The Humanitarian Legacy of Audrey Hepburn

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again–I try really hard on this blog NOT to dwell too much on those stars who get massive amounts of attention outside of the classic film world. This means that you will find very few posts about Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe here, though I think both of them are incredible, fascinating people who deserve to be remembered with respect. To me, the capitalization on the images of these two legends is disrespectful to their memories, and diminishes their achievements down to mere images to look at, and thus I won’t feed the fire by posting much at all about them. However, it is important to qualify that with an acknowledgment that Audrey and Marilyn ARE a part of classic film history and culture, and so when a story comes up relating to them, I want to honor it.

Today, May 4, would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 83rd birthday. I don’t have to reiterate what a beauty she was, what a beautiful voice she had, or what an influence she had on fashion, but what I will focus on is her immense, radiant kindness and generosity that marked not only her life, but permeated through in her film roles as well.

She spent the last years of her life devoted to children in third world countries, serving as Ambassador for UNICEF in several third world countries, including Somalia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Sudan. She always said that she felt she owed her life to the United Nations relief organizations, as it was the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) that saved her from complete starvation during her youth in war-torn Holland.

She was born in Brussels, Belgium, on May 4, 1929. As the child of a Dutch baroness and a British banker, Hepburn spent her early youth in the in relative comfort, an acknowledged tomboy who enjoyed climbing trees and playing with her two older half brothers. Her father, always a distant man, left when Hepburn was 6, and shortly thereafter her mother moved the family back to Arnhem, Holland. The first rumblings of Nazi occupation began to come to the Netherlands in the mid-1930’s, and with the full occupation of the country in 1940, Hepburn’s brother was sent to a Berlin labor camp, her other brother went into hiding, and her uncle was executed for taking part in a resistance uprising. The Germans eventually blocked off all food supply routes, and Hepburn suffered from severe malnutrition and anemia, often resorting to eating tulip bulbs as a source of nutrients. She escaped through dance, which had long been her passion, and drawing.

Artwork drawn by Audrey Hepburn during the war.

When the country was liberated, the UNRRA dropped heavy loads of food on Holland. Hepburn recalled eating so much sugar and condensed milk that she made herself ill, and she often said in her later life that she felt a great debt toward the organization. She vowed to repay it, and her identification with children affected by war and starvation drew her naturally to UNICEF.

She was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF in 1988, and her first field mission was to Ethiopia, where she was intensely scarred by what she saw. She was sent there as an attempt to bring attention to the shocking condition of the country, which was ravaged by famine and war. The refugee centers were overpacked and were beginning to be at risk for spreading various epidemics. She testified for a Congressional subcommittee where she said about the experience:

I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. I can’t stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children, [and] not because there isn’t tons of food sitting in the northern port of Shoa. It can’t be distributed. Last spring, Red Cross and UNICEF workers were ordered out of the northern provinces because of two simultaneous civil wars.

One of Hepburn’s duties was immunizing babies, and in this video we can see her complete attention to the task, and her true love for children.

After her field mission to Ethiopia she embarked on several more missions in the last 5 years of her life, to help children in some of the regions most devastated by war, famine, and drought. Her trip to Bangladesh came on the heels of extreme frustration in the UN’s dealing with the country, as Bangladesh had been hit by nearly every possible problem that a country could have. Audrey, however, said that she desperately wanted to go and help them, so she and Robert Wolders, her partner at the time, went to Bangladesh to raise awareness of their plight. John Isaac, a UN photographer, recalls his impression of her in Bangladesh:

“Often the kids would have flies all over them, but she would just go hug them. I had never seen that. Other people had a certain amount of hesitation, but she would just grab them. Children would just come up to hold her hand, touch her-she was like the Pied Piper.”

With a child in Bangladesh.

By far her most difficult mission was her last, a heartbreaking and nightmarish trip to Somalia in 1992. This was such a hellish experience for her that she could hardly speak of it afterward. She called it “apocalyptic,” and said “I walked into a nightmare…. I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like this-so much worse than I could possibly have imagined. I wasn’t prepared for this. It’s so hard to talk about because it’s unspeakable.”  To her son Sean, she said “I’ve been to hell.”

The earth is red-an extraordinary sight-that deep terra-cotta red. And you see the villages, displacement camps and compounds, and the earth is all rippled around them like an ocean bed. And those were the graves. There are graves everywhere. Along the road, around the paths that you take, along the riverbeds, near every camp-there are graves everywhere. closing quote

*A word to my readers–I am including below a photo of Audrey and a severely emaciated child in Somalia. If you would prefer not to see it, I am warning you now. I don’t want to shy away from posting photos like this, especially because Audrey Hepburn was working so hard to increase awareness of the situation. But I would like to warn those who would rather not see it.*

Upon her return from Somalia, Hepburn began having pains in her stomach. It was soon discovered that the pains were due to appendiceal cancer that had grown over several years and became worse while she was  in Somalia. The prognosis was poor, and after a few treatments, Hepburn decided that she would rather spend her last Christmas in peace with her family. She went back to her home in Switzerland, where she died on January 20, 1993.

For me, Audrey Hepburn is less about acting and fashion and beauty, and more about extreme generosity of spirit. That is part of why her commercialization makes me so upset–the corporations don’t understand her and what she was all about. Her UNICEF missions make up the REAL Audrey, and the one that I prefer to keep in my mind.

I leave you with an interview she did for UNICEF while filming “Gardens of the World.” Happy birthday, Audrey. You are greatly missed.


6 responses to “The Humanitarian Legacy of Audrey Hepburn

  1. What a beautiful post about a great lady. I am sure this is how she would want to be remembered.

  2. I love her drawings! The photo of Audrey carrying the emaciated child was so moving I almost cried. Her example inspires me to help make the world a better place.

  3. Thanks for focusing on Audrey’s tireless humanitarian work. This was such a lovely tribute to her as we celebrate her birthday.

  4. She was definitely a great humanitarian. Above all, I think she’d prefer to be remembered for this.

  5. Ana Maria Miranda

    Audrey was pure love. She loved all living things. She lived out of love and she died of love. She received this love from HE who is only love. She was one of HIS most cherished souls and one cannot forget someone who made herself eternal. Eternity is endless and thus unforgetable…

  6. Pingback: Be Gentle& Loving With Yourself Everyday

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