Remembering Audrey Hepburn, who would have turned 90 on May 4, in the words of her last love Robert Wolders

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Robert Wolders Audrey Hepburn
Credit: Alan Davidson/REX/Shutterstock

PEOPLE’s East Coast Editor Liz McNeil writes: I first met Robert Wolders a little over five years ago when I wrote a story on Audrey Hepburn, The Private Audrey, to mark the 20th anniversary of her death.

What I remember about Robert, the Dutch actor who was Audrey’s companion for the last 13 years of her life, was how he spoke of her with such warmth, love and kindness. I also remember how he called me a few days ahead of our meeting to ask if I liked tuna fish sandwiches. (He wanted to be sure I would be happy with the simple lunch he had prepared for our meeting.)

In preparation for our interview that day, Robert wrote out several pages of notes for me by hand, because, he said, he wanted to be sure he “did not forget to tell me what was important.”

Sadly, Robert died on July 12, 2018 at age 81. I will miss our occasional conversations which were full of sweet stories and his wry observations.

To mark what would have Audrey’s 90th birthday on May 4, and in honor of their love story, here is an excerpt from Robert’s 2013 letter:

“Almost 20 years ago, the world of cinema lost one of its luminous members and I lost the lady with whom I spent a most precious 14 years of life, Audrey Hepburn. In those 20 years, I’ve become ever more aware of how many lives Audrey touched. I am moved to find that to many she is a reflection of what we hold most dear — kindness, generosity, charity and humility.

I consider myself blessed to have been allowed to discover how deep her soul was in its total commitment to life. It seems to me that Audrey will have sensed, very early in life, that self-worth, based on fame or beauty is very short-lived and so she remained forever her basic self: realistic, aware and caring.

Audrey Hepburn, Robert Wolders
Robert Wolders and Audrey Hepburn in 1982
| Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

When she observed injustice, as in her years with UNICEF, she used her presence and energy to draw attention to the issues she felt strongly about, especially to what ultimately became her greatest concern — the plight and welfare of children. Some people tend to think of Audrey as a film-star first and a humanitarian second. But to Audrey herself, and to those who knew her well, the two roles were intertwined and inseparable.

The Audrey you saw in her films and in her advocacy for children is who and what she really was and what, I think, we all sensed was an extraordinary honesty of emotion. She was not an actress on the conventional sense of the term, she’d had no training as such. But what she did have was an extraordinary willingness to share her innermost feelings, her joys, her sorrows and her convictions.

She had no reluctance to let it all flow out, which is probably why she stirred people as she did. She made you look into her soul. It’s what made her stand out in life, in her film career, but even more in her work for children where there was the need to remind people of the hard facts, specifically the fact of the abysmal state of so many of the world’s children. The fact that every day more than 20,000 children die of hunger, preventable disease and are victims of war is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.

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Audrey Hepburn circa 1955.
| Credit: Archive Photos/Getty

It was Audrey’s belief and conviction that every child is a universe of potential, with the inherent right to live on a world that protects and nurtures that potential. Audrey, it seems to me, never strove or hoped to leave a lasting legacy with her films — she was far too modest for that. But what I think she would have wanted, had she been given more time, would have been to continue her work for children because she knew that is a task with so much to be accomplished. The fact that she inspires both her sons to continue her work for children would have been her greatest reward.”