How to be Audrey

March 10, 2013

Audrey Hepburn, an elegant spirit

I grew up thinking of Audrey Hepburn as the UNICEF lady: a serenely beautiful, soft and well-spoken advocate for starving children. It wasn’t until sometime in high school that I watched ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and realized that she’d first been a movie star whose grace and impeccable fashion sense aren’t likely to be duplicated. Not in today’s world.

While I don’t think we should ever mimic another person or attempt to follow directly in their footsteps, we can observe and admire the way they respond to various challenges or successes that come their way. Which is why I appreciated Melissa Hellstern’s How to be lovely: the Audrey Hepburn way of life: it isn’t  a step-by-step manual for emulating Audrey or a pictorial of her style, but rather a collection of simple and profound observations from Audrey Hepburn’s imperfect yet exemplary life. So, a few lessons gleaned…

Grow old gratefullyIn contemplating my first impressions of Audrey in her role as a UNICEF ambassador, I thought about what it means to grow old(er) gracefully. Look at any photograph of Audrey taken in the last few years of her life and you’ll see a woman who looked her age. She was, as always, exceptionally beautiful, but she appeared to be exactly who and what she was: a middle-aged woman whose joys and disappointments were evident in the lines on her face.

We receive so many messages from the world aimed at stirring up dissatisfaction with the very things that we should rely upon: our bodies, our spouses or lovers, family and friends, our age and the inevitable passage of time. And yet isn’t it only with time that we glean wisdom, that we can look back and see how far we’ve come from ignorance or inexperience to understanding, or at least something like it? I’m glad for Audrey’s example of growing older gracefully, with gratefulness for the life we have, and with integrity.

Know thyself, know thy style: Audrey’s relationship with French designer Hubert de Givenchy began in 1953 with the film ‘Sabrina’. Givenchy said of Audrey: “She knew exactly what she wanted. She knew perfectly her visage and her body, their fine points and their faults.” Audrey herself insisted, “You have to look at yourself objectively. Analyze yourself like an instrument. You have to be absolutely frank with yourself. Face your handicaps, don’t try to hide them. Instead, develop them into something else.”* 

Work hard: Audrey was notoriously humble about her acting and dancing ability. Perhaps it was a psychological ploy to lower audience expectations, or perhaps she was just being honest. She seemed to work hard at everything she did, proof that it didn’t all come naturally. She worked long hours with choreographers for ‘Sabrina’ and ‘Funny Face’, and a voice and acting coach for her first major play, ‘Ondine’, to fill in the gaps between her capabilities and what she felt was required of the role.

Take it in stride: The story goes that Audrey went after the role of Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’ only after learning that the movie studio wasn’t going with Julie Andrews (who’d won rave reviews for the role on stage) and that if Audrey declined, they’d offer the part to Liz Taylor. For all the trouble it caused her, Audrey may as well have let Ms. Taylor have it. (I can’t help but think that La Liz would’ve had the claws to handle the fall-out.)

Audrey couldn’t sing–not like the part demanded, anyway. She practiced with vocal coaches and recorded and rerecorded the songs in an effort to get it right. As well as her own expectations, she had to contend with the fiercely loyal fans of Julie Andrews, who took their frustrated grievances to the press. In the end, and after all Audrey’s hard work, her singing voice was dubbed. When the film came out, one critic sniffed that Audrey had done only “half” the work.

And yet in true Hepburn fashion, Audrey appeared unruffled, careful to take whatever responsibility she felt was hers, and keeping mum about the rest. Disappointed, yes, but not broken down, not bitter. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, and certainly considering that she’d been through war, near-starvation, and painfully sad miscarriages, it wasn’t all that difficult to put this experience into perspective. 

It takes strength and determination not to push back against enormous pressure and expectations, not to mention petty cruelties. When dealing with disappointment, insecurity and frustration, it helps to have a cry in private, on the shoulder of a loving, trusted friend, before determining to face the world again, and with dignity.

*Both quotes from Barry Paris’s biography Audrey Hepburn. Proceeds of Audrey Hepburn, an elegant spirit go to the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund. 

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