Audrey Hepburn UNICEF

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.

What’s Next

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Strolling with Robert Wolders in Gstaad.

The book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn that I wrote in close collaboration with Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son, will be released September 28. It tells the story of a side of her that’s been touched on in other biographies but never explored. And it’s a common human theme, particularly among women: “I left the workforce to raise my children and now they’re grown. What do I do next?”

Audrey Hepburn found Audrey Hepburn a tough act to follow. An impossible act to follow. As an ingenue she had won a Best Actress Academy Award and been nominated four other times. She had won three British Film Academy Best British Actress awards and her mantel also held Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and on and on. She had conquered Broadway and won a Tony and as a sidelight became the world’s most important clothes horse. Even after she was long retired, publishers hounded her to write a memoir.

At age 57, with older son Sean working in L.A. and younger son Luca on his own in Italy, Audrey stood at this important and vexing crossroads in frustration. She may still possess some vestige of the face that had launched a thousand magazines, and some sense of the talent that had earned her all those honors, but film roles for women in her age bracket were in 1986 what they are today: scarce. She had dutifully kept the same agent into the 1980s that had represented her in the Sabrina days, Kurt Frings, and he reviewed script after script and sent many on and always Audrey reviewed them with disappointment. Too violent, too depressing, too gory, too vulgar.

But despite her chronological age, she knew she was still young. Inside she felt the same exuberance that had gotten her through two shows a night dancing in West End choruses 35 years earlier. She ate healthily and loved long walks in the Swiss countryside. She traveled often—one week would find her in Paris and the next in Hollywood.

Staying in film was the obvious answer. She had never loved film work and yet films had earned her a nice living and it’s what she knew, so she kept looking at the scripts and even threw her hat in the ring for the role of a society matron in a television miniseries, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and it was here she learned the latest of life’s lessons: When you jump into such a casting pool as this, you better be ready for sharks. Not only did Academy Award-winner Claudette Colbert want that part; so did Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, and Colbert got it and would earn an Emmy nomination.

Funny thing about Audrey Hepburn: She had an ego that resulted inevitably from decades of success and an inferiority complex several times wider. Fame bewildered her because she didn’t consider herself pretty enough or talented enough to have earned it. All she could say with certainty and a lot of pride was that she worked damn hard and gave herself with total commitment to any job she took on. She had to work twice as hard as everybody else because she was, in her mind, only half as good an actress.

So what about that memoir? She probably could have commanded a million-dollar advance but no way would she ever do such a thing. Because of the war she had some skeletons in the family closet that she must keep locked away. More than that, editors would expect the inside story on her life and career and that meant dishing about friends and co-workers. She may have known that Humphrey Bogart was a bitter man who had no patience for her on the set of Sabrina, but that was her business, just like her affair with co-star William Holden on the same picture was her business. She would never dream of sharing these matters with the world.

Resting in the Swiss sun, perhaps pondering what would come next.

The life she was living in retirement wasn’t exactly torture. She owned a Swiss farmhouse tended by a wonderful staff. She maintained a world-class fruit and vegetable garden that provided bounty for the table almost year-round. She had minded her money to the extent that she could provide for herself and her family. And she had finally at long last found the love of her life, former actor Robert Wolders. She could easily live out her years at home, or visiting family, honoring famous friends, endorsing the occasional product, and presenting at the Oscars.

But that was just it—Audrey Hepburn had never done things the easy way, so why start now? And that is the jumping-off point for Warrior. Other authors always treated this as just another chapter in the story of her life. The final chapter. To me, it’s the beginning of an epic adventure.

Pre-order the 368-page GoodKnight Books hardcover Warrior: Audrey Hepburn now.

90 pounds in the middle

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Aidid’s clansmen in Black Hawk Down on the warpath in Mogadishu.

The 2001 Ridley Scott action picture Black Hawk Down, based on the “battle of Mogadishu” in October 1993, tells a gut-wrenching, cautionary tale of a foreign power attempting to meddle in the affairs of another country half a world away. For me the Audrey Hepburn connection is palpable—the battle depicted in Black Hawk Down took place about a year after Audrey’s UNICEF visit to Somalia in September 1992 and covers the same geographical area and the same warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, that UNICEF had to deal with for Audrey’s visit to be possible. She’d been attempting to visit Somalia, a country devastated by both civil war and famine, for more than a year. She’d been turned down every time by both UNICEF and the ruling powers in Somalia over security concerns that were many and all too real.

The government had been overthrown at the beginning of 1992, and its national arsenal had been raided by clans that now ran the show in Somalia. That arsenal included American M-16 and Russian AK-47 automatic weapons—and heavier weaponry including artillery and rocket launchers—that had been used as collateral to buy Somalia’s backing by both sides in the Cold War.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Audrey with a child so fragile she feared “it would break” if picked up. UN photo by Betty Press.

The events shown in Black Hawk Down involved the day U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force personnel attempted to arrest Aidid for war crimes in downtown Mogadishu. But he was tipped off and thousands of his militia armed with all that Cold War weaponry rose up to defend him against four gunships of U.S. personnel. This was the situation Audrey, her companion Robert Wolders, and other UNICEF field workers had walked into a year earlier—skittish, over-armed gunmen from two subclans ready for a showdown in the streets at any instant, and 90 pounds of Audrey Hepburn in the way.

I spoke recently with the captain of the U.S.S. Tarawa, the aircraft carrier Audrey visited during her stay in Somalia. He remembered the chaos that ruled at that time and remarked to me how brave she was. “You couldn’t pay me to set foot in Somalia,” he said, “not unless you sent a detachment of Marines with me, and even then I’m not sure.”

A United Nations camera crew followed the course of Audrey’s Somalia visit, and at first you don’t even notice the machine-gun-toting clansmen around her, offering protection on her visit. But in some shots you can’t miss the “technical” that led her convoy, the light truck mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun in its bed, a guard standing there ready to blow any threat to next Tuesday. And that’s the way she and “Robbie” traveled through the country, with .50 caliber mounted protection and five bodyguards with M16s and AK-47s. She never gave those guns a glance because she set her gaze only on the children, but that weaponry was close by as she made her way through the most dangerous place on earth.

Why, you ask? Why did she insist on going there when everyone had begged her not to. Even her physician noticed how worn out she seemed and urged her not to travel to a place where basics like electricity and running water had been claimed by war. Hell, she responded, she’d lived that way for months during the final death throes of the Reich in World War II, and besides, the children needed her. She felt it her obligation to force the world’s gaze on a million starving children in Somalia. It literally killed her to do it—four short months after that visit, Audrey was dead.

To me the fact that she went and braved death by machine gun, “running out of gas” as she admitted she was, says everything you need to know about Audrey Hepburn. As can be seen in Black Hawk Down, she went for her cause to the most dangerous corner of the world, a place she described as “hell on earth.” That, my friends, is a hero for the ages.