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Audrey Hepburn

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Ever a Goddess. Ever a Dream.

by Rick Marin

The New York Times, April 25, 1999

You can never be too rich or too thin or too Audrey.

Hepburn, that is. She was an object of fascination -- some might call it obsession -- well before her death six years ago. And now, her status as style goddess is spreading from the fashion world to the real one with new urgency. On May 4 she would have turned 70. But as far as her rejuvenated image is concerned, it's ingénue all over again.

A shoe designed for her in 1957 by Salvatore Ferragamo has been reissued for sale at Ferragamo stores next month. A deejay known as Dimitri From Paris sampled bits of dialogue from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for a CD, a version of which is being used in a Volvo commercial. And next season, ABC will broadcast a television movie chronicling Hepburn's early life and times and starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.

These are only the most obvious manifestations of a Hepburn "moment." The subtler, almost subliminal, ways she is in the air may be more telling evidence of her pervasive influence. The fashion world that always revered her now seems to want to revive her. The impulse is visible in Marc Jacobs's flats, Michael Kors's cigarette-cut pants and the little black shift dresses in the Audrey-theme windows now on display at Bergdorf Goodman. (See also: bateau necklines, tiaras, Ralph Lauren's pastel sweaters and the minimalist uniforms of the Club Monaco militia.)

"Helmut Lang's basics are a very arch, modern interpretation of what her closet must have looked like," said Anne Slowey, Elle magazine's fashion news director.

But the fact that Hepburn made a look out of Capri pants and a white shirt before anyone else doesn't fully explain her magnetic pull. Jacqueline Onassis, the late Princess of Wales and Marilyn Monroe inspired similar idolatry, but few people would want to be them. Not the way many women (even a few men) seem to pattern their behavior after Holly Golightly, the loopy glamour girl Hepburn made famous in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," issued in 1961.

"She was who I wanted to be," said Kimberly Rubin, a television producer who pitched the Hepburn movie for seven years before ABC said yes. "When I was a teen-ager, I would be in circumstances where I would say, 'What would Audrey do?' "

The 20-year-old Ms. Hewitt, queen of teen-age television and movies, came more than prepared for the starring role in the ABC film, which is so far untitled. When she was 11, her mother showed her Audrey for the first time.

"Like every little girl, you wonder what you're going to grow up and be like," she said from the Montreal set of the film, now in its third week of production. "And you have these women in your life, your mom and your grandmother, and my mom was great enough to say, 'You should also be like this woman.' And she showed me 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' "

Ms. Hewitt said that since then, she has seen the movie "25 or 30 times." Hepburn, she said, is "classically what a woman should be: soft, delicate, glowing and sparkling."

"She turns heads when she walks in a room," Ms. Hewitt said. "She's playful and mysterious and cute and funny, and a little bit daring. She was strong and respected and people listened to her."

Being all those things -- and not a bombshell or a sexual predator, à la Marilyn Monroe or Madonna -- was her appeal then as it is now. Cynthia Rowley didn't become a designer because of Audrey Hepburn, but she gets her share of comparisons to her for being thin and dark-haired and for making clothes that suit both fair ladies and funny faces.

"I guess because she's sort of that nonsexy sexy," Ms. Rowley said, explaining her affinity for Hepburn. "She made that boyishness cool. I don't have the body to show a lot, either, and so I think I do clothes like that, too."

Ms. Rowley never met Hepburn. But at an awards dinner several years ago, she touched her dress -- the hem of her garment, as it were. "I just got close enough to brush by her," she said. "And that was enough."

Actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz, glamorously packaged in the pages of In Style magazine, don't seem to inspire the same level of deep identification. Fans may covet their clothes, accessories and proximity to Brad Pitt, but not with the intensely personal connection they often make with Hepburn.

The clothes and the 20-inch waistline Hepburn wrapped them around are not the sole reasons for her allure. Nor is her fandom limited to women and fashion designers. For a certain type of heterosexual male, she represents an irresistible type of woman: beautiful, high-strung, loopy, happy, sad, maddeningly inaccessible. Holly Golightly.

Among the entranced is Tad Low, a creator of "Pop-Up Video" on VH1, who seeks out his favorite Hepburn movie whenever it plays on the big screen. "Anyone who's capable of hosting a party like the one in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' is the kind of woman I would want to spend more time with," he said. "She gets away with causing a firestorm of fun."

The film may be nearly four decades old. But its antic central character again feels right enough to make the producer Robert Evans want to make a movie updating her.

Steve Garbarino, the editor in chief of Detour magazine and something of a Harry Golighty himself, said he has always been seduced by his female counterparts. He devoted several pages of his March issue to Holly wannabes -- young women who seem to exist on Champagne, cigarettes and the fervid attentions of older men.

Each of the women was asked a series of Golightlyesque questions. Favorite aliases? Last party crashed? To which Anna Miller, who works in public relations at Sonia Rykiel, replied, "Lulu Margot," and "That of a fabulous Spaniard in Marrakesh."

