The Decision

In 1987, the mink company Blackglama landed Audrey Hepburn (photographed by Richard Avedon) for its ongoing campaign showing legendary stars wearing fur. The photo sums up her life in retirement.

At age 58, Audrey Hepburn had no reason to leave an idyllic life of retirement in a Swiss village overlooking Lake Geneva to go campaigning for UNICEF. She lived in a beautiful home, family all around, a world-class fruit and vegetable garden she loved tending, and her best friend just up the hill. Audrey lived with Robert Wolders, the love of her life, third time being the charm after two tough marriages.

But there were nightmares, memories of World War II that ate at her many nights. Living in the Netherlands as a pre-teen and then a teenager, she had existed through every day of Nazi terror. She had watched the Germans march in and five years later endured the last days when the Allies drove them out again house by house, grenade by grenade. In between she experienced all the indignities of life under occupation, all the deprivation, all the outrages. Yes, the war had left quite an impression.

A convergence of issues prevented Audrey from living out her days in the seclusion of Tolochenaz, Switzerland. First, she was a van Heemstra, Dutch nobility that had for centuries felt the noble obligation of helping those less fortunate. “It’s just what one did,” as she expressed it. Second, she was an empath imprinted with memories of that war and out there in remote corners of the world were people suffering as she once had suffered. Their wars weren’t global; they were armed regional conflicts between political groups, religious groups, tribes, or clans within a country. She detested the term “civil war” but technically, that’s what they were and caught in the middle sat entire populations.

Audrey began her UNICEF career by accident. She was invited to emcee a benefit concert in Asia and then a second concert in a different country. Her participation was minimal—just a few minutes at the podium—and in each case UNICEF officials witnessed a mob of reporters desperate to cover the latest from this elusive celebrity. The top blew off the fundraising thermometer when Audrey Hepburn participated, which meant UNICEF must get Audrey to participate more often.

It’s an overlooked fact that Audrey attempted to dodge this commitment because she knew what it would mean for her partner, her family, and her own well-being. Nobody on her side of the fence wanted to see the brand known as Audrey Hepburn become a UNICEF representative because all sensed what it would mean. She knew, too. She knew her own nature and how totally she had always pledged herself once she made any promise. For a couple of months she backed away, listened to a drumbeat of entreaties from inside the family, and then finally, when she couldn’t back-peddle any further, she announced a decision. In so doing, she gave UNICEF a lot more than it bargained for.

I believe I’ve made a case that what she did with the next five years of her life altered the course of history, but you can decide for yourself. Warrior: Audrey Hepburn will be released by GoodKnight Books in hardcover, audiobook, and all ebook formats on September 28.

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