Young Audrey Hepburn in the Netherlands
With multiple award-winning performances and beauty that never ceases to ignite awe and inspiration, Audrey Hepburn is a true icon. One of Hollywood’s most treasured stars of all time, she continues to capture the imaginations of generations and has gone down in history for films such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady.
What many people don’t know is that she spent a large portion of her childhood and adolescence in the Netherlands, facing famine, destitution and heart-wrenching horrors, ultimately being drawn to the stage and discovered by film casting agents.
Audrey was born in 1929 in Belgium to a Dutch mother and a British father. It was in the Netherlands that she first showed signs of talent in the performing arts, but growing up against a war-torn backdrop meant that she faced struggles few of her future acting cohorts could ever have imagined.
Descended from Dutch aristocracy
Audrey’s mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was born in 1900, the third of five daughters of Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra and Baroness Elbrig Willemine Henriette van Asbeck. Audrey’s grandfather Aarnoud served as the mayor of Arnhem and Governor of Suriname. Ella grew up at the famous Doorn House near Utrecht.
Before marrying Audrey’s father, Ella had been married to Jonkheer Gustaaf Adolf Quarles van Ufford, also an aristocrat. Audrey’s two half-brothers were born in the Dutch East Indies, where the couple was based until their divorce in 1925.
An international early childhood
Audrey Hepburn’s parents were married in 1926 in Jakarta, Indonesia, then known as Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Her father worked in banking there but was soon relocated to Europe.
They moved frequently, living between Brussels, London, The Hague and Arnhem. Audrey was born in Brussels and they lived in luxurious comfort for some years in Linkebeek in Flanders. Due to frequent moving, Audrey grew up speaking several languages.
In 1935, Audrey’s father left, having become involved in fascist activity in London. Audrey would later cite his abandonment as the most traumatic experience of her life. Following this family upheaval, Audrey and her mother went to live on the family estate in Arnhem.
The impending war
From 1937 to 1939, mother and daughter moved to England where Audrey attended boarding school and began taking ballet lessons, but this arrangement did not last long.
When Britain declared war on Germany, Ella and Audrey moved back to Arnhem, optimistic that due to the country being neutral in the war, it may be spared the brutality. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and their lives were turned upside down as they faced a dark chapter in Dutch history.
A natural-born performer
In 1939, Audrey, by now 10, enrolled at the Arnhem Conservatory as a student of ballet where she was declared a “star pupil”. Audrey began to go by the name Edda van Heemstra, because English-sounding names were considered risky during the treacherous German occupation in the Netherlands.
One of her uncles was executed merely due to his family’s prominence in Dutch society, so the family lived in fear. After this traumatic incident, Ella and Audrey went to live with Ella’s father in Velp, near Arnhem.
Dancing for the resistance
The young Audrey began to participate in dance performances to help raise money for the resistance effort against the Nazi occupation. She was thought to have been a spy for the resistance, but recent research shows that there is not enough evidence to back up this claim.
Like many children, she indeed worked as a courier, delivering money and messages between resistance workers. Children were not considered suspicious and were not searched, therefore this was normal practice during these exceptionally difficult years.
Audrey witnessed Jews being transported onto trains bound for concentration camps and many other chilling acts of cruelty by the Nazis. In an interview years later, she said: “Don’t discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.”
In the winter of 1944 to 1945, residents of the Netherlands bore the burden of the Dutch famine as the Germans blocked the food supply. Audrey, like many others, suffered from malnutrition and anaemia and her family had to resort to making flour out of ground tulip bulbs.
Amsterdam, London and Hollywood
After the war ended, Audrey and her mother moved to Amsterdam where Audrey studied ballet with Sonia Gaskell, one of the eminent ballerinas of the Netherlands. As well as being a famous teacher, Sonia was the founder of the Netherlands Ballet Academy in The Hague and later the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet.
A lot of the family’s property was destroyed or damaged and the following years were ones of abject poverty. Ella, determined to nurture her daughter’s blossoming talent, worked menial jobs like cleaning, in order to support the two of them.
Audrey’s first ever professional acting role was that of an air stewardess in the 1948 educational travel film Dutch in Seven Lessons. Later that year, Audrey went to London to further her ballet studies and was told that her height and frail physique – due to the ravages of war – made her unsuited to the gruelling world of professional ballet, despite her obvious talent. This propelled her to focus on acting.
She was spotted on stage by a film casting director and made the transition from stage to screen. Her early film appearances were sometimes in dancing roles, such as The Secret People, where she starred as a prodigious ballerina.
Meanwhile, she took elocution lessons to work on her voice and accent. She was offered a part in a film that was shot in Monte Carlo and while there, she made some key connections which led to her being cast in the 1951 Broadway premiere of Gigi. From there on, her fate was sealed: it was screen test after screen test, and the USA would claim her, quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s darlings.
Soon, she had a long list of successful films to her name, like Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sabrina and My Fair Lady. In 1953, the first year the Academy Awards were televised, 24-year-old Audrey Hepburn appeared on stage, giving a modest speech “Too much…I am truly truly grateful and terribly happy.”
Talent nurtured in the Netherlands
The Netherlands played an important role in Audrey Hepburn’s formative years from pre-teen prodigy to young fledgling actress, eventually reaching legendary film star status. Audrey Hepburn is iconic, an instantly recognisable cult figure, a symbol of feminine elegance and grace, rising to fame despite adversity.
Audrey Hepburn's youth will be talked about in more detail in a new book coming out in April, called "Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II" by GoodKnight Books.