The Times We Lived In: Audrey Hepburn on a mission in Dublin

Published: October 1st, 1988; Photograph by Matt Kavanagh

Visualise Audrey Hepburn in your mind's eye, and what do you see? The young actress who lit up the screen in Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Roman Holiday, Charade and so many other hit movies, more than likely: young, radiant, perfect cheekbones, boyish figure. ("Gamine" is the word usually applied at this point.)

The Hepburn in our photo is a more mature version. The hair is still swept back. The cheekbones are still sculpted. And if the eyes are those of a nearly 60-year-old woman, she’s still lighting up the page, throwing a shape on – or playing a duet – with an armchair in the Burlington Hotel.

Clever Matt Kavanagh, to spot the potential of this unremarkable piece of hotel furniture. Between them, he and Hepburn have turned it into a sort of Stradivarius of seats.

Unicef appeal

Hepburn was in town to launch a fundraising appeal for Unicef. Her first field mission as an ambassador for the charity had already taken her to Ethiopia, Venezuela and Ecuador; she would shortly visit Sudan, where a UN photographer said of her that “children would just come up to hold her hand, touch her – she was like the Pied Piper”.


Our photograph captures this charisma. Hepburn perches on the chair, giving the camera “that look” so familiar from her movies. Her businesslike outfit, though, suggests she’s a woman on a mission.

And she was. She didn’t just breeze in and out of the Unicef ambassador’s role, but took it very seriously, partly because of her own childhood in Holland during the second World War. It was a bout of malnutrition which gave her that “boyish figure”. Three miscarriages also led her to cherish, not just her own two children but children everywhere who suffered from the violence and chaos of war.

In September 1992, four months before she died, Hepburn went to Somalia. Calling it “apocalyptic”, she said, “I walked into a nightmare. I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like this – so much worse than I could possibly have imagined. I wasn’t prepared for this.”

Hepburn died on January 20th, 1993 of a rare form of abdominal cancer at her home in Switzerland, aged 63.

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