Audrey: A real-life British lady

She may have played a Cockney flower girl turned society belle in My Fair Lady, but Dutch-born actress Audrey Hepburn first took to the stage in a Kent village, as Henry Fitzherbert and Mike Gunnill discover

We all have our favourite memory of Audrey Hepburn: larking around the Trevi Fountain with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, mangling the English language in My Fair Lady or singing in the car alongside Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina.

Few people, however, would associate the silver screen legend with the unprepossessing village of Elham in Kent. Yet this secluded English community, nine miles south of Canterbury, had a formative role in Hepburn’s early life as her first home in the United Kingdom.

Born in Brussels in 1929, the daughter of Joseph Anthony Hepburn-Ruston, an English banker, and his Dutch-born wife, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, she moved from Brussels to Elham in 1935 after her parents divorced.

Audrey and her mother, who knew Elham well from previous visits, lived there on and off until just before the Second World War, occasionally with the Baroness’s two sons from a previous marriage.

Audrey survived the Nazis… only to discover her father was a collaborator

It was the residents of Elham who bore witness to the future Holly Golightly’s debut stage performance in the village Brownie pack’s version of Humpty Dumpty.

Then called Audrey Kathleen Ruston, she lived in Orchard Cottage in Duck Street, Elham. 

Audrey attended a private school a few feet away in The Square, run by the Rigden sisters. Norah Rigden was trained to teach music and English, and became an important part of the young girl’s life, helping her to form her soon-to-be-famous English speaking voice.

She had a carefree childhood in Elham, playing with village children in a nearby old brick factory and the surrounding countryside. Locals remember a “cute young lady with a wonderful smile”, and that she was known to everyone as “little Audrey”.

Peggy Phillips, who has always lived in Elham, fondly recalls Audrey and visiting her cottage for teas in the garden. “Our gardens were next to each other and she was always calling my name.” Peggy said. “She was constantly asking questions and seemed fairly lonely, especially during the long school holidays.”

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey with her father Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, who joined fascists in London

Peggy and Audrey “starred” together in a production by Elham 1st Brownies, staged for the village fete in 1936, Humpty Dumpty was performed behind Saint Mary’s Church with the two girls as King’s Men. Peggy was a corporal and Audrey an ordinary soldier. This may have been the first production in which Audrey took part. 

In a portrait of Audrey thought to have been taken while in Kent, she is shown as a happy smiling child already developing the “elfin look” that would prove so endearing in her many Hollywood films.

On her 11th birthday on May 4, 1940, Audrey was taken to Shoreham Airport, near Brighton, and this time she was successfully reunited with her mother in Holland, then a neutral country. She was convinced that the Netherlands would be safer than Britain, a fallacy shared by many other Dutch people. Germany invaded on May 10, and Holland fell within a week.

Life for Audrey’s family in the Arnhem Oosterbeek area, like in the rest of the country, was rough and Audrey endured the cruelty and consequences of wartime food shortages, which culminated in the Hongerwinter (“hunger winter”) in 1944, a famine that affected 4.5million people and killed an estimated 18,000.

Holland was liberated on May 5, 1945. An attempt to drive out the Germans in September 1944 (Operation Market Garden, which involved an allied airborne invasion at Arnhem) ended disastrously.

Audrey suffered under the Nazis, yet ironically, her parents were members of the British Union of Fascists from the mid-1930s, with her father continuing to support the enemy through the war.

After Hepburn-Ruston divorced, he moved to London and became a supporter of Dr Arthur Tester, who told everyone he was a right-hand man to the British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley. It is thought John Buchan’s book The 39 Steps was based on him.

Dr Tester and Hepburn-Ruston also had close connections with William Joyce, Mosley’s deputy. Joyce had been teaching English at the Port Regis private school in Kent before leaving the country and was heard on German radio as Lord Haw-Haw soon after war began. 

Hepburn-Ruston appears to have been regarded well enough by the Nazis to be invited, with Mosley, to dine with Hitler in Munich. Audrey saw her father intermittently while she lived in Kent, and it is said he sometimes took her from Elham to the airport for her visits to Holland. 

He was arrested for his treachery soon after her final departure from Kent. He spent the rest of the war interned on the Isle of Man. After his release he moved to Ireland and remarried in 1950 to Fidelma Walshe, a Dubliner 30 years younger. 

In the early 1960s, the actor Mel Ferrer, Audrey’s first husband, traced Hepburn-Ruston to a small cul de sac in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

This was news to Audrey, whose mother had told her he had died several years before. She took several months to write to him but finally a meeting was arranged, in August 1964, in the foyer of Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel. 

It was 20 years since she had last seen him. They met twice more in Ireland and a few times in Switzerland, but Hepburn-Ruston was “an emotionally disconnected man” according to Ferrer.

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