Floating Audrey Mirror Box
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The extraordinary life of Audrey Hepburn is bracketed –and profoundly defned – by traumatic childhood events. She seemed English but was really more Dutch – born May 4, 1929, in Brussels, to Baroness Ella van Heemstra of the Netherlands and Anglo-Irish businessman Joseph Hepburn-Ruston. Aristocratic Ella was a devoted but problematic mother, whose ancient but hard-pressed noble family was forced to sell their estate to the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm after World War I. Ella’s father – Audrey's grandfather – had been governor of Surinam, a territory on the north coast of South America which the Netherlands got from England in exchange for New York. (