You have to admire Audrey Hepburn, scoring another magazine cover, 20 years after her death.
The actress is on the cover of next month’s Vanity Fair. Wearing a pink-satin sleeveless dress, her hair pulled back, those wings of eyebrows framing her doe eyes, she is her timeless self – demure yet sexy, child yet woman, minimalist yet glamorous. The cover celebrates a new book about her, Audrey in Rome, written by her son Luca Dotti and released this month. Sweetly, he calls her Mamma in the book, clearly a love letter to the style icon who first went to Rome to star in Roman Holiday, the 1953 film that earned her an Academy Award and made her famous.
But her moment in the spotlight – again – is not only because her style still resonates. (Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams have both channelled the gamine, pixie-haired look of late.) To me, it has something to do with how Hepburn, who died at 63 from cancer, felt about fame, beauty and aging. She is an exemplar of grace that only underscores the lack of it among contemporary celebrities. She is what they can no longer be, even if they tried.
And partly that’s because she never set out to be famous the way so many do now. She had a sensibility shaped by the hardship and suffering of the Second World War. Born in a town outside Brussels, she spent her childhood mostly in the Netherlands. At 16, in Nazi-occupied Holland, she survived by eating turnips and boiled tulip bulbs. “I decided, very early on, just to accept life unconditionally,” she once said. “I never expected it to do anything special for me, yet I seemed to accomplish far more than I had ever hoped. Most of the time it just happened to me without my ever asking for it.” Dance was her first passion, but then the camera fell in love with her and there was no turning back, until she decided to turn her back on it.
And that in itself – the recognition that fame and youthful beauty are a time-limited phase, to be enjoyed, passed through and left behind – makes her remarkable. At its most basic level, the obsession with hanging onto youth, through whatever means, speaks to a selfishness, a reluctance to let admiration and attention pass to the next generation.
“She was very strict about everybody’s time in life,” Dotti explains in Vanity Fair. “She was always a little bit surprised by the efforts women made to look young. She was actually very happy about growing older because it meant more time for herself, more time for her family and separation from the frenzy of youth and beauty that is Hollywood.”
It is Hepburn’s post-celebrity life that the book largely documents. Audrey in Rome contains pictures that Dotti found in newspaper archives, many of them previously unpublished and all a reminder that there was a time when the famous didn’t go around in sweats on their way to and from the gym and their local Starbucks. In the fifties and sixties, when Rome was “Hollywood on the Tiber,” Hepburn spent a lot of time in the city among a wide circle of friends. When she married Andrea Dotti, her second husband, who was a psychiatrist 10 years her junior, she was 40. She stepped out of the spotlight to devote herself to being a mother to Luca (her first son, Sean, was born during her marriage to actor Mel Ferrer) and to pursue her humanitarian interests.
Even those – most notably her work with Unicef – were not part of some strategic fame platform, as they are for many actors today. They were simply a reflection of her authentic sensibility. “She didn’t care that much about external beauty. She cared more about matters of the heart,” Dotti tells Vanity Fair.
Her style communicates that inner character. Sure, she had help in crafting her image. Hubert de Givenchy, the designer and lifelong friend who was responsible for her iconic little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, perfected her minimalist chic. And Roman makeup artist Alberto de Rossi invented her “mascara look” and the “wing” eyebrows that helped define her beauty. But there was an idiosyncratic element to the way she put herself together that was not deliberate, that wasn’t dictated by a stylist-on-retainer.
She was a woman of a thousand head scarves, oversized round sunglasses and flats. (Salvatore Ferragamo made a shoe for her, a testament of her ability to influence fashion trends.) She loved to carry a small basket as a purse in the summer and in the winter. Not a choice for convenience or safekeeping of things, it suggested a certain Hollygo– lightness of being, a fondness for strolling through the garden of life or an outdoor market full of choices, ready to collect that which delighted her. Even in her last years, she carried one to gather roses from her garden.
On the cover of Vanity Fair, she is pictured in her prime, looking out to her viewers with calm indifference, not projecting that look-at-me plea for attention, but accepting of the gaze, tolerant of it. She never understood her beauty, Dotti says. She thought that she was too skinny, that she wasn’t buxom enough (this was the era of Marilyn Monroe) and that her nose was too big. “A good mixture of defects,” she once said of her physical appearance.
Ironically, that lack of self–absorption is her most stunning attribute.