Audrey Hepburn: A Tribute to her Humanitarian Work
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Lesley Garner meets the legendary actress as she
prepares for this week's Unicef gala performance

by Lesley Garner, The Sunday Telegraph, May 26, 1991

Two years ago, Audrey Hepburn was walking through a primitive hospital in the remote Southern Sudan, as incognito as a world-famous Unicef Goodwill Ambassador can only be in territory where My Fair Lady would be as exotic as Dinka dancing might be to us. As she made her rounds she came upon a malnourished boy of 14, lying on the earthen floor. Something about him made her stop and ask the doctor what was wrong with him.

"He had acute anaemia, respiratory problems and oedema - swelling of the limbs," she tells me. "And that was exactly the same way I finished the war; that age, with those three things, all as a result of malnutrition. I still have stretch marks on my ankles from where the skin was stretched by the oedema. And I thought, how strange to hear those same three things. And it was also a moment of glory for me, because just then a big Unicef truck came by full of lots of food and lots of medicine."

Unicef saved Audrey Hepburn's life as a child in Holland at the end of the war just as it was going to save the Sudanese boy's life, and that is one reason why she is so proud to be a Unicef ambassador. It is the repaying of a very personal debt. But there is a deeper connection with the war years, one which brings her to London this week, not only to raise money for Unicef through public performance, but to pay tribute to the unquenchable spirit of the child in trouble through the life of one individual, Anne Frank.

On Thursday, at the Barbican, Audrey Hepburn and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra will be presenting their version of the life of Anne Frank through the words of her diary and Tilson Thomas's specially composed music. It is a project which has returned both Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn to their own youth through their identification with the undisguised turbulence of Anne Frank's own adolescence, one in which every emotion was intensified by incarceration and fear of capture. This is powerful material enough, but for Hepburn the connection with Anne Frank is even more personal.

When I met her to talk about it she was perched in a plush Claridges suite. I was expecting sophistication, elegance and a polished film-star performance. I had been told that she was every good thing from hard-working, generous and thoughtful to charming and downright divine. This undersold her, making her sound bland. The woman I met surprised me by being passionate, unpretentious and extremely down-to-earth. It took only a few minutes to realise that with Audrey Hepburn, what you see is what you get.

The first thing you get is the familiar face, one which, I suspect, doesn't spend too long gazing at itself in angled mirrors, other than in the line of professional duty. She wears very little make-up. Her hair is pulled back into a basic stretch-towelling pony-tail band. Her only jewellery is two small rings. She is wearing a white sweater and navy slacks and, when she leaves for the airport, she picks up one swiftly packed overnight bag. This lady is fastidious but not vain. At 62, she is also matter-of-fact about and comfortable with ageing, as well she might be. Her immediately recognisable beauty comes from a truly wonderful smile and a nice arrangement of slender bones which give her the kind of fashion-drawing outline other women sigh for. I suspect she will become very impatient if she reads this guff and wonder when I am going to get to some serious point, but it is a fact that when I tell people I'm going to see Audrey Hepburn, 90 per cent of them automatically say "elfin" and the other 10 per cent say "gamine". So, unfortunately, looks count.

When I raise the subject of beauty she sighs and says: "I still don't see it." What I suspect she sees - as most of us do in our own looks - is her adolescent self, scrawny, gawky, sick and undernourished, but still full of life and vigour, hanging over her window-sill to watch the passers-by, entranced with the imagined drama of their lives. Like Anne Frank, who was in hiding in Holland at the same time, she experienced the terror of the Nazi occupation and her own family tragedies - her father walked out for good when she was six - along with a child's natural irrepressible excitement about life which, in Anne Frank's case found an outlet in her diary, and in Audrey Hepburn's case, was the wellspring of the emotional energy she drew on in her film career.

"I was exactly the same age as Anne Frank," she explained in her curiously accented, international English. "We were both 10 when war broke out and 15 when the war finished. I was given the book in Dutch, in galley form, in 1946 by a friend. I read it . . . and it destroyed me. It does this to many people when they first read it but I was not reading it as a book, as printed pages. This was my life. I didn't know what I was going to read. I've never been the same again, it affected me so deeply."

While Anne Frank was watching the moon from her warehouse attic window and listening to the news of Allied advances on the radio, Audrey Hepburn was trying to lead a normal life in the heart of her mother's Dutch family, and experiencing the Nazi occupation on the street.

"I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child. I don't know how much longer it was before we knew what was happening - sooner than you did in Britain. Then I realised what would have happened to him. And reading Anne Frank's diary, it all came back to me.

