After dealing with the pain of two failed marriages, Audrey Hepburn found lasting love at the perfect time.
At age 49, after her divorces from actor Mel Ferrer and pyschiatrist Andrea Dotti, Hepburn fell for Dutch-born businessman Robert Wolders, who in PEOPLE’s new cover story about the iconic star’s private world, shares the story of their love and why it lasted, though they never wed.
“We were ready for each other,” Wolders says of their near-instant chemistry. “At the time in our lives that we met, we had both made our mistakes. If chance would have had it that we would have met at an earlier stage, we might not have had the discoveries together that we did have and found those things in life together that were valuable to us at a later point in life when we were both more mature.”
Hepburn and Wolders in 1981.
Wolders recalls feeling that they were “meant to be” very early in their courtship.
“After I’d met her, a mutual friend prompted me to ask her out for dinner, but she said she had a night shoot,” he explains. “I thought it was her gentle way of rejecting me. The next day she invited me for a drink at the Pierre hotel, which turned into a three-hour talk. At one point she said, ‘Do you mind if I order some pasta?’ After many long phone conversations, we realized we were meant to be together. She asked me if she could take time to prepare [her son] Luca and Andrea, her soon-to-be-ex-husband. When she saw him, Andrea came over and said, ‘You look very beautiful, you must be in love,’ and she said, ‘I am.'”
For much more about Audrey Hepburn, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Wolders and Hepburn were together from 1980 until her death in 1993. When asked why he never proposed, Wolders says that they never felt the need.
“I felt she had two unhappy marriages, it was wonderful the way it was,” he says. “When Audrey would be asked, she’d also say, ‘Why mess with a good thing?’ I remember her saying to one interviewer it’s more romantic this way because it’s not another piece of paper, but out of loyalty to each other that binds us together. Had we been younger and wanted to have children, it might have been different, but that’s just not the case.”
Hepburn and Wolders in 1991.
Wolders adds: “She viewed us as being married. There were times in order to avoid confusion that she would present me as, ‘My husband, Rob,’ but never as, ‘my partner,’ or, ‘my life partner,’ or anything like that. What always pleased me or always sounded so nice was, ‘Have you met my Rob?’ Or, ‘This is my Rob.'”
Hepburn’s family, including sons Luca Dotti, who chairs the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, and Sean Ferrer, who heads the Audrey Hepburn Society at UNICEF, are working with Christie’s for the family’s first-ever auction of some of Hepburn’s personal collection of dresses, memorabilia and more in London on Sept. 27. The auction house is hosting a preview in L.A. Sept. 12-14 and an online auction runs Sept. 19-Oct. 3.