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‘She turned darkness in her life into something positive’: Audrey Hepburn’s son on being raised by a Hollywood icon

Audrey Hepburn and Sean Hepburn Ferrer.

‘She turned darkness in her life into something positive’: Audrey Hepburn’s son on being raised by a Hollywood icon

As a new documentary about Audrey Hepburn sheds light on the woman behind the icon, her son reflects on who the real Audrey was and what it was like to be raised by one of the world’s most famous women.

‘She turned darkness in her life into something positive’: Audrey Hepburn’s son on being raised by a Hollywood icon

If you’re hoping to gain insight into the glitzy and glamorous lifestyle enjoyed by actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, you needn’t ask Audrey Hepburn’s children about it. Her eldest son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, says he was “totally” sheltered from that way of life. “People often ask me what it was like growing up the son of a movie star, and I love that question because I love the answer, which is, ‘I have no idea,’” he says. “We did not grow up in Hollywood, the place or the state of mind.” 

What Hepburn Ferrer is better placed to reveal is what Hepburn was like as a person, which is something that the new documentary Audrey also aims to do. The film, directed by Helena Coan and produced by the BAFTA-nominated team behind McQueen, takes an intimate look at the star with never-before-seen footage and interviews with those close to her, including Hepburn Ferrer. Upon meeting producer Nick Taussig and director Coan, Hepburn Ferrer could tell they wanted to make a film representing the thoughts, feelings and philosophies of Audrey Hepburn. “They wanted to make the story of who she was rather than of what she did,” he says.

The occasional encounters with paparazzi were an inevitable part of growing up as the son of one of the most famous women of all time, but Hepburn Ferrer says his mother went to great lengths to give her children a normal childhood. “She didn’t behave as if it was something more than just a bother. Kids look to adults to get a sense of how to process what’s going on around them, and since she acted normally and was a regular mum, I went along with it.” 

He believes Hepburn’s down-to-earth mothering style was shaped by the experiences of her childhood. The film looks at Hepburn’s difficult upbringing in detail, when she had to grapple with hunger, being abandoned by her father and growing up under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. These experiences inspired her to be a more affectionate and caring parent, but also a mother who wouldn’t sugar-coat the truth. “Because of the fact that she had to deal with some hardship from a young age, I think she always felt that the truth, no matter whether it was understandable or not to children, was the way to go,” Hepburn Ferrer says. “So she always entrusted us with the truth, as much as we needed to know, and she acknowledged that maybe we wouldn’t understand certain aspects of it, but we’d understand it later in life.” 

With this came an ability to trust her children to make up their own minds, which Hepburn Ferrer says was the result of being exposed from a young age to different religious and political ideologies. Audrey doesn’t shy away from Hepburn’s uncomfortable family history, including the fact that Hepburn’s parents had been Nazi sympathisers. Her British father, Joseph Ruston, and Dutch mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, were members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). After a meeting with Adolf Hitler, the baroness wrote that he had “a magnetic and most charming personality” in the BUF newspaper. However, she changed her mind after witnessing the brutal Nazi occupation while living in the Netherlands during the war, and aided the Dutch Resistance after the Nazis executed her brother-in-law, Otto Ernst Gelder. Ruston, on the other hand, was jailed throughout the war for his continuing Nazi sympathies. 

Hepburn, who aided the resistance by giving underground dance concerts to raise money for the movement, was careful not to push any particular ideology on her own children. Hepburn Ferrer gives the example of witnessing his friends have their First Communion while living in Rome, and Hepburn said he could decide what religion to follow when he was older. “It’s another example of how she took something which maybe was a darkness in her life and turned it into something positive, or at least I perceive it that way,” says Hepburn Ferrer.

Audrey paints a picture of a fascinating life, but Hepburn Ferrer says that his mother did not see it as being remarkable. “The reason why she never wrote an autobiography about her life is because she felt that her life had been sort of straightforward,” he explains. In Audrey, Hepburn Ferrer’s daughter Emma quotes her father in saying “the best-kept secret about Audrey was that she was sad”. Hepburn Ferrer says that notion emerged in his biography Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit, but was meant in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way due to the fact that Hepburn has no secrets and no skeletons.

However, he does acknowledge Hepburn’s life wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. “That sadness I think is a combination of things that starts with the loss of her father and the war and miscarriages and two marriages that didn’t end up with a long and enduring family,” he explains. Hepburn married and divorced twice, first to Hepburn Ferrer’s father Mel Ferrer, and then to Andrea Dotti. She suffered two miscarriages before she had Hepburn Ferrer, one occurring at six months. Hepburn Ferrer says she also felt profound sorrow during her time as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. “After having seen the world through the creation of the UN and a promise that we wouldn’t have another Holocaust, to find herself in the refugee camp in Somalia with 30,000 people on the verge of death, to her felt like a betrayal. And so all these little things went towards that sadness, that disappointment. But to have sadness you have to know joy and she was certainly a very joyous person as well.”

Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer.

With the release of a new film about her life, it’s clear that fascination about Audrey Hepburn has not subsided. Aside from the obvious factors of her hypnotic beauty, timeless sense of style and a slew of unforgettable roles, what is it about Hepburn that makes us so enamoured? “You know, I’ve been asked that question a lot and so I’ve had a long time, almost 28 years, to think about it,” says Hepburn Ferrer. “In the end, she acts like a normal person, and because of that I think we feel she is ‘ours’. You know, Elizabeth Taylor is one of ‘them’, the Hollywood glitterati, untouchable. I think Audrey Hepburn is ‘one of us.’” 

Audrey is new to watch at home on DVD & digital from 16 December.  

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