THE SUNDAY MORNING AIR WAS MILD and clear as the mourners arrived in the quiet Swiss hamlet of Tolochenaz. At La Plaisance (Country Seat)—the pale-peach villa that Audrey Hepburn had called home for the last 26 years of her life—they passed one by one through a white wooden gate, stopping at a small sign that said, in French, Ring and Enter, Please.
The unpretentiousness of it all was pure Hepburn, who on Jan. 20 died of colon cancer at age 63. She left this world just as she had lived in it: with simplicity and elegance. No fanfare, no grandiose cortege, no wailing eulogies. But much heartfelt emotion. “Mother believed in one thing above all,” said her eldest son, Sean Ferrer, 33. “She believed in love.” And that love was clearly reciprocated.
While a crowd of 700 local villagers stood outside in respectful silence, the 120 guests invited to the funeral—including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, actors Roger Moore and Alain Delon—left La Plaisance by a side door and walked the few hundred yards to the tiny village chapel. Sean, Hepburn’s other son, Luca Dotti, 23, and Robert Wolders, her companion for the last 12 years, led the pallbearers carrying the unadorned oak coffin. Just before the service began, Sean saw his father, Hepburn’s first husband, Mel Ferrer, waiting in line. “Come, Papa,” called Sean, hugging him as they entered the stone church. Overcome, the older man said to reporters, “I can’t talk today.”
Inside the chapel, the pastor read from Scriptures, and Sean offered a spoken portrait of his mother, who had been fighting cancer since returning last September from Somalia—one of many humanitarian trips she had taken over the years as an ambassador for UNICEF. “Last Christmas Eve,” he said, “Mummy read a letter to us, written by an author she admired, to his grandchild…. [It said] If win ever need a helping hand, it’s at the end of your arm. As you get older, you must remember that you have a second hand The first one is to help yourself, the second one is to help others.”
After hymns sung by a nearby girls’ school choir, Hepburn’s small coterie of friends filed out. Among them were her closest friend. Doris Brynner, Yul Brynner’s widow, who lives half a mile away in the village of Lully, and designer Hubert de Givenchy, for whom Hepburn had proved a perfect muse. Their faces drawn, nearly all were in tears.
As threatening gray skies and a chill wind blew in, the mourners walked a short distance to the town graveyard. Meanwhile, her fellow villagers milled about, reminiscing about a woman, one of the screen’s most luminous figures, who preferred a life of anonymity. They remembered how her French became tinged with the local accent, how she had taken pride in the garden and orchard that abutted her blue-shuttered villa with its red tile roof, and had enjoyed chatting with passersby and inquiring after their children. “She was a star in France, England, the U.S., Italy,” said Mayor Pierre-Alain Mereier. “But here she was just another neighbor. I used to see her working on her flowers, like anyone else, and we’d say hello. Everyone knew the same thing about her: She was a person like any other—not at all a star.”
Hepburn’s grave, marked by a pinewood cross reading Audrey Hepburn. 1929-1993, sits atop a small knoll. Its symbolism, in its simplicity, seems perfecty apt. On one side is a stunning view of Lake Geneva and the Alps; on the other lies a vegetable patch.
ELLEN WALLACE, JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE and GABRIELLE SAVERI in Tolochenaz