Audrey Hepburn on the set of the movie War and Peace, 1955.
Audrey Hepburn’s personal life may not have been as charmed as it seemed from afar, to the millions of admirers who soaked up the actress’s beauty, iconic style, and effervescent charisma in her many beloved screen performances. And now, courtesy of 10 hand-written letters that have surfaced as part of an upcoming auction, audiences can get a first-hand glimpse of the Roman Holiday actress’s personal ups and downs, particularly the ones that shadowed her ascent from unknown British ballet dancer to one of the world’s greatest film actresses.
“Would you believe it,” the then 22-year-old wrote her friend and elocution coach Sir Felix Aylmer in 1951, while on the set of Monte Carlo Baby, one of her first films. “I’m in Monte Carlo working on a French picture. The place is heavenly and this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
A year later, Hepburn became engaged to James Hanson. While filming Roman Holiday, Express reports that Hepburn was busily planning the wedding, rushing out of rehearsals to get her ivory satin gown fitted. (The unworn bridal gown, with its 21-inch waist and stream of tiny buttons along the back, has since been auctioned off.) Alas, Hepburn broke off the engagement with the powerful businessman—who would later become “the archetypal corporate raider of the 1980s”—and wrote about her disappointment over the split in one of her cursive correspondences.
“It is with a heavy heart I am writing to tell you James Hanson and I are no longer engaged,” Hepburn wrote her friend. “I know there is little I need explain to you, a gentleman of this profession. For a year I thought it possible to make our combined lives and careers work out . . . It is all very unhappy making but I am sure it is the only sensible decision.”
(Indeed, in separate interviews, the actress elaborated, “My schedule commits me to a movie here, then back to the stage, then back to Hollywood. [James] would be spending most of his time taking care of business in England and Canada. It would be very difficult for us to lead a normal married life.”
Not long after the broken engagement, and her Oscar win for Roman Holiday, the actress fell in love with American actor Mel Ferrer, whom she met at a party. The two would go on to co-star together on Broadway in Ondine—the project that earned her a Tony—as well as in 1954’s Sabrina and 1956’s War and Peace. Ahead of their 1954 wedding in Switzerland, Hepburn wrote to Aylmer, inviting him to the top-secret nuptials, which were to be held “in a tiny chapel with a wedding breakfast after.”
“How dearly we would love you to be with us on our wedding day,” Hepburn wrote. “We will have the car take you up to our mountain peak, Friday, for a gathering in our chalet of our nearest and dearest! . . . Saturday will be the wedding . . . We want to keep it a dark secret in order to have it without the ‘press.’”
Sadly, Hepburn went on to suffer several miscarriages, one of which is said to have occurred when she fell off a horse while filming the 1961 film Unforgiven. When she became pregnant a third time, Hepburn reportedly stopped working for a year to ensure the health of her child. And upon delivering her first baby, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, she wrote Aylmer another letter to share her delightful news.
“Sean is truly a dream and I find it hard to believe he is really ours to keep,” Hepburn wrote in a note dated August 17, 1960—a month after his birth. “I long to show him to you. We all three send all our love.”
Unhappily, Hepburn and Ferrer would eventually divorce in 1968, after 14 years of marriage—a presumed relief to Hepburn’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, who outlined her grievances about her daughter’s husband in a separate missive.
Hepburn’s mother called Ferrer a “frog faced delinquent with the spindly legs” and accused Ferrer, who married five times, of causing “sufficient havoc to last a long time.” She vented, “I believe that Audrey is getting rather sick of the neurotic side to him!”
There are 10 letters in total, written between 1951 and 1960, which will be auctioned by Bonhams later this month on behalf of Aylmer’s family. The letters are expected to sell for $6,000.