To the world she was happiness and grace; in any light, from every angle, a girlish charm livened her famous funny face. And yet to Edda Hepburn-Ruston, born on May 4, 1929, in Brussels, serenity of any sort was an inconceivable state. Her father, Joseph, was a bank director sympathetic to the Nazi cause; her mother, the Dutch Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a strong-willed woman deeply disturbed by the rising figure of Adolf Hitler. The two fought incessantly, and by 1935 their marriage was over. Joseph Hepburn-Ruston decamped to London, leaving the family, which included the Baroness’ two sons by a previous marriage, Alexander, then 14, and Jan, 10, to fend for themselves.
“I worshiped my father,” said Hepburn. “Having him cut off from me was terribly awful.” She begged to be with him. Her mother reluctantly agreed, and Audrey spent most of the late 1930s in London. Shy, withdrawn and chubby, she was constantly teased by her classmates. Often, at home, she wept. Her father, who left her to the care of nannies, seemed not to care. “If I could have just seen him regularly, I would have felt he loved me,” she said. “I would have felt I had a father.”
When war broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, Audrey’s mother, convinced Hitler would not attack Holland, decided to keep Audrey with her in Arnhem. There, Audrey enrolled in the Conservatory of Music and Dance and flourished. The Baroness—though busy organizing the local underground—made sure her little dancer looked perfect, down to the toe wax on her expensive ballet shoes. Strangely, though, her mother never attended a single one of Edda’s recitals. “My mother had great love,” Hepburn later explained, “but she was not always able to show it.”
On May 18, 1940, the German army attacked Arnhem—and Audrey’s life changed forever. Hitler’s soldiers purged the town of Jews and “traitors.” The Van Heemstra family was reportedly of part-Jewish ancestry. Hepburn’s uncle and a cousin were executed as enemies of the Third Reich. To survive, her mother posed as a pro-German aristocrat. The ruse, though, did not stop the occupying forces from confiscating her home, property and bank accounts. Nor did it stop the invaders from shipping Alexander off to a labor camp near Berlin when he refused to join the local Nazi youth group. Despite the danger, Hepburn, too, defied the Germans. She danced behind shuttered windows to raise money for the Dutch Resistance, distributed anti-Nazi literature and brought food to downed Allied pilots who were being hidden in local homes.
Indeed, it was in the woods outside Arnhem that Hepburn gave her first Oscar-worthy performance: In 1942 the 13-year-old was sent to make contact with a British paratrooper who had landed in a nearby forest. She had already delivered the message when she saw a German soldier coming through the trees. As she later recalled, she smiled at the German, offered him a handful of wildflowers she had gathered and, after receiving a pat on the shoulder, skipped away.
Forced by the Germans to evacuate Arnhem in 1944, Audrey found shelter in a house in a neighboring village, where she was crowded in with hundreds of other people. Weak from a diet of watery soup, bread made from peas and, eventually, plain grass, she tried to lift the spirits of her compatriots by teaching dance, but no one had the strength to follow. One day, German soldiers flooded the streets looking for women to work in their military kitchens. “I was picked right off the streets with a dozen others,” said Hepburn. In a moment’s confusion, she managed to escape to the cellar of a deserted building. There, withered to a skeletal 90 lbs., suffering from malnutrition, hepatitis and edema, she came close to death.
One month later, in April 1945, Allied troops arrived. “Freedom,” she would later recall, “smelled like English cigarettes.” And oh, how it tasted. “A Dutch officer gave me seven bars of chocolate,” she said. “I ate all of them and got sick.” Several weeks later, Alexander, who had walked nearly the entire way from his labor camp, showed up at their door. Hepburn called it “a miracle!”
In the end, Hepburn counted herself among the lucky ones: “I’m sure others went through much worse.” Still, the images of war haunted her. “I have seen cold human terror,” she said. “I’ve seen it, felt it, touched it.” The nightmares of her youth never completely disappeared from her doe eyes. But in time, as the world came to witness, Hepburn’s zeal for life helped her push past the pain—and into the business of make-believe.