Audrey and Her Sisters

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris
    Weidenfeld, 454 pp, £20.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 297 81728 0

I read star biographies to find out how stars see themselves and how they see each other. Though I am interested in their behaviour, I am more interested in the curves and austerities of their cognition. Huge gulfs divide a star in daily life from a star on screen; the style in which a star executes an action (film role, household chore, errand, ambassadorial mission) is not the style in which she secretly contemplates her colleagues. Few writers have tried to describe ineffable instances of stars perceiving other stars and stars perceiving their own stardom. Such moments dominate a certain 20th century, and so it is a mistake to consider a star biography as merely the linear tale of a performing life’s progress. Rather, we may use star chronicles as springboards for philosophical investigations, however careless and impromptu, into our own sightlines.

The new biography of Audrey Hepburn, by Barry Paris, a writer already praised for his books on Louise Brooks and Garbo, is an acute, tender-hearted and entertaining dish of Hepburn facts – he interviewed friends and family, and has a sharp eye for her film-work’s idiosyncrasies; more important, he offers a grid for dream inquiries into star consciousness. The pulse points that most fascinate me are relations between Hepburn and other female luminaries, including Colette, Edith Head, Deborah Kerr, Leslie Caron, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Marni Nixon, Julie Andrews, Mia Farrow, Jeanne Moreau, Merle Oberon, Capucine and Cher. I could advance a lesbian interpretation of Audrey Hepburn’s oeuvre, though that is not my present aim: instead, I wish to inquire into reverberations between Audrey’s consciousness and the interiors of other stars.

Is it sufficiently well-known that Colette discovered Audrey Hepburn? Paris’s amusing account of the event is worth quoting in full:

Colette, 78, was being propelled through the hotel lobby – sipping a liqueur and resplendent in her red corkscrew curls – when her wheelchair was blocked by a group of actors, technicians and their film equipment. The chair got tangled in some wires, and director Jean Boyer was cross about the interruption. But he fell respectfully silent when he recognised Colette, and shooting was halted while he went over to pay his respects. During that interaction and the time it took to get her chair sorted out, Colette studied the activity with her usual curiosity ... A girl in the background, oblivious to Colette, was taking advantage of the unplanned break to frolic with two of the musicians off to the side. She was dancing around them in playful fashion; she seemed graceful and awkward at the same time; she was extremely pretty. The old author’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly she announced: ‘Voilà! There is my Gigi!’

Here we have the origin of Hepburn’s 1951 Broadway debut as Gigi, itself the catalyst for the beginning of her American film career in Roman Holiday (1953). After her Gigi lost Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Actress to Julie Harris (for Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera), Colette sent the loser a photo inscribed, ‘For Audrey Hepburn, a treasure which I found on the sands.’ That a major French writer should have helped launch an American film actress (whose weird thin androgynous beauty is a non-literary treasure) invites me to imagine Colette’s gaze, across the text/film divide, toward Hepburn, and to imagine Hepburn’s reciprocal Orphean gaze toward literature and toward France, as well as toward wheelchair-bound plumpness and grandmotherly Sapphism. This Monte Carlo hotel anecdote authorises us to see onscreen Hepburn as if through Colette’s desiring, fairy-godmother eyes.

A kindred encounter (patroness meets young star) couples Hepburn and legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, famous for her own staunch black bangs and her no-nonsense jolie laide (à la Diana Vreeland) attitude to the women whose embodiment she managed. Head designed Hepburn’s costumes for Roman Holiday as well as Sabrina (though Givenchy was the prime mover behind the Sabrina gowns). Head ‘marvelled at Hepburn’s ability to consume five chocolate éclairs at a time’. Imagine Head watching Hepburn eat the éclairs: are the women sitting together on drugstore counter stools, and is Head, too, eating, or merely admiring ingénue appetite? Head recalls: ‘Like Dietrich, Audrey’s fittings became the ten-hour not the ten-minute variety. She knew exactly how she wanted to look or what worked best for her, yet she was never arrogant or demanding. She had an adorable sweetness that made you feel like a mother getting her only daughter ready for her prom.’ See Head leap to the maternal vantage; conjuring Hepburn as the only daughter, Head becomes the mother amorously alone with her genetic echo.

