By Chris Hughes
The international superstar, style icon and humanitarian, Audrey Hepburn, earned the adulation and affection of millions the world over. Despite her professional success the actress always however carried with her the heartbreak she suffered as a result of an episode in her childhood that led to a dramatic rendezvous in Dublin nearly thirty years later.
The future movie legend was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in Brussels in 1929. Her mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch aristocrat. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, a British subject born in Bohemia, Austria-Hungary worked for a loan company. Her early years were secure and privileged but things changed suddenly in 1935 when Joseph abandoned the family. Audrey later admitted that this was the most traumatic event of her life.
She said: “My parent’s divorce was the first big blow I had as a child. I worshipped my father and missed him terribly from the day he disappeared. Having my father cut off from me when I was only six was desperately awful. If I could just have seen him regularly, I would have felt he loved me. But as it was, I always envied other people’s fathers. I came home in tears because they had a daddy.”
The reason for Joseph’s departure is open to speculation but Audrey’s son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, believes he simply left to escape the strong-willed Ella. Joseph subsequently moved to London where he was living prior to the advent of the Second World War by which time he was known as Joseph Victor Anthony Hepburn-Ruston.
Hepburn was the surname of his maternal grandmother’s mother and he understood it to be of social significance. It may also have been the case that he was seeking to emphasise his status as a British subject, the name being of English origin.
When Audrey was sent to boarding school in England she saw her father occasionally. Upon the British declaration of war on Germany, Joseph took Audrey out of school and put her on a plane to Holland, believing mistakenly it would be neutral territory. He was subsequently arrested in London owing to his previous affiliations with fascism and interned on the Isle of Man where he remained for the duration of the war. Audrey heard nothing from Joseph once the war ended.
She was unaware that he was living in Dublin, having travelled to Ireland to begin a new life following his release from internment. There, he met and married Fidelma Walshe who was more than thirty years his junior. As Joseph was rebuilding his life after the war, Audrey was beginning her ascent to stardom. Having studied ballet in Amsterdam, she moved to London when she was awarded a scholarship with Ballet Rambert. She decided to focus on acting as a profession when they advised her that her height and delicate constitution, caused by malnutrition sustained in wartime, rendered a career in the ballet impractical.
After minor roles in movies under the name Audrey Hepburn, she appeared as a leading lady in the box office smash, Roman Holiday, winning an Oscar for her performance. She went on to star in other hits such as Sabrina, My Fair Lady and the film with which she is probably most associated – Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Although appreciative of her immense popularity with cinemagoers, Audrey still felt there was a void in her life caused by her father’s absence from it. Aware of her sadness and its source, Mel Ferrer, who she married in 1954, managed to track Joseph down with the help of the Red Cross.
A meeting was arranged to take place at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin in 1964. It was not the occasion she had hoped for. When Joseph saw Audrey, he made no move towards her. She took the initiative, stepping forward to hug him. She soon realised that the man she had pined for as a child was distant and emotionally detached.
Ferrer left the two of them together making polite conversation and when he returned to collect Audrey he found her waiting in the foyer alone. All she said was: “We can go home now”, going on to inform Ferrer that she didn’t need to see her father again.
Despite her disappointment, Audrey supported her father financially for the rest of his life and regularly wrote warmly to him and Fidelma. The next time she saw him was when he visited her at her home in Switzerland. His grandson, Sean, remembers him as somewhat stern. When Audrey learned that he was gravely ill in 1980, she travelled to Dublin to be at his side but once again, was unable to connect on any deep level with him.
The remote Joseph did though tell Audrey’s then-partner, Robert Wolders, but sadly not Audrey herself, that he was proud of her and regretted not being more of a father. Joseph passed away at Baggot Street Hospital, Dublin, shortly after his daughter’s visit. His body lies in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Audrey did not attend his funeral, fearing a media circus. In any event, for her, the vain hope of a meaningful relationship with a loving father died on the day of that disillusioning reunion in Dublin in 1964.