If alive, in  this year and this week, Audrey Hepburn  would have celebrated her 90th birthday with her friends. She was not destined otherwise,  as surgical complications followed a colon cancer operation which complicated her recovery, and the dainty lady she was known, succumbed to her untimely end. Indian audiences of English language cinemas first  came to be introduced to Audrey Hepburn through the film Roman Holiday, made in 1952 in which Audrey acted against Gregory Peck who played an American  newspaper reporter on a visit to Rome to cover a diplomatic event.

Hepburn in this film  was  an Italian princess who escapes the confines of her conservative  castle, and stepped out into the streets of Rome and into a world of carefree freedom and anonymity, only to come in the way of the scooter riding press reporter, and get befriended. Before the princess is traced back to continue her imperial duties,  she has learnt a lot of the American way of life, a thing called freedom and democracy, and of all matters , about love.

Audrey Hepburn offered   her  cinema audience a different look of Hollywood away from the bosomy  Jane Russell,  Jane Mansfield and their ilk. She was thin framed, a fact she contributed to her days of starvation living in Holland  under a Nazi occupation regime  when she suffered privations for days along with her family . Her petit baby face even when she was in her late thirties, charmed  the female young generation and influenced them to adopt that ‘hepburn look’ of  a  hair style with a shock of trimmed hair covering the forehead, a thin waist line and court shoes.

Hepburn started her career rather indifferently after the War in Europe came to a close. Her mother was  from an aristocratic family and her father was  from the British diplomatic  service. Born in 1931 in Belgium,  the family got trapped  in the sudden invasion by the Nazis in Holland, and took shelter  moving from farm house to farm houses, loosing her sisters to  capture and being sent to the concentration camp where they died in gas chambers.

Audrey with the remains of her family moved into England, where she continued  to be trained as a ballerina dancer.  She was noticed by fashion model agents who found  her thin frame suited the fashion. She found modeling as a vocation,  and featured in some fashion magazines. Her dancing lessons helped her get the role in a Broadway musical called Gigi . It was here that  William Wyler the film director, discovered her, and   decided she was the one actress  to be cast in his next film, Roman  Holiday.

The release of film ‘Roman Holiday’ (1952) and its fantastic run  in cinema halls world wide, was enough to get Audrey Hepburn the votes for the Best Actress of the Year at the Oscars,  at BAFTA, and the Golden Globe. Then began a swift film career  which saw Audrey sail through a series of great and memorable films, such as Sabrina (1954),War and Peace(1956),  The Nun’s Story (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), Wait Until Dark (1967) just to mention a few.

As  Audrey Hepburn  moved from one big film to another picking nominations  for the Oscars, or BAFTA or Golden Globes as the case may be  she kept the Hollywood paparazzi at bay and rejected the managing agent’s directions to fall in love with the hero of her films. Eventually she came out with a star image of a fun loving Roman Catholic  with a no nonsense  clean image. Her  association with the film The Nun’s Story(1959), a biopic which was filmed in the deep forests of Congo, also helped  realize the enormous difference of reality in New York and the jungles  of Congo which  changed her personality.

Once the flood of offers and script came to  thin out Audrey Hepburn married  Mel Ferrar  whom she had met during the shooting of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956). She bore him two sons , and then divorced to marry two more times.

Between 1960 and 1985, Audrey Hepburn took a new role for herself to become  a  UNICEF Ambassador, promoting full time the humanitarian work of UNICEF.  As the world came to know the tragedy of the birth  of Bangladesh, Audrey Hepburn travelled  into Bangladesh via Delhi and Calcutta and camped in that country to observe the international relief work underway to resettle the refugees.  She  visited  south American nations which were hit by maladministration,  cyclones and earthquakes. She visited South Sudan during a famine and discovered it was all man made. Finally she decided to move away from all the worldly contacts of fashion and high living and retired  to a stately home in Switzerland. The US President, bestowed on Hepburn the ‘Medal of Freedom’  for her humanitarian work extended over a long tenure.

Hepburn now detected she was  afflicted with  a rare form of colon cancer but she moved around  on her own  assigned social work until  a weak body could not bear the strain. She entered hospital for treatment, and a surgical operation, never to return to her home to rest.

Her funeral was largely attended by many of her old associates, European nobility, and family members.

A tearful Gregory Peck read Audrey’s favourite  poem “Unending love”, written by Rabindranath Tagore, at her funeral , using it as his tribute to  the ‘star’  which Hollywood had  said , was one of the 15 most shining ones  in American film history. The Agha Khan represented the UNICEF here.

She died on 20th January 1993, aged 63 yrs.

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