Audrey Hepburn – An Intimate Collection – Bob Willoughby Photographer exhibition
During March 2002 I went to see a collection of more than 180 photographs of actress Audrey Hepburn – many of them previously unseen – by Bob Willoughby, her long-standing friend, at Proud Camden Moss gallery, 10 Greenland Street, London NW1.
Her full name was Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston!!! She was what is now called an ‘icon’. “In a cruel and imperfect world, she was living proof that God could still create perfection”, a critic once declared, and she was destined for gay cult status after starring in the 1963 film version of the musical My Fair Lady.
Los Angeles born Willoughby first shot Hepburn in 1953 when she was virtually unknown and he was a veteran photographer of Hollywood’s golden era. From then began a four-decade friendship with the actress who quickly became his favourite subject. “She shook my hand like a princess, and dazzled me with smile that God designed to melt mortal men’s hearts”, says Willoughby of their first meeting.
Shortly afterwards Hepburn’s career took off into the stratosphere following her US debut in Roman Holiday in which she starred with Gregory Peck – the pair of them sightseeing in Rome on a scooter will live in our lives forever.
Apart from photos of her film career the collection also includes intimate pictures of Audrey and her first husband, director Mel Ferrer, celebrating their son Sean’s first birthday. It also includes the famous photo of her transformed into an aristocratic beauty descending the staircase ready to leave for the ball My Fair Lady.
Willoughby says she had a almost ethereal aura about her – like a magical forest sprite – who before your eyes could turn herself into a princess; an almost spiritual quality of beauty which came from inside. One English writer who had met all the crowned heads of Europe said she was the only true royal he had ever met. It was this uncanny regal presence that made her ideal for the lead in My Fair Lady.
She loved being a mother and that is why she gave up films when she married her second husband, Dr Andrea Dotti, and had a second son, Luca, with him. Perhaps it was her upbringing that made Audrey so remarkable: born in Belgium to an English father and Dutch baroness mother, Audrey – after her parents divorce – spent much of her girlhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, surviving for a time on flour made from tulip bulbs. Audrey said: “Your soul is nourished by all your experiences, it gives you baggage for the future, ammunition if you like”.
She also had a great affinity with animals: “all the animals on the set seemed to feel at peace when they were close to her. I attributed it to Audrey’s inner calm. They seemed to be literally in touch with her. It is something I have never seen before”. Willoughly talking about Audrey’s 1959 movie Green Mansions which featured animals including a little fawn deer called Ip that would nestle up to her and lie down next to her when she was taking a nap and fall asleep with her. There is a charming photograph in the exhibition of Audrey holding Ip.
She was also - in her later years – an ambassador for Unicef going amongst the starving Somali people giving of her compassion and endeavouring to bring to people’s notice their plight. It was during that trip that she began to suffer the terrible stomach pains that were later diagnosed as cancer, the disease that finally took her life. She had never been a particularly strong person and to rest for two months in preparation to make My Fair Lady.
Willoughly still misses the actress he saw blossom from a modest young girl into the queen of moviegoers’ hearts: “Audrey never changed, even when she became famous. She was always the gracious lady. She had this remarkable way of looking into your eyes, which made you think “this is really a good friend of mine”.
The photos will feature in the forthcoming coffee-table book ‘Audrey’ to be published in conjunction with the exhibition.