Celebrating Audrey Hepburn’s Humanitarianism on Her Birthday

It’s Audrey Hepburn’s birthday today (4 May 1929 – 20 January 1993). Not only was she an Academy Award winning actress who become a legend, but she was a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner for her humanitarian work around the globe. Hepburn worked with UNICEF as a Goodwill Ambassador, inspired by her grueling World War II childhood in German-occupied Arnhem.

Of her aid work with starving children, Hepburn said, “Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicisation of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanisation of politics.” If that is not a noble sentiment, I’m not sure what is.

During the German occupation, Hepburn’s uncle was executed and her brother was deported to a labor camp. Hepburn’s family hid under false names hoping to avoid the danger of having an English sounding name. Audrey never regained the weight she lost, suffering from malnutrition and anemia during the war.

Of starvation and war, Hepburn said, “I saw but one glaring truth: These are not natural disasters but man-made tragedies for which there is only one manmade solution-peace.”

Although Hepburn’s father became a Nazi sympathizer (her family were members of the British Union of Fascists) and left the family after being discovered in bed with the nanny, Hepburn found it in her heart to support him financially later in his life.

After her breakthrough in Roman Holiday, Ms Hepburn starred in Sabrina (1954), The Nun’s Story (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Charade (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Wait Until Dark (1967).

Audrey Hepburn won the Best Actress Oscar® for her performance in “Roman Holiday” at the 26th Annual Academy Awards® in 1954.

Here’s a trailer (1953):

Hepburn’s favorite poem was Unending Love by Rabindranath Tagore:

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, it’s age-old pain,
It’s ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.

You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell-
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.

Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours –
And the songs of every poet past and forever.

Hepburn reminded us of how to be beautiful, “For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”

And understood that faith is not something that divides us into camps or groups, but something that is universal, “[I have] enormous faith, but it’s not attached to any one in particular religion…. My mother was one thing, my father another. In Holland they were all Calvinists. That has no importance at all to me.”

Audrey liked to spend entire weekends by herself, in solitude to recharge. Perhaps this is just one reason she was able to live her life with compassion and grace, anchored in the old fashioned idea that she wasn’t that important.

In an age of non-stop narcissism, it’s wonderful to have a real life heroine like Audrey Hepburn to remember and aspire to. She gave us all more than she took and she never forgot the horrors of her childhood, yet somehow she still believed in miracles and still believed in peace.

Audrey Hepburn truly was the best of us, and a woman who represents for me so many reasons why women need to have a seat at the policy table. She was feminism at its most feminine, and not because of the way she looked, but rather because of her humanitarianism and her knowledge that peace is the only option for the human race. She knew that a world where children are starving is wrong. In an Audrey world, we would not put the needs of a corporation or profit over our humanity and in Audrey’s world, a woman was beautiful if she treated others well. She embodied the inherent values of feminism.

One day, we will have a world built on the best of the male and the female instead of a world where women have to be like men in order to achieve power. In that world, peace will be the goal because the alternative is so barbaric and so incomprehensibly heart-breaking that few can see it up close and remain unchanged. Audrey Hepburn never forgot, and never stopped working to right those wrongs.

Audrey Hepburn embodied humanity. On this day, I hope the world never forgets what she really stood for behind her chic little black dress and pearls. She was true beauty. Happy birthday, Audrey.

4 Replies to “Celebrating Audrey Hepburn’s Humanitarianism on Her Birthday”

  1. Yep! And it was such a treat to read about an inspiring human being, after just one look at the pic of the screaming teabagger baboon in the next article…

  2. Thank you for making so many connections in this lovely, lovely tribute to a woman who never stopped serving. Her ability to simplify and synthesize brings our current policy/political issues into clear focus.

    It calls into question, too, the language used. Somehow, now, if we wish to feed the hungry – the avowed and common goal of all organized religions – we are no longer humanitarians, but leftists. If we wish to re-elect someone who will support feeding programs, we are labeled as
    socialists. If we wish to reduce the power of corporatization – a root cause of wide-spread hunger – we are called communists.

    Thank you for succinctly reminding us that there is a language that unifies all goodness, and it was spoken by Ms. Hepburn. Indeed, Happy Birthday, Audrey.

  3. I too had never heard this side to Aubrey Hepburn. It’s never been mentioned in any setting that I’ve been exposed to… her acting skill and beauty, yes, but not the incredible gorgeousness of her soul.

    She was a true representative of the good in humanity.

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