Audrey Hepburn knew who her father was
but in a profound way she did not.
In May, 1935, when she was six, her father left her and her mother in
England. While her parents were formally divorced in l938, she did not see him again until briefly, in 1939, when she was
ten: after England had declared war on Germany, her father put her on a plane for Holland; she would not see him again for
more than 20 years. She and her mother spent World War II in the Netherlands in dire circumstances; like others in the Nazi
occupied country, they often went hungry. That her mother was a baroness did not help.
Nearly half a century
later, Hepburn, who was Oscar nominated for her performances in the movies "Sabrina," "The Nun's Story,"
"Breakfast at Tiffany's," and "Wait Until Dark," and won the Oscar for "Roman Holiday," would
say her father’s abandonment was “the most traumatic event" in her life. Her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, said
the actress, who was on six covers of Life Magazine, was “disappointed twice in marriage, in part because she couldn’t
mend the hurt of her father having left her, a hurt that had broken her heart so early in life.”
there was “a great deal of pain involved.” She said when her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, disappeared
when she was a little girl, “My mother explained very sweetly that he’d, that he’d gone away on a trip and
she didn’t think he was coming back. He might but he might not. So I kept writing letters every day, which she never
mailed…she may have mailed one or two. But she also didn’t know where he was…I learned to live with that.
I was terribly jealous of other little girls who did have adoring Daddys and all of that…We learn to live with so much
finally. And I did have a marvelous family and my grandfather…”
Then after the war, her husband Mel Ferrer, Sean’s
father and an actor and director, felt her father’s absence was “a huge unresolved issue in her life” and
helped find Ruston through the Red Cross in Ireland, where he was from.
But it took the actress many more years before she
could bring herself to write to him, or arrange a meeting. “…by then,” Hepburn told talk show host Phil
Donahue, “I was – I can’t say, adult, but – mature enough to suffer from resentment, you know, and:
why did he go away, and how could he have, you know. He didn’t love me obviously – that’s what I thought.
Then you get that much older that you begin to understand that going way need not have anything to do with not loving you.
You start understanding about adults not getting on and so forth. And so then I wrote and a week later I was in Dublin and
I saw him for the first time in – what was it, uh – 25 years.”
Donahue asked if the meeting, which was initially
in the lobby of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, was uncomfortable. The actress said “My mother did a wonderful thing.
And this I would like to say to lots of parents. She never, ever spoke against him. She only made me proud of him She told
me what he could do. How beautifully he rode. What a horse lover he was. How many languages he spoke. The things he had done.
How good looking he was. I was terribly proud of my father.”
son, Sean, says his grandmother “had spent the war spewing poison about him, about his disappearance, about his lack
of support of any type." He later explained the discrepancy between what his mother said and what he knew: "...the
truth is somewhere between both statements. Yes, it's true that my grand-mother bitched about the fact that he had left them
high and dry, yet she never actually criticized the man or should I say the father -- i.e. the man abandoned you...he doesn't
love you, etc...I guess, you know better than anyone, it's never Black or White and one's own perspective is always the measure
of its understanding." Ferrer said: "She [his mother] had to see for herself [when she met her father in Dublin],
and when she did, indeed there was nothing there.” Ferrer says his grandfather was “an emotional invalid,”
that he was “frozen,” “an emotionally disconnected man.”
Though Ruston was described in many Audrey Hepburn
biographies as having been a banker, the actress said he had never been able to hold down a job. Her son, Sean, said she supported
him for the rest of his life. She saw her father twice after the Dublin reunion.
He died in Ireland at the age of 90 knowing that
his daughter loved him. “And I knew he loved me, “ Hepburn told Donahue. “It’s always better late
The actress who enchanted millions with her charisma on and off screen for more than
40 years during the 21st Century became an ambassador for Unicef during the last five years of her life. She raised
awareness and money for impoverished children she visited in Ethiopia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Central America, Mexico and the
Sudan, amongst other places.
“You face life,” she told Donahue three
years before she died of cancer at 63 in l993. “Although I knew about this side of life, I hadn’t seen it with
my own eyes. Africa and Bangladesh and Latin America. So much suffering and so much poverty. But you deal with it by doing
something about it.”
“the most traumatic event in my life” – From Glenn
Plaskin’s story, “Audrey Hepburn,” in US Magazine, October 17, l988.
in marriage…” – From “Audrey Hepburn An Elegant Spirit,” by Sean Hepburn Ferrer, Atria Books,
New York, 2003.
“My mother explained very sweetly…” – From talk show host Phil Donahue’s
interview with her in 1990.
“a huge unresolved issue…” – From Sean Ferrer’s memoir
about his mother.
"...the truth is somewhere between both statements..." -- From Sean Ferrer's
internet message to Danielle Flood, September 7, 2010.
Some facts were confirmed in Barry Paris’ biography, “Audrey
Hepburn,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1996.