There's so much the audience never saw onscreen. She's experienced starvation and has seen the trauma of war right in front of her eyes.
Her smiling face alone became a symbol that marked a whole generation of classic films. Her name became synonymous with grace and elegance, the kind that comes so naturally it cannot be replicated. But these weren't the real reasons that made Audrey Hepburn the woman she was. It was the traumatic childhood she came from and the strength she had to overcome it that really makes Audrey Hepburn an inspiration.
There was something special about her and the entire industry saw it. Hubert de Givenchy, who was great friends with Hepburn said, "She had an elegance, she knew how to walk, she knew what she wanted, she knew the faults in her face, she knew herself perfectly. She was true, honest," according to The New York Times. He also added, "...And she was kind. When the telephone would ring in the studio, I knew when it was her. I would answer and she’d say, 'I know you are busy, but I want to send you a big kiss,' and she’d hang up. That was Audrey.
She had a special way of caring ever since she was young. And it came through especially during her experience of World War II. Her parents were both members of the British Union of Fascists and they supported Nazi ideologies. Her father, an English banker, abandoned her and her mother. Hepburn's mother, who was a Dutch baroness before the war began, went to the Netherlands to stay away from the battle and took Hepburn with her. But the Germans eventually occupied Holland and so, Hepburn had to take on the 'role' of Edda van Heemstra to be as Dutch as can be. So, it was during the war that the half-British girl, who knew English well, really started acting, according to The Guardian.
Although her parents sympathized with the Nazis, Hepburn thought for herself and supported the Resistance, according to Biography. She would perform at recitals and give off all the money she earned from them to the Resistance workers. She was also one of the Dutch children who used to deliver papers and money between different Resistance workers because the Nazis would rarely think of checking them.
Hepburn was undoubtedly a brave young girl, but the war was also the time when she really understood what starvation felt like. When she started appearing onscreen, her slim and slender figure was something people praised. But actually, it was a product of her aversion to food that began during the war. When Hepburn spoke about it, she said, “I went as long as three days without food and most of the time we existed on starvation rations. For months, breakfast was hot water and one slice of bread, made from brown beans. Broth for lunch was made from one potato and there was no milk, sugar, cereals of any kind.”
This was around the time when her eyes became dull. Her face grew thin while her wrists, knees, and ankles, swelled up. "She couldn’t sit comfortably, because her buttocks had withered away, and she couldn’t get warm no matter how many blankets she wrapped herself in,” wrote Robert Matzen in his book, according to People. “These were all signs of acute anemia and edema. Many young people in Holland suffered from severe edema, [swelling of the joints] due to lack of nourishment for weeks and months on end.”
Hepburn had also talked about how that was a time in her life where it was about mere existence. "We had no light, no heat, no water," she had said. "We had no food because all the shops were closed. We ate what we could find. During the day we merely existed."
During the time when teenage Hepburn was helping Resistance workers, there was a point where she was caught by Nazi soldiers. And she would have been sent off to a labor camp if she didn't manage her escape. But that also meant she had to hide in a cellar for a month, surviving on scraps with rats to keep her company.
"I decided to master food; I told myself I didn't need it," Hepburn said of her war years. "Of course, I took it to an extreme. I forced myself to eliminate the need for food." It was here that her eating disorder started and she carried that along with her "wafer-thin" body for the rest of her life, as reported by Chicago Tribune.
Through all this, she also had to watch people suffer right before her eyes. "Why was I spared when so many others were not?" Hepburn said. "I asked myself over and over..." For years, she would be haunted by the idea of her friends and neighbors meeting their doom.
She was hanging on to life by the thread, but she survived it all. “She was very close to death,” Luca Dotti, her younger son, said. “A lot of people around her died, many died from lack of food."
Having watched the people around her suffer, she never took things for granted and knew she was lucky. "My mother always repeated there was no greater evil than war," her son said. "Because it affects the children."
Years and years later, she became one of the most famous actresses who made every moment count, who made every corner of the world know her name, and who left behind a persona that is still remembered and cherished. She spent her time making world-acclaimed hits like Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and so on. But with the passage of time, she started appearing on screen lesser and lesser. She eventually stopped appearing onscreen, but she never stopped thinking about others.
She became a UNICEF ambassador and was part of various projects that included issues of vaccination, providing clean water, uplifting impoverished children, and so on. She especially knew how important UNICEF was to children from destitute backgrounds because she was once among those children who stretched out her arm for one of their food during the war. "I can testify to what UNICEF means to children because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II," Hepburn said, according to UNICEF.
It wasn't just her movies that made a huge impact on the world, but also her work with UNICEF that reached a number of countries and a number of people across the world who were in desperate need of it.