Hepburn’s relations to star midwives (Colette and Head) are Act One of the bio-drama; Act Two features sororal tableaux of Hepburn and her Hollywood peers. Star affect (whether rivalry or love) is private; the presence of a reader/beholder makes it public. What’s peculiar is not that Audrey and, say, Deborah Kerr were friends, but that others knew that they were friends, and that others could thus perceive the friendship, spy on it. Take this moment, and the fact that I am here to pass it on to you: at the Oscar ceremony, 25 March 1954, as Hepburn ‘was rushing to change clothes she ran into fellow nominee Deborah Kerr, just arrived – equally breathless – from her own Broadway hit, Tea and Sympathy. They wished each other luck and agreed Leslie Caron was going to win for Lili.’ They were wrong: Hepburn won for Roman Holiday. Skip ahead two years, once more at the Oscars: Hepburn, nominated again as Best Actress, this time for Sabrina, ‘lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (who should have lost to Judy Garland for A Star is Born)’. Contemplate the star intertextuality, the ricocheting gazes of envy and admiration, between Hepburn, Caron, Kerr, Kelly and Garland. Caron confesses that she and Hepburn felt ‘sibling recognition’ whenever they met. Sibling recognition among stars is so intense, and so dizzying to me as I try to describe it, that I must, for clarity’s sake, experimentally isolate two relationships (Liz/Audrey and Julie/Audrey), in order not to die in the crossfire of star glances.

Elizabeth Taylor herself wanted the part of Eliza Doolittle: reportedly, she said, ‘Get me My Fair Lady,’ to then-husband Eddie Fisher and agent Kurt Frings. I wonder if Liz knew that Audrey had turned down the part of Cleopatra in 1959. Audrey later said: ‘Oh come on, I’m not a movie star. Liz Taylor is a movie star.’ For a movie star, that’s a surreal disclaimer, though it allows us to imagine Audrey looking up to Liz. When Liz and Audrey accidentally met at an Academy Awards bash hosted by Swifty Lazar, the two stars embraced, and then ‘Audrey pointed to one of Elizabeth’s enormous jewels and asked: “Kenny Lane?” “No, Richard Burton,” replied Taylor, and both stars screamed with laughter.’ It blows my mind – I don’t know a more proper way to say it – to imagine Hepburn pointing to Taylor’s jewels, as if the two were simply women at a party, not symbolic figures cutting through cocktail chatter with the laser-sharp laughter of bacchantes. It also blows my mind to imagine that someone non-stellar (the journalist Dominick Dunne) was privy to this exchange. The moment I want to isolate, as if it were a ‘Kenny Lane’ faux bauble, is Audrey looking at Liz’s jewels, meanwhile possibly thinking: ‘Liz likes her jewels, and I like Liz, and I want to say something nice to her about them.’ Trying to describe these star intersections reduces me to bathos and inanity, but I remain committed to discovering a discourse that may liberate the potential energy compacted in such asides as ‘Kenny Lane?’

