainly set her a prime example in that domain. An uncited story is of his being denied entry to a Hollywood charity ball because he failed to bring his invitation. He told the severe lady at the door, ‘I’m Cary Grant’. She looked up and said, ‘You don’t look like Cary Grant.’ In his (often imitated) inimitable way, he said, ‘Nobody does.’ Nor did they look like Audrey, but she never relished her own beauty.

Spoto, who is, as his name suggests, very nearly spot-on, sees her attachment to Mel, an older man of sophisticated worldliness and affected refinement, as a sublimation of her craving for an appreciative father. Mel did act as counsellor, but never a self-effacing one: he dragooned her into one of her few flops, Green Mansions, which he directed. He was as indefatigable as he was untalented. Her other directors were more carefully selected father-substitutes beginning with Willie Wyler.

Spoto says that Roman Holiday had a particularly witty script, but when I saw it recently only Audrey’s charm, as a Princess Margaret on the lam, continued to sparkle, while Greg Peck walked through the piece with the handsome effortlessness his profile deserved. After reprising her ingénue in the joyless Sabrina, with a sulky, too old Bogart and an all too realistically boozy Bill Holden, Audrey played a fallen version of the same angel in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, otherwise a fairly silly piece, apart from Hank Mancini’s Moon River, of which — depend upon it — the Paramount Head of Production, one Martin Rackin, said ‘That f***in’ song’s got to go.’ Audrey said, it had got to stay; and it did.

She played a variant on the virgin role in Nun’s Story, to which the Catholic Church lent its imprimatur, but abandoned it, at last, for Two for the Road, in which, in 1966, she dared to play a wife who takes a lover, before returning to her husband, Albie. Audrey thought it the best performance of her career, and I am unlikely to disagree. In my vanity, I thought the radiance she displayed during shooting was on account of the script; I now know it was Albie.

Two for the Road is now much taught, though Spoto gives it little space, since it made only a modest amount of money. Years later, I tried to persuade Audrey, then in retirement, to do a script from my novel, Richard’s Things, in which a dead man’s wife and mistress end up in bed together. She wrote to me that she loved it, but couldn’t possibly do it, because her public would never forgive her (she had played a girl ‘accused’ of lesbianism in The Loudest Whisper, but she was — of course — innocent of such then literally unspeakable iniquity).

The last time I talked to ‘little Audrey’ was after a chance meeting in Australia, where she was on the last of her self- punishing, philanthropic Unicef tours. She seemed as youthfully unspoilt as ever. A few months later, her death, from colonic cancer, at the age of 64, proved she was all too human. Her improbable star continues to shine fixedly.


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