Audrey Hepburn: Hollywood Star, Humanitarian and… World War II Spy 

By Luchia Ceriello

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” — Audrey Hepburn

Twenty-nine years after her death, the late Audrey Hepburn still charms audiences with her timeless elegance and charitable morals. The ballet dancer, humanitarian, thespian, actress, and singer is immortalized in many cult classics, consistently appearing on and off the screen as a sophisticated, leading lady. In Roman Holiday, Hepburn earned an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Princess Anne, an innocent, tomboyish royal. She would later win an Emmy, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Oscar. However, most people remember Hepburn best for her role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, playing Holly Golightly, the glamorous but tormented New York City socialite who could charm a room of men with the flash of a smile. Similarly, we regard Hepburn as an everlasting beauty standard with her doe eyes and long legs. However, less is remembered of her second career as a humanitarian or  even her childhood as a wartime spy in the German-occupied Netherlands – her most extraordinary act, which never Audrey Hepburn: Old Hollywood Star, Humanitarian and WWII Spy, which never appeared on the big screen. 

The British actress was born in 1929 to a Dutch baroness and Nazi sympathizer in Belgium. Her birth name was Audrey Kathleen Ruston but changed when her father mistakenly believed himself to be a descendant of James Hepburn, the husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Her father left precipitously during her childhood which would plague her for the rest of her life; describing herself as feeling “dumped.” However, perhaps this was for the better: Joseph Ruston was under surveillance by the British security services, who suspected him of being a spy because of his direct ties to Hitler and fascist writings. However, he never passed his ideals to Audrey, who would later become a fierce advocate against the Nazis, condemning their barbaric brutality, which she became a first-hand witness to. 

Following the outbreak of WWII, Hepburn and her mother moved from Britain to the Netherlands in hopes that the nation would remain neutral. As a young girl, she studied ballet at Holland’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, taught by Winja Marova; a Dutch Jew forced to hide her identity. When Germany invaded, Hepburn changed her name to Edda van Heemstra – her mother’s maiden name – because her British roots became a target under German occupation. In 1942, Hepburn’s uncle was executed for an act of sabotage by the resistance movement, and her half-brother was sent to a German labor camp because her family had Jewish ancestry; this was a pivotal point for Hepburn who was never one for watching idly. 

Photo credit: Richard Avedon

The thirteen-year-old Hepburn began performing in silent ballet recitals called “Blackout Performances,” which raised money for the Dutch resistance that supplied the Jews in hiding. There was no applause, no music: German discovery was imminent. Hepburn would hide the granted money in her ballet shoes. She quickly became involved in the effort, delivering underground newspapers as a child courier and taking messages and food to Allied downed pilots hiding in the woodlands of her town of Velp. Her family even temporarily harbored a British paratrooper who had crashed near their home.

Years later, in 1958– when Hepburn was at the height of her career– Anne Frank’s father, the Dutch Jew Otto Frank, requested that Hepburn play his late daughter in the film adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. Hepburn turned down the role after meeting with Otto Frank because the act brought up too many painful memories of the war. She witnessed the atrocity of it all, stating, “more than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on the train. I was a child observing a child.” 

Preceding D-Day, life for Hepburn and her mother became drastically worse: Germans had completely blocked food re-supply and fuel routes. As the devastating winter of 1944 arrived – named the “Dutch Hunger Winter” – Hepburn had become accustomed to life in the war torn Netherlands. Hope for the war’s end had dwindled, and Hepburn retired from her passion for ballet after developing anemia and respiratory problems from malnutrition. Her lifelong slim figure, which she became known and adored for, is attributed to this.

At the culmination of the war, Canadian troops liberated her town of Velp. Hepburn and her mother moved to Amsterdam, joined by her half-brothers, who successfully escaped the German labor camps in Berlin. Despite coming from an aristocratic background, Hepburn and her mother struggled to make ends meet in the wake of the annihilating war. In 1948, Hepburn moved to London to accept a ballet scholarship, working part-time as a model to support herself. People later told Hepburn that, despite her talent, her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina were simply unattainable: her lingering health problems from wartime malnutrition made her weak. Hepburn decided to focus on acting, beginning her career in various plays and musicals. After being cast in the Broadway play Gigi, she made her subsequent ascent to stardom. 

Hepburn’s tumultuous childhood propelled her to become a steadfast advocate for UNICEF, serving underprivileged children. She has stated, “I can testify to what UNICEF means to children because I was among those who received food and medical relief after World War II. I have a long-lasting gratitude and trust for what UNICEF does.” She became a goodwill ambassador in 1988 and worked through her cancer diagnosis until she died in 1993. Throughout her years as a humanitarian, Hepburn visited Ethiopia, plagued by famine, a Polio vaccine site in Turkey, training programs for women in Venezuela, initiatives for children living and working on the street in Ecuador, and projects to provide drinking water in Guatemala and Honduras, and radio literacy programs in El Salvador, schools in Bangladesh, services for impoverished children in Thailand, nutrition initiatives in Vietnam and camps for displaced children in Sudan. In addition, she would conduct many interviews and speeches at home, testify before the US congress, and use her fame to host countless fundraisers and benefits. 

Photo credit: Derek Hudson

One year before her premature death, Hepburn has bestowed the high honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, her most inspiring award. Although dying of cancer, Hepburn used her last years to continue her work for UNICEF, traveling to France, Kenya, Somalia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Audrey Hepburn passed away on January 20th, 1993, in her home in Switzerland. She is survived by two sons and granddaughter who continues her legacy working for UNICEF. She leaves behind an inspiring and motivating reputation for all the women that idolize her. Hepburn endured the inhumanity of war firsthand as a girl, which she channeled into grace, poise, and beauty, spreading messages of unity and endurance. 

Further reading: 

  • Dutch Girl by Audrey Hepburn 
  • WWII by Robert Matzen