"We saw reprisals. We saw young men put against the wall and shot and they'd close the street and then open it and you could pass by again. If you read the diary, I've marked one place where she says, 'Five hostages shot today'. That was the day my uncle was shot. And in this child's words I was reading about what was inside me and is still there. It was a catharsis for me. This child who was locked up in four walls had written a full report of everything I'd experienced and felt."

The focus of their collaborative work on Anne Frank's diary, for both Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn, is not the arousal of guilt through horror - though Tilson Thomas has drawn on traditional Jewish music and admits he found the Holocaust peculiarly difficult to make into music - but the indestructability of the human spirit. Children may be destroyed, but the optimism of childhood cannot be defeated. "The Anne Frank spirit," says Tilson Thomas, "was optimistic and forgiving. This is not a grim, horrific piece, although it is sad and disturbing. Here is a special person, a wonderful spirit, even though we know she had an unhappy ending. The piece ends on a hopeful, if wondering, note."

"People say," says Audrey Hepburn, "wasn't it all dreadful, the war, but five years of your life can't all be horrifying. As a child you live daily life. I see this in camps in the Sudan. As long as children have even a very little food they will still run around and want to play. I see it at its strongest where situations are worst. If they have strength, children go on living. You've seen the Kurdish children barefoot in the snow, children holding children, holding babies and still struggling on. This spirit of survival is so strong in Anne Frank's words. One minute she says, 'I'm so depressed.' The next she is longing to ride a bicycle. She is certainly a symbol of the child in very difficult circumstances, which is what I devote all my time to. She transcends her death."

As a young actress, Audrey Hepburn, with her natural exuberance and dark, animated looks, was a natural to play Anne Frank, but she could never do it. She was offered the film but she re-read the diary and fell apart again. She had a deep instinct that she couldn't exploit Anne Frank's life in order to further her own career. Even now she has resolutely refused, despite, as Tilson Thomas says mischievously, the many temptations he has put in her path, to play the part of Anne Frank. Instead she acts the narrator, as she has already done in concert with Tilson Thomas in Miami, Houston, Philadelphia and New York. This time her devotion to Anne Frank has found a proper outlet, a way to raise funds for Unicef which doesn't involve Audrey Hepburn in yet another gala dinner at which, elegant in Givenchy, she could charm funds out of wealthy patrons.

It was very tempting, and not being made of as stern stuff as Audrey Hepburn, I couldn't resist the temptation to suggest that this phase of her life involved the coming together of all kinds of separate strands; her debt to Unicef, her wartime childhood, her experience as an actress, her connection with Anne Frank, the beneficial uses of international celebrity, a fusion of the public and the private person. She was quite severe about this piece of journalistic romanticism. More than any other public figure I have ever met she sees herself not as separate personae but as all of a piece. What she is now she always was. There is not a public or a private person, simply the same one. "I was always in the same place. I was always myself. I never retired or retreated."

She even denies being an actress, despite a remarkably successful, if concentrated, film career. When I asked her at what point she ceased thinking of herself as the dancer she trained to be and began to think of herself as the actress who still wins awards and honours, she said energetically: "An actress is not something I ever became. I think actresses are people with a very high level of professional technique. I act now the same way I did 40 years ago. By trying to sense, feel. I am never backed up by anything professional. I did no Shakespeare at school, none of that. It's not like a great musician who has worked at his instrument, none of that. I've had to skip all that and do it with feeling.

"I am a very reserved person. When I did Gigi and Roman Holiday, I was 24 with the mentality of a 12-year-old. I was very green and naive, not a bit worldly. I worked very hard. I learned my lines. I was punctual and I had directors who let me learn. I've been more than lucky with directors. If I may use the word, I've been blessed. In my short career, in the sense that I didn't do many pictures, I had Wyler, Zinneman, Huston, Cukor. What a good director does is make you feel you're doing all right, doing great. In concert it's the same. I don't read music. I've never worked with an orchestra. I do Anne Frank on pure feeling. There's an emotional relationship between Michael and myself during the piece. It's exhausting, but my life with Unicef is also exhausting."

Everyone I spoke to about Audrey Hepburn impressed on me how hard she worked once she was committed to a project. She has no need to do so. She lives comfortably in the Swiss countryside with her companion of 11 years, Robert Wolders, a former actor who was previously married to Merle Oberon and clearly has taste. "Robbie," says Hepburn creamily, "thinks I'm the cat's whiskers." This compensates for two earlier divorces, from the actor Mel Ferrer and the psychiatrist Dr Andrea Dotti. Sean, her American son by Mel Ferrer, and Luca, her Italian son by Dotti, are the first to know of any major event in their mother's life. Sean works in films, Luca in graphic design, and she says she is potty about them. She is also potty about any number of Jack Russell dogs.

