Audrey Hepburn wept bitterly when William Holden revealed that he could not give her children.
She was Hollywood royalty, a real-life baroness and fine-boned beauty who exuded elegance and grace in Roman Holiday, Breakfast At Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady.
But Hepburn was prepared to throw it all away and be branded a homewrecker if Oscar-winner Holden would leave his wife and marry her.
“Audrey was the love of my life,” confessed Holden, whose own films included Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17. “I fell in love. She wanted to get married.”
The secret affair, which proved the romantic highlight of both stars’ lives, has been detailed for the first time in new book Audrey And Bill.
After a whirlwind affair on the set of romantic comedy Sabrina Fair in 1954, Holden agreed to leave his wife and children and marry her.
But Hepburn wanted children and when Holden revealed that he had undergone a vasectomy, the actress ended their romance.
“They were everything to each other, crazy in love, and if Bill had been able to have children they would have married in an instant,” says author Edward Z Epstein in an exclusive interview.
“But her desire for children was overwhelming and though it broke her heart to leave Bill she knew she wanted children of her own.”
Yet the love affair was to haunt both stars for the rest of their lives and Audrey’s desperate desire for children became a consuming obsession.
It plunged her into two unsuitable marriages and almost drove her to suicide after a string of devastating miscarriages, the book claims.
Despite her squeaky-clean image Hepburn enjoyed several extramarital affairs and questioned her acting ability.
“I never thought I was a good actress,” she lamented. “I’m no Laurence Olivier, no virtuoso talent.”
But it was Hepburn’s love affair with Holden that smouldered throughout her life.
Hepburn was the Belgian born, British-raised, Dutch baroness’s daughter and Holden was the son of a teacher and a chemist and first teamed up with an ageing Humphrey Bogart for the love triangle movie Sabrina Fair.
Hepburn found Holden “the most handsome man I’ve ever met” and they were soon inseparable meeting secretly in his dressing room, at picnics and private dinners.
She called him her “guardian angel”. But at 44 Holden was 11 years her senior, married with three children and a legendary drinking problem.
Holden proposed marriage and promised to divorce his wife, while Hepburn desperately craved children.
“She told him she wanted three, maybe four, and would retire from the screen to raise them,” says Epstein.
Yet disaster loomed with Holden’s belated confession. “He told her that the one thing, the only thing they could not have together was children,” says Epstein.
“She stood looking at him like a hurt, bewildered child as he explained that he’d had a vasectomy years earlier. She ended the affair on the spot.”
But Holden refused to give up on Hepburn.
Desperate to win her back he hatched a perverse plan to make her jealous by having a series of public affairs.
“I set out around the world with the idea of [having] a woman in every country I visited,” he said. “My plan succeeded.”
But when he returned to Hollywood and told Hepburn of his sexploits she sighed, “Oh, Bill” as though Holden were a naughty boy.
Their romance had turned the set of Sabrina Fair into a battlefield with both of them loathed by Humphrey Bogart, the book reveals.
Bogart dismissed Holden as a mere “matinee idol”. He ridiculed Hepburn’s English accent and said that her acting was fine “if you like to do 36 takes”.
Bogart invited cast and crew to his dressing room for drinks – except for Audrey and Holden, calling them “bs”. When Bogart had his first close-up Hepburn blew smoke in his face.
Bogart responded by spitting his words, spraying saliva across her face. After Bogart accused Holden of being drunk on set the brawling co-stars had to be pulled apart by the crew.
Hepburn, desperate to start a family, married actor Mel Ferrer on the rebound, sending heartbroken Holden on a world-class drinking spree.
But Audrey suffered a stillbirth and a miscarriage after falling from a horse before finally having her first son Sean in 1960.
Learning of her husband’s frequent infidelities, in revenge she had an affair with screenwriter Robert Anderson, ironically while filming his movie The Nun’s Story.
But in 1961 Hepburn and Holden were reunited on screen for Paris When It Sizzles and Holden had to confront his demons.
“I realised that I had to face Audrey and I had to deal with my drinking,” he said. “I didn’t think I could handle either situation.”
Holden failed dismally. There were days he was so drunk that filming had to shut down. But their romantic scenes inflamed Holden’s passion.
One night he climbed a tree leading to her dressing room window, kissing her when she leaned out to see him.
“Bill, stop that!” she exclaimed, sending Holden on another bender.
Driven by her desire for another child Hepburn had an affair with a Spanish prince and again miscarried.
She finally divorced Ferrer and six weeks later married aristocratic Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti.
Within six months she was pregnant and spent nine months on bed rest while hearing of her husband’s numerous infidelities.
Hepburn delivered son Luca in 1970 at the age of 40 and happily stayed home nursing, rejecting the lead in Nicholas And Alexandra and the mother’s role in The Exorcist.
But as Dotti’s affairs became more flagrant, a distraught Hepburn fi led for divorce.
“She even confided that at one point she had considered suicide,” says Epstein.
After a decade’s absence from Hollywood she returned for the 1979 movie Bloodline, enjoying a fl ing with married co-star Ben Gazzara.
“Audrey was unhappy in her marriage and hurting. I was unhappy in my marriage and hurting, and we gave solace to each other and we fell in love,” he said.
But when filming ended Gazzara returned to his wife and Hepburn foundered until finding love again with Dutch actor Robert Wolders.
Yet she never remarried.
A reunion with Holden, whose final love was actress Stefanie Powers, was never to be.
In 1981 he slipped drunkenly on a bedroom rug, gashed his head on a table and bled to death.
It was four days before his body was discovered. “Audrey was stunned,” says Epstein.
Too old to have more children, Hepburn channelled her passion into Unicef, becoming a global ambassador for the children’s charity until her death from cancer in 1993.
She was 63, the same age as Holden when he died. “Audrey and Bill had one of Hollywood’s greatest secret love affairs,” adds Epstein.
“Had they married it would have been a love for the ages.”
To pre-order Audrey And Bill by Edward Z Epstein (published by Running Press on April 30, £16.99), call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562310.
Alternatively send a cheque or postal order to: Audrey And Bill Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.com UK delivery is free.