Audrey Hepburn's Son Says She Was a Fearless 'Badass' Who Faced Danger In UNICEF Work: New Book

In a new book, Warrior, out today, Hepburn's humanitarian efforts take center stage

Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn on a humanitarian trip. Photo: Derek Hudson/Getty

"I can't be a leading lady all my life," Audrey Hepburn once said.

And after she left Hollywood behind at the height of her career, the star of Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady, never looked back.

She raised her two sons, Sean, with first husband Mel Ferrer, and Luca, with second husband Andrea Dotti, and lived quietly at her 18th-century Swiss farmhouse, La Paisible. There, she enjoyed life in her 50s with her long-term partner, Dutch actor Rob Wolders, her Jack Russell terriers and her garden.

Yet as she neared 60, Hepburn was ready for something new. A new chapter in her life came when UNICEF asked her to become a Goodwill Ambassador in 1988, and, at age 58, she was more than ready.

"When she accepted the role, she knew it would be going to war again, going to war for the children," says historian Robert Matzen, whose new book Warrior, excerpted in this week's PEOPLE, reveals never before told details of the risks she faced traveling to some of the most dangerous war zones in the world.

Audrey Hepburn book
GoodKnight Books

"She was still youthful and ready to do something with her life," says Matzen. "She wasn't ready to go out to pasture."

Far from it, says her younger son Luca Dotti who wrote the book's forward. "For many people, my mother was known for her beauty and her elegance but her true essence was determination," he says. "Yes, she was graceful and kind, but she was also very determined. She was a badass."

"You would be surprised how much of a badass my mother could be," he adds. "She did not take no for an answer and she could be extremely stubborn. Always in a nice way. She knew how to get her voice heard."

And so when the Sudanese rebels refused to guarantee the safe passage of UN planes, "she used her name to find a Red Cross plane willing to fly them to Kenya where another plane took them back into southern Sudan against government orders," says Matzen. And when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger repeatedly referred to Bangladesh as "a lost cause," the star requested to go there on a mission to prove him wrong.

Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany's
The star in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

As Luca says, "She didn't know how to drive a truck or be an engineer and dig a well but she knew how to use her name."

"She was not a sweet princess being dragged around," he says. "No, she did it her way."

"She wasn't a fragile creature, she was fearless," says Matzen who also documented the harrowing story of her childhood in the Netherlands during the German occupation in Dutch Girl. "She lived through war and famine and nearly starved to death. There was no one In a better position to do what she did because she understood it so well because she had lived it."

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The book reveals new details about the last few months of her life when she insisted on taking a risky mission to Somalia in Sept. 1992 to "force the world's attention there," says Matzen.

Just four months later, Hepburn died at age 63 of cancer that had spread through her abdomen. Twenty-eight years after her death, Luca says, "She was not scared of dying or getting sick but she was scared that evil could prevail."

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Most of all, he says, "My mother saw these children as her own."

Now looking back, Luca says, "The most touching part of the story is that she made a great impact on people where nobody knew she was Audrey Hepburn. They saw a woman kneeling down and taking a child in her arms without any reservation."

To support UNICEF USA visit Warrior is now available for purchase.

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