New York is full of these women, as Truman Capote, who created the character in his 1958 novel, knew (although he wanted Marilyn Monroe for the movie). For them, Hepburn's Holly is the ultimate role model.

Holly is not Audrey Hepburn, though the distinction tends to blur. "Roman Holiday," "Sabrina" and "My Fair Lady" were all variations on a similar fairy tale, with Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart and Rex Harrison as her Princes Charming. And her own Cinderella story, rags-to-couture, was no less romantic.

Born in Brussels, 1929. Daughter of a baroness and a businessman with Nazi leanings who took off when Audrey was 6. Suffered malnutrition in World War II. Made her way as a dancer in London after the war, then into bit parts in British movies. (Memorable first line: "Who wants a ciggy?" from "Laughter in Paradise," 1951.) Won an Oscar for "Roman Holiday" at 21. Became muse to Hubert de Givenchy. Made gamine sexy, and casual cool. Crusaded on behalf of impoverished children. Aged gracefully. Never got fat. And, as if to prove the Zen rule that nothing is perfect without some imperfection, made some bad movies ("Wait Until Dark") and unsuccessful marital choices (Mel Ferrer).

The events of her private life were always private, and they remain so, except her crusade for Unicef and Save the Children. That expression of noblesse oblige contributed increasingly to her image as a cross between Grace Kelly and Mother Teresa.

"I get the feeling with a lot of celebs they're doing charity stuff to look good, like it's a photo op," said Sally Klingenstein, 31, the executive director of her family's philanthropic foundation. "She just seemed like such a genuine person." Ms. Klingenstein saw photographs of Hepburn from the set of "Sabrina" in the March issue of Allure magazine, then found her way to the James Danziger Gallery on the Upper East Side to buy one.

The halo of her charity work notwithstanding, Hepburn is defined for many of her admirers by nothing more than her sense of style. In the classic image of her from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," her eyes are not even visible. She's wearing sunglasses.

But style means a lot. Many people spend a lifetime without any, or trying to figure out what theirs is. Hepburn seemed instinctively to know.

"She was modern enough and courageous enough and smart enough to figure what style worked best for her and her physique, and she had the discipline and style to stick with it," said Pamela Clarke Keogh, the author of a new book called "Audrey Style" (HarperCollins, $40).

In the 50's, Hepburn's upscale beatnik look was as radical as Brando's leather jacket in "The Wild One": the black turtleneck, pedal pushers and chest as flat as her ballet slippers.

Those flats, popularized by her, have become ubiquitous again. "It's what she felt comfortable with," said Mossimo Ferragamo, whose father shod Hepburn's size 10 feet for most of her adult life. "And she felt comfortable with herself." Why not heels? "She didn't want to appear to be anything other than the size that she was," Mr. Ferragamo said.

Jimmy Newcomber, a fashion historian at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said: "Even though she was European, she typified the new American woman after the war. Suburbia gave American women a reason to dress more casually, and she looked well in casual clothes."

Look at "The Dick Van Dyke Show" on Nick at Nite: Laura Petrie is Audrey Hepburn in New Rochelle.

Over the years, Hepburn wore many looks, from Givenchy ball gowns to Ralph Lauren sportif, even Guess jeans on trips to Africa in her 60's. But her genius was that people think of her as having just one look. This consistency is what seems so desirable today.

"In the 90's we regurgitated every trend on the nanosecond," said Ms. Slowey, of Elle. "The schizophrenic nature of that has led women to say, 'Wait a minute -- I just want beautiful staples.' And Audrey really edited it down to the basics. If you study her, and mimic her, you'll find that she really gave a lot of thought to it. They're all crisp, clean silhouettes. You always feel timeless."

For inspiration, the men's wear designer Jeffrey Banks keeps a nine-foot-tall Hepburn photograph from a Macy's window display in his apartment. "Fashion is either very creative or very boring," he said. "So you're looking for something to hold on to that is easily recognizable, and there's Audrey." Always stylish, always skinny. This last factor cannot be underestimated in Hepburn's hagiography.

Audrey Wilder, wife of the director Billy Wilder, is quoted in Ms. Keogh's book as saying that when Hepburn first arrived in Hollywood, "everyone immediately wanted to lose 10 pounds." The only waist in her league was Scarlett O'Hara's. The teen-age Hepburn was even tinier, recalled Polly Mellen, creative director at Allure, who first met her at a Richard Avedon photo session. "What bothered me a little bit about her was how thin she was," Ms. Mellen said. "You could see her veins."

Tom Wolfe's coinage "social X-ray" comes to mind, except that Hepburn never looked that unhealthy. Thin as she was, suspicions that she had an eating disorder had little basis in reality.

"That was her metabolism," Ms. Keogh said. And her dancer's discipline. "Her training was in ballet, and she wanted to keep that line." But she was known for her healthy appetite, a trait alluded to in "Charade" (1963), which opens with Hepburn wolfing a meal at an Alpine ski lodge, to Cary Grant's shock and dismay.

Naturally, he falls for her anyway.

© 1999 The New York Times Company

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