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What is This Thing Called Audrey?

Yesterday was Audrey Hepburn’s 81st birthday.

I’ve spent the past year and half thinking about Audrey, trying to figure out why and how this gawky, awkward introvert could go from actress to star to international icon in the space of a few short months. Was it pure luck and timing? Was it sheer force of will? Or was it something else, something bigger?

When Roman Holiday was released in 1953, designer/photographer Cecil Beaton was first to lay a finger on it. He wrote,

She had, if you like, her prototypes in France – Damia, Edith Piaf, or Juliet Greco. But it took the rubble of Belgium, an English accent, and an American success to launch the striking personality that best exemplifies our new Zeitgeist.

Nobody ever looked like her before World War II: it is doubtful if anybody ever did, unless it be those wild children of the French Revolution who stride in the foreground of romantic canvases. Yet we recognize the rightness of this appearance in relation to our historical needs. And the proof is that thousands of imitations have appeared. The woods are full of emaciated young ladies with rat-nibbled hair and moon-pale faces.

Well put. But who exactly is responsible for “the rightness of this appearance”? For beyond being simply Audrey Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn was “Audrey Hepburn,” a synthetic amalgamation of looks, style, behavior, marketing, media, and the characters she played. Like everything else in Hollywood – like Marilyn Monroe and Singin’ in the Rain – she was a construction, fortified by the gifted men and women of Paramount, the writers, directors, cameramen, production executives, public relations people, and (quite memorably) costume designers. One designer in particular.

Edith Head.

Outside of the stars, Ms. Head was arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood. By 1953, she had been nominated for the Oscar eight times and had won five. (And the category had only been approved in 1949.) Even still, they said she wasn’t a great designer, at least not like Givenchy or any of the great Parisian couturiers. Maybe she wasn’t, but as the confessor to the biggest stars in Hollywood, Edith Head had all she needed. She didn’t just hold their measurements, she held their secrets.

And she had her favorites. Grace Kelly: to Edith, she was what a woman should look like. But lanky, breastless, big-eyed Audrey Hepburn looked nothing like Grace Kelly. Nor did she resemble Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, or any of the other feminine ideals Edith had known so well. Audrey was something else entirely.

But what was that something else? And how did the events of October 2, 1960, the first day the cameras turned on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, change the course of Audrey’s life, and the lives of young women across America, forever? It took a whole book to figure out why, and I haven’t thought of Holly Golightly, Truman Capote, Edith Head, or Audrey in quite the same way since.

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