My Fair Lady was a wind tunnel of star identity blur. Julie Andrews deserved to play Eliza Doolittle, and why couldn’t a technology or aesthetics have been invented so that both stars could impersonate the guttersnipe in the same movie? (Andrews so haunts Hepburn’s portrayal that it’s as if the rivals were simultaneously present in the Cukor film.) Julie had created the part in London and New York; because her original-cast album of the score sold 32 million copies, there were potentially 32 million ‘aggrieved friends of Julie Andrews’ to resent Hepburn’s theft. (Fascinating fact: Rock Hudson was considered for the role of Henry Higgins in the movie. Contemplate another virtual cast: Doris Day and Katharine Hepburn were considered for the leads as lesbian and crypto-lesbian in the 1961 film version of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, parts that eventually went to Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Merle Oberon, too, haunts Audrey, for Merle played Audrey’s future part in These Three, the 1936 film version of the Hellman play, and Hepburn eventually became the lover of Oberon’s widower, Rob Wolders. You can see how sticky, intricate and historic are the veins of connection between fellow Hollywood players.) Julie got her revenge when she won the 1965 Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins, her first movie role (Warner Brothers had refused her the part of Eliza because she’d never – until Poppins – performed in a film); Audrey wasn’t even nominated for her work in My Fair Lady, an omission prompting Julie to say sympathetically to the press: ‘I think Audrey should have been nominated. I’m very sorry she wasn’t.’ Hepburn couldn’t sing: her songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon, who’d also ghosted for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, and for Natalie Wood in West Side Story. If Marni Nixon’s voice dominates Hepburn’s impersonation, Hepburn was only imperfectly aware of the haunting, or tried to repress it: when Larry King in 1991 asked her who’d done the singing in My Fair Lady, she said: ‘I’ve forgotten the name, a lovely girl.’ In the same interview she confessed: ‘I did think the part of Eliza was right for me, but it was Julie Andrews’s, so I had sort of an aching heart about it.’ Identities cross, compete, combine. Marni Nixon remembers: ‘It’s funny. Alan Jay Lerner said in his biography that I dubbed Gigi, which I didn’t. It was Betty Wand.’ Do you see how stars change places, a fair lady mise-en-abîme stretching from Betty Wand to Colette? This star intertextuality is something that readers and viewers can absorb and ponder as if it were an architectural feature of our own hearts. The extra-filmic My Fair Lady drama culminated at the 1965 Oscars, at which Julie Andrews won Best Actress: Hepburn, standing in for Patricia Neal (who’d suffered a stroke), received ‘a warm “consolation” reception’ when she stepped out ‘radiantly’ – in ‘gorgeous Givenchy gown’ – to present the Best Actor award, but forgot to mention that she was onstage as substitute for bedridden Neal. As Neal recalls,

I had been told that Audrey Hepburn would bestow the honour in my place and I couldn’t wait to hear all the nice things she said about me ... But suddenly she was handing Rex Harrison his award, and she hadn’t said a thing about me. It had to be a mistake. I pounded on the table with my good hand. ‘God! God! Me! Not me!’... She was a fantastic woman, really. But I was so angry that she didn’t say: ‘I’m here in her place.’ I couldn’t say the words. I could only stick out my tongue.

Once-mute Neal articulates the starry compulsion to body-swap: I’m here in her place. A star is beautiful not only in herself but in her status as substitute for other stars, including ourselves. It is the custom of tabloids pithily to acknowledge the queer interchangeability of stars: consider such headlines as JULIE ANDREWS CHOSEN, AUDREY HEPBURN OMITTED; and AUDREY SNUBS AILING STAR.

