March is National Women’s History Month. When we think of Audrey Hepburn several different associations come to mind. Naturally, film fans fondly remember her as a talented actress whose career achievements earned her recognition from the members of the prestigious American Film Institute as their selection as the third greatest female screen legend of all time. She was nominated for an Academy Award or Oscar five times and won once. She also won an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and a Grammy Award. While those awards indicate her creative or performing talents, her average box office gross was 23 million dollars per film which clearly indicates her commercial appeal as well. On the other hand even people who do not care for films probably recall Audrey as a fashion icon that immortalized the little black dress, popularized the kitten heel, and was selected for induction into the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame. Even her much celebrated updo from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was recently named as the most influential hairstyle ever by the Hairdresser’s Council. While these well deserved accolades are impressive it is another aspect of her life that qualifies her as one the women of achievement being celebrated during March. It is Hepburn’s selfless humanitarian work that deserves equal recognition.
Audrey Hepburn always contributed to charities during her career; however, it was only after retiring from the performing world that she deliberately sought a way “to do something worthwhile and give back a little of her good fortune.” She found a higher purpose through work with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICHEF). She decided that the work the organization conducted around the globe to battle hunger and disease was also her own personal mission in life. She had greatly benefitted from relief provided by the United Nations following the end of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. During that terrible time of war, Audrey often witnessed Nazi atrocities and suffered from malnutrition that permanently damaged her health. She developed a strong empathy for the suffering of others and particularly felt motivated to help children facing starvation.
As a UNICHEF Goodwill Ambassador she initially used the allure associated with her popular image to draw attention to the charitable cause and to create media awareness of the exact plight she and the group were battling. She correctly realized that while the Western press often turned a blind eye to the suffering of Third World peoples, they could not resist the interest her star power brought to the work being done in such areas. She was adamant in her insistence that “there was no Third World, there was only one world!” In 1988 the actress visited Ethiopia where she learned that sectional strife had resulted in badly needed supplies being kept out of an area in which orphans were starving. She realized that in spite of the attention given to the more prosperous parts of the world, the largest part of humanity was in dire need of basic essentials. This early mission was the start of a crusade that she continued until weeks before her own death. Audrey travelled through Turkey, South America, Central America, the Sudan, Vietnam, and Somalia. We often read about the need for humanitarian relief in the Sudan and Somalia today. The world at large is now aware of the tragedies experienced by the people in those war torn regions; however, when Audrey made her visits to those areas in an effort to provide immunization and food for the starving and the ill, little attention had ever been given to the situation.
Her fame led the media to follow her and it was because of her crusade to fight starvation that the popular press first gave any consideration to what was occurring in the neglected area. President Bush honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and she was posthumously awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Audrey Hepburn is still beloved as an actress and style icon but she was equally remarkable for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of the children of the world. There was much more to her than just the most famous little black dress in the world!