When she was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix in 1992, Audrey Hepburn showed true grace

By Liz McNeil and Kara Warner
August 17, 2017 08:00 AM

When she was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix in 1992, Audrey Hepburn showed true grace. In PEOPLE’s new cover story about the iconic star’s private world, her friends and family reveal that in her final days, Hepburn thought more about her loved ones than she did about herself and her illness.

“The doctors gave her three months to live. She acknowledged being afraid of the pain but not being afraid of dying,” says her longtime partner Robert Wolders.

Wolders says Hepburn wanted to spend her last Christmas at their home in Switzerland, but getting there proved to be difficult given her fragile health, until two generous friends stepped in to help.

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Credit: Ron Galella/Getty

Hepburn and Wolders in 1991.

“She was desperate to get back to Switzerland,” he explains. “She would probably have succumbed during the flight from L.A., so we went by private jet made possible by [designer and close friend] Hubert de Givenchy and her friend Bunny Mellon, and the pilots descended carefully to reduce the pressure slowly. She was basically on life support.”

Wolders says he asked Hepburn, a longtime supporter of UNICEF, if she regretted traveling so much for her humanitarian work towards the end of her life.

For much more about Audrey Hepburn, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

“Because she had had a very busy period for UNICEF prior to her illness, in fact I said to her once, ‘Would it have been better if we hadn’t exhausted ourselves to this extent traveling as much for UNICEF as we did,'” he recalls. “And she was slightly perturbed and she said, ‘Robbie, think of all we would’ve missed.’ So I know that in her last day she regretted that she could not carry on the work because she was very passionate about it.”

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Credit: Courtesy Harper Collins

Hepburn with son Luca Dotti in Tuscany in 1972.

Her family and friends did everything they could to make her comfortable and to help make her last Christmas a very special one. Hepburn, in turn, left them a final memento.

“On the last Christmas, she asked a friend to buy three special winter coats: for Givenchy, [her son] Sean and me,” Wolders recalls. “She said, ‘Please think of me when you wear them.’ Later on, when we went to bed, she said, ‘It was the most beautiful Christmas I ever had.'” She died on January 20, 1993.

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Hepburn’s longtime friend, composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, remembers her unique grace, undimmed at the end of her life.

“She had this ability to make everyone who met her feel that she was really seeing them, and recognizing what was special about them,” says Thomas. “Even if it was just in the course of the few moments that it takes to sign an autograph, and a program. There was a state of grace about her. Somebody who is seeing the best in a situation, seeing the best in people.”

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Credit: Sean Ferrer & Luca Dotti

Hepburn and son Sean Ferrer in 1962.

Thomas became friendly with the star when they collaborated on a series of UNICEF fundraisers. Hepburn, who survived the Nazi occupation of Holland as a child, read from Anne Frank’s diaries, and Thomas composed a piece to accompany her reading.

“The last time I spoke with her was on the telephone, it was a couple of days before she died,” he remembers. “She was very concerned about me. Asking about how I was doing, how I was adjusting to this new series of things that were happening in my career. She just was full of very affectionate and appreciative words.”

Thomas says Hepburn’s concern and consideration for others was fundamental to her nature and that their conversation was simple, witty and final.

“It was very kind of grateful, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you reached me,’ you know, that kind of feeling,” he says. “There was no trace of any fear. It was clear it was our last conversation. We both knew that.”

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.