As Audrey edged toward retirement, she suffered substitution; she watched from the sidelines, without sorrow, as other stars took her place. Because she wanted to end her film career, she responded senza rancor to her obsolescence. By the late Sixties, after her second marriage, to the Italian psychiatrist (and playboy) Andrea Dotti, she said: ‘Now Mia Farrow will get my parts, and she’s very welcome to most of them.’ Note the varied stars who abut Hepburn, in the years of her fade-out. Jeanne Moreau wrote a part for Hepburn – in Lumière – but when she refused it, Moreau took it for herself. At least Moreau and Hepburn occupy the same echelon. Hepburn’s role in the sleazy film, Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline, however, had already been turned down by the likes of Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton; another part that Hepburn rejected eventually went to Carol Burnett. On Bloodline, Variety commented: ‘It’s a shock to see Hepburn playing a role that even Raquel Welch would have the good sense to turn down.’ By accepting or turning down a role (and then seeing it pass to a cinematic sister), the star sinks into relation with sibling luminaries: these moments of giving the role to Mia Farrow or stealing the role from Julie Andrews comprise Hepburn’s Hitchcockian inner gallery of hauntings, a montage of dream-sister portraits. By the Eighties, her favourite contemporary actresses were Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Cher. Hepburn told the Wichita Eagle that she liked ‘anything with Michelle Pfeiffer in it. I like to watch movies in my bed – that’s the best place!’ Colette wrote in bed; Hepburn watched TV in bed to see (with wistfulness or love?) her sloppy inheritors. I linger on the rumour of that glance: sleepy Hepburn admiring another actress on the TV screen. Her companion Rob Wolders remembers that, while travelling for Unicef in Turkey, ‘one night we turned on the television, and there was My Fair Lady. I had never seen it and was looking forward to it. But it was in Turkish. The combination of Audrey speaking in Turkish and Marni Nixon singing was too much. I had to turn it off.’ (Why hadn’t he already seen My Fair Lady?) Audrey in bed, watching herself: such star self-inspection fascinates me. Once, in real life, I asked Vanessa Redgrave what she felt like when she watched herself on screen. She said that she tried to be objective about herself, and that an actor grows accustomed to self-scrutiny. Her response didn’t resolve my curiosity. I wanted to feel for myself the temperature of her self-regard.

Reading biographies allows me to indulge my curiosity about star introspection. Usually, in reading such a chronicle, I feast on the star’s cattiness, but Paris’s book reveals no unkindness on his subject’s part. Instead, he inspires us to revere and pity her. She didn’t consider herself beautiful; her father abandoned her, and she never recovered from the loss; her mother was cold and critical. Hepburn spent her last years working, as Unicef spokesperson, to help starving children. On her deathbed, her last words to her son, Luca, were: ‘I’m sorry, but I’m ready to go.’ When I finished this biography, I wanted to remain silent, to respect Hepburn’s restraint by restraining myself, acquiescing to the demands of strangers, and giving to charity. On the last page, Paris suggests that the reader may wish to write to the Audrey Hepburn Hollywood for Children Fund or the Audrey Hepburn Memorial Fund for Unicef, and he supplies the addresses. At the end the book, and the life, gesture towards action, away from the conceptualism and claustrophobia, however holy, of star consciousness.

Two final lists, to prove how suggestive and numerous are the co-ordinates of a star’s mapped world. Among the people thanked in Barry Paris’s acknowledgments are the beautifully named Christine Sixma van Heemsta, Yvonne Quarles van Ufford, Arabella Ungaro, Countess Lorean Gaetani-Lovatelli and Camilla Pecci-Blunt McGrath. Some women in whose company Audrey’s second husband Andrea Dotti was spotted by journalists (Paris calls the list a ‘Whitman’s Sampler’ of Dotti’s possible infidelities): Lupua Yerni, Countess Coppotelli Latini, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Marinella Giordana and Countess Iliana Coritelli Lovatelli. These names are condensed droplets of Audrey Hepburn’s noun-rich nebbia. If moviegoing disperses this mist, I’ll stay home and read biographies instead.

As I finish this review, I am saddened to hear the news of the death of Princess Diana. I can’t help but reflect that her transformation from shy anonymity to adored ubiquity was a trajectory which Hepburn, in her film roles, had occasion to rehearse: that of Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face and My Fair Lady. I imagine that Diana might have been familiar with Hepburn’s movies and might have been influenced by the example of her ascetic poise. Whether or not Diana admired Audrey, the two were star sisters. Each looked lovely in a tiara. One prized in Diana that Hepburn-like air of absolute naturalness combined with the appropriate air of artifice, just enough patina to keep one conscious of the great divide between ordinary consumers of images and those stars who become, willingly or unwillingly, tesserae in a dissonant, collective composition.