January 01, 1993 12:00 PM

For millions of moviegoers, her pictures were mesmerizing, transporting, a magical universe unto themselves. But to Hepburn’s way of thinking, her career never defined her. “I could survive without working,” she said in later years. “But I couldn’t survive without my family. That is why my private life has always taken precedence.”

Profoundly wounded when she was abandoned as a child by her cold and recalcitrant father, Hepburn came to feel, as she would later describe it, “very insecure about affection—and terribly grateful for it.” At 23, she pulled away from a stuffy English suitor just short of the altar, but soon settled on her first serious love: a brawling, alcoholic actor 11 years her senior—who already had a wife. During the 1953 filming of Sabrina, screenwriter Ernie Lehman once walked unannounced into William Holden’s dressing room and found the actor gazing deeply into Hepburn’s eyes. According to an account in Holden’s 1983 biography, Golden Boy, Lehman made a hasty exit, realizing full well that “something profound was happening.”

But when Hepburn, deeply in love and longing for marriage and children, pressed Holden, he finally confessed that he had had a vasectomy. She broke off the relationship. A year later, seated with Holden and his wife at a nightclub, Hepburn joyfully announced her intention to marry the man beside her: the thrice-wed, 37-year-old actor Mel Ferrer, her costar in Broadway’s Ondine.

The Hollywood press labeled Ferrer a prickly Svengali who was trying to stage-manage her career. Hepburn thought him the living end. Marriage, she said dreamily a year after the wedding, “is completion to everything you’ve ever wanted and hoped for.” But what Hepburn wanted most, she often said, was “lots of babies. That’s been a theme in my life.” Fate instead handed her a series of miscarriages, followed at last, in 1960, by the birth of son Sean. “I’m sure it’s wonderful when you’re 18,” said Audrey, 31, of motherhood. “But if you wait years, the joy is impossible to describe.”

But a child can’t be expected to save a doomed marriage, and the Hepburn-Ferrer union was crumbling fast. By 1966 it was all but over. On the set of Two for the Road, Hepburn and costar Albert Finney struck up a romance that was, by all accounts, not so much steamy passion as a giggly frolic—an escape, no doubt, from her leaden relationship with Ferrer. “She and Albie had this wonderful thing together,” said writer Irwin Shaw, a frequent visitor to the set. “They were like a couple of kids.” Two years later she and Ferrer finally, and sorrowfully, went their separate ways. “I don’t hear from Audrey, and I respect that,” said Ferrer in 1984. “Audrey asked for the divorce.”

Hepburn, meanwhile, put her marital problems behind her, dating a string of men with European titles, a famous bullfighter, and an actor or two as well. But it was Andrea Dotti, a jet-setting Italian psychiatrist she’d met on a Mediterranean cruise aboard a friend’s yacht, whom she married in 1969. Determined to have another child, she gave birth, at age 40, to her second son, Luca. In time, Hepburn’s notion of domestic life apparently chafed the nine-years-younger Dotti, who, according to one close observer, expected Hepburn “to play the role of the typical Italian wife—all family and hearth—while he was out gallivanting around.” She tried to build a life on his terms, but photos in the Italian press of her husband with a string of other women eventually proved too much to bear. “I hung on to both marriages very hard, as long as I could, for the children’s sake and out of respect for marriage,” she said later. “But I just couldn’t manage that.”

Her thriving children (Sean, 32, is a fledgling film producer; Luca, 23, studied graphic arts in Rome) enriched Hepburn’s later years. So, too, did her work for UNICES her charming Swiss home and the white roses in her cherished flower garden. Still, she never abandoned romance. Hepburn’s final companion was Robert Wolders, 55, also Dutch, whom she met at a dinner party in 1980. They were both recovering—she from her broken relationship with Dotti, he from the death of his wife, actress Merle Oberon. It was her beloved Robbie who seemed at last to strike the right balance of strength and solicitude. “He is solid in every way,” said Hepburn. “I trust his love. I never feel I am losing it.”

In her later years, the actress reflected on what she had learned about men: “Nothing,” she said, except that “they’re human beings with all the frailties that women have. Perhaps they’re more vulnerable.”

Certainly, the most important men in her life never stopped loving her. With her health in its final decline, both Dotti and Ferrer traveled to Switzerland to be near her. In an ending more powerful—and more romantic—than any Hepburn had ever filmed, the two men stood by her during her last hours, along with Wolders and her sons.

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