Audrey Hepburn’s legacy as the world’s most celebrated woman has stretched long beyond her lifetime. Her fragile beauty and innocent demeanor were her movie star trademarks. But, behind that delicate persona was a fierce woman who survived World War Two’s Nazi occupation as a child in Holland, and endured a difficult childhood with a father who abandoned her at age eleven. Hepburn wasn’t simply plucked from obscurity when she became a star. She was a self-made woman, who methodically built her career as an untouchable icon in one of the most competitive industries in the world.
These days, when watching films from the Hollywood golden age, stars sometimes appear one dimensional and frozen in time. But Hepburn is a planet in her own orbit. Well ahead of her time, she jumps off the screen in a way that feels as fresh and modern now as the year the film was made.
The iconic image of Hepburn in a black Givenchy dress, holding a pastry and coffee, while peering through the window of Tiffany’s has remained the symbol of elegance. Look around you today and women are still imitating her oversized sunglasses and ballet flats. There’s no question that her beloved brand lives on. That being said, though Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady are discussed as cultural classics, Hepburn doesn’t always get the credit she deserves as a serious actor, or for her role as the visionary behind such a rare career. However, one Hollywood director saw right through her quiet fragility.
“Very alert, very smart, very talented, very ambitious,” was William Wyler’s assessment after her screen test for the film, Roman Holiday. He immediately cast her in the lead role. Soon after in 1954, she was the first actress in history to win a Golden Globe, an Academy Award and a BAFTA for a single performance.
There have been many books written about her style, beauty and grace, but her drive, ambition and work ethic rarely get a mention. By the time Hepburn had endured Nazi occupation, and an unloving family life at young age, instead of allowing these traumas to make her bitter, she chose compassion towards others. Then, she channeled her pain into a phenomenal career.
In the documentary Audrey, film critic Molly Haskell noted, “She’s discussed as a fashion icon, but that’s a very narrow definition of what she is, because she exceeds that. She’s not like other stars. You felt she had freedom.”
There’s so much more we can learn from Hepburn than how to look chic for a dinner party. She’s a true example of how to incorporate strength and focus when the chips are down. Being the first actress to be paid $1 million at a time when women couldn’t open a bank account without their husbands present, she played on her shrewd business sense and intuition of what people would respond to. Here are the timeless lessons Hepburn has taught us for success in any industry.
The Loudest Isn’t the Strongest
Hepburn was a quiet introvert by nature, and didn’t like conflict, but she was no pushover. She chose her battles wisely, and stood up for what was right. Speaking to the Guardian, her son, Sean Ferrer explained, “She needed that strength to survive in the world of Hollywood where you have to fight for everything you believe in.”
During the filming of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn attended a meeting with the studio head.
“I’ll tell you one thing, that bloody Moon River song’s got to go,” he said, referring to the melancholy tune Hepburn performs midway through the film.
The usually composed Hepburn instantly jumped out of her chair, and replied, “Over my dead body!”
The song stayed, and it went on to become one of the most important moments in the film.
“She knew that song had legs and she knew what she’d invested into the performance,” explained Ferrer.
On some level, Hepburn understood better than many producers what the audience would respond to. Sometimes the seemingly most authoritative person in the room may seem like the obvious one to give direction, but you can’t ignore your own intuition. It can be tough if you’re the newbie, or have a quiet nature, but you may be tuned into an important piece of the puzzle that others are overlooking. When something doesn’t feel right, speak up.
Keep an Eye on the (Financial) Details
Hepburn never had a “laissez-faire” attitude with her finances.She owned her own home, and firmly monitored her accounts. Though she had an agent and accountant, she still knew all the ins and outs of her contracts. When she received the then astounding $1 million for My Fair Lady, Hepburn even had her agent arrange for seven annual payments of $142,957 to help her reduce her tax liability.
According to the book What Would Audrey Do?, author Pamela Keogh notes that when she shot her first and only commercial for Japanese wig brand, Varie in 1971, Hepburn immediately invested those earnings in annuities for her sons, Sean and Luca. The contract also stipulated the ads wouldn’t be shown outside of Japan. (You can’t find them on YouTube either).
Hepburn understood the importance of being proactive, and taking the time to understand her own finances. She did her own research and didn’t defer to the “experts” for all the answers. Even on her first starring role in Roman Holiday, she kept an itemized expense report which she presented to astonished producers at the end of filming.
Taking the initiative to learn the foundations of retirement savings, how to invest, and creating a solid monthly budget makes life significantly easier down the road. This newfound sense of autonomy can create more confidence in your business decisions, and provide that same inner calm Hepburn seemed to radiate.
Find Your Sweet Spot
When Hepburn first came to Hollywood, she knew she was different than the other pin up girls of the day. In a time when hourglass figures and blonde hair were the standard, she offered something entirely different with her swan-like frame and Parisian style. Instead of becoming self-conscious about it, she used it as a strength to create her own brand and fill a hole that was missing in the film market. This paid off in spades. Her authentic image caught on with both men and women. The guys wanted to marry her, and the girls wanted to look like her.
Unapologetically being yourself can solve so many problems. Looking at what’s missing in your industry and asking yourself what unique abilities you have to bring to the table can open up great opportunities. Examine your strengths and challenge any fears of being different or standing out. Look at what’s missing in your market, company or boardroom, and provide your own unique solution.
Throughout her life, Hepburn always dug deep to find her “why” for taking on a job or project. She took the role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s because playing the eccentric extrovert was, as she put it, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Naturally, it was the defining role of her career. It also led her to become a full time Unicef Ambassador during the last five years of her life, as she never forgot the hunger pangs or suffering she witnessed during World War Two.
Strongly considering the genuine reasons for the things we devote our precious time to will serve as an anchor to keep us on that authentic path when things get rough, and bring a new level of richness to our endeavors.
Whether or not you appreciate her little black dresses, Audrey Hepburn serves as an example for all of us. She may have played the ingénue, but underneath it all, she was the truest of alpha women.
Ferrer is in awe of his mother to this day. “She was a lioness. She was not handed this. She’s the iron fist in the velvet glove.”