Celebrated for her doe-eyed innocence and iconic chic, there was another side to Audrey Hepburn that few people ever saw.
“Twenty two thousand people died from hunger in Holland during the final months of World War II, my mother escaping death by a hairbreadth,” writes Hepburn’s youngest son Luca Dotti in a new memoir, Audrey At Home. “She was sixteen years old, stood almost five foot six and weighed eighty-eight pounds.”
The star rarely spoke about her harrowing experiences as a young girl growing up in Holland during the Nazi occupation, or about the deep connection she felt with Anne Frank.
“Two years after the war’s end, she received a manuscript [The Diary of Anne Frank], writes Dotti. “It was the diary of a young girl born, like my mother, in 1929, who had lived for two years hidden in a shelter set up behind a bookshelf in an Amsterdam apartment. Her name was Anne Frank. Reading the diary stunned my mother because, as she said, ‘That child had written a complete account of what I had experienced and felt.’ ”
Dotti tells PEOPLE that if there’s a word to describe the bond between Anne Frank and his mother it’s “twins.” “My mother never accepted the simple fact that she got luckier than Anne,” he says. “She possibly hated herself for that twist of fate.”
The photo above, which shows Hepburn with Anne Frank’s father, Otto, was taken in Bürkenstock, Switzerland, a mountain resort near where Hepburn and her then-husband Mel Ferrer had a home. Dotti says, “You can easily see in my mother’s eyes the emotional weight of that meeting.”
“In the diary, Mum also found a reference to the execution by shooting of her uncle Otto, one of the first civilians killed by the Germans, on August 15, 1942,” he writes. ” ‘The difference is that she remained inside, I could be outside,’ ” Mum said. “It was no small difference and she knew it.”
Her memories, he writes, haunted her for the rest of her life. “When I would go to the station, there were cattle cars packed with Jewish families, with old people and children,” Hepburn once said. “We did not yet know that they were traveling to their deaths. People said they were going to the ‘countryside.’ It was very difficult to understand, for I was a child. All the nightmares of my life are mixed in with those images.”
Dotti says his mom knew passages from Frank’s diary by heart, but turned down offers to play her many times. “She didn’t feel she would be able to relive that very painful past,” he writes.
Years later, a close friend, the composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, asked Hepburn to narrate some passages from Frank’s diary for a symphonic work he had written, which she performed on a small tour in the United States and London. Proceeds from all the concerts benefited UNICEF, her lifelong passion.
Hepburn, who died January 20, 1993, after battling cancer, was considering several more performances at the end of her life. “Michael Tilson Thomas recalls their last meeting, in spring 1992 at our chalet in Gstaad,” writes Dotti. “Mum had prepared pasta and Michael tried to convince her to schedule some new concerts, the last of which was set for May 1995. These would have brought her back to Holland. Things had almost come full circle for her.”