At home in Switzerland she is an early rising, early retiring, domesticated part of the community. Tilson Thomas describes how, when he was staying at her house, he had to change some plane reservations. Audrey Hepburn went round her garden making up a bouquet of flowers to take to the village travel agent in thanks. The image is pure My Fair Lady. With such an agreeable life, interrupted by transatlantic trips to receive the odd accolade, she "was sure as hell not looking for anything to do" when Unicef asked her to go to Ethiopia.

But once a workhorse, always a workhorse. Take a pinch of Dutch Calvinism. Stir in wartime deprivation and austerity. Throw in a loving but disciplinarian mother who believed in hard work and duty. Mix it up with the classical ballet training that is the most personally demanding of any art and you have someone in whom conscientiousness and graft is ingrained. Naturally, she is giving it everything she's got. Other Unicef Goodwill Ambassadors - Peter Ustinov, Harry Belafonte, Liv Ullmann - have other career irons in the fire. They do it when they can. Audrey Hepburn has none, so she has set herself a pace which, at 62, she knows she won't be able to sustain forever.

With the partnership of Robbie, who travels everywhere with her and takes it upon himself to rustle up the hotels and air tickets in Unicef's name - Unicef has no budget of its own and is entirely dependent on public donations - she will go anywhere, any time. In the permanent spotlight which shines around a really durable star, a small corner of Ethiopia or Vietnam may also be seen and consciousness and funds will be raised.

About this, as about her career, Audrey Hepburn is undeluded and absolutely professional.

"I'm always sent to places people don't know about. Unicef says, 'Will you go to Ethiopia? There's a drought, worse than before, and we can't get the media's attention so we're getting no money.' So off I go. I know it works. There's a curiosity about the personality which I exploit. If the press does turn up, it's because they want to hear me, want to see. They can always switch me off.

"It's important to me to make them feel what I feel. I always hope I can do for them what has been done to me. I was going up the wall seeing these children dropping like flies and I have the opportunity to get across some of that. I usually can get across something of how people can help. Emotion - the ability to communicate emotion - that has to be a gift. I don't contribute anything else. I don't have great knowledge, great expertise."

Although I was warned that she wouldn't answer questions about her private life, she held nothing back. Her emotional energy and her willingness to communicate as much as possible about her experience bore out her protests that she was 100 per cent Audrey Hepburn, not a dual personality with a well-aired public face. I was not aware of any practised celebrity evasion or camouflaging charm. It was easy to see the teenage Audrey Hepburn in the older sophisticated woman, an essential being, vibrant with curiosity and sheer interest in life. She is even capable of enthusiasm about tomato soup, for instance.

But somebody who is so immediately engaged in life is at a disadvantage when it comes to being exposed to life's horrors. There is an emotional as well as a physical cost to what she does, meeting hunger and distaste at first hand and then jetting to press conferences to let people know what she has seen. Her way of dealing with emotion is the same now as it was 40 years ago. She limits its damage and maximises its power by communicating it.

Audrey Hepburn could have been designed for this. Her slender body, her animated gestures, her vividly expressive face are all tuned for the expression of emotion. Add to these natural gifts the discipline of her upbringing and training, and you have the human instrument that is as focused in the recounting of life in ravaged Sudan as it was in broadcasting youthful joie de vivre in Roman Holiday. The confidence to use her gifts in this way was given to her in the post-war years by the Russian ballet teacher who prepared her for her awe-inspiring audition with Marie Rambert in London.

"You know, I always tell this story when people ask about turning points in my life. This Russian ballet teacher worked and worked with me, preparing me for my audition, going through such paces, training, sweating. And on my last day we went through it all again and she gave me a big hug and said, 'Now you forget everything I told you. From now on it all has to come from inside you.'

"And this has got me out of any amount of scrapes. I've been constantly in situations in my life and career where I've had no technique, but if you just feel enough you will get away with murder."

She is wrong, of course. It is not enough to feel. Any number of undisciplined, even violent people are full of feeling and it does nobody any good. What is potent is emotion disciplined by some fundamental purpose or belief. In Audrey Hepburn's case, she escaped Dutch Calvinism and even Christian Science, which attracted her mother. "Optimism is my faith," she said. "I like nothing better than to laugh, to have fun rehearsing. I was always happy and directly sad only about specific things. I am no longer a Christian Scientist but I believe in something."

"The human spirit?" I suggested, thinking of Anne Frank and all these children surviving in different circumstances.

"Yes," she said, matter-of-factly. "That's enough." 'From the Diary of Anne Frank' will be performed by Audrey Hepburn with Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO on May 30, 7.45pm, at the Barbican. Box office, 071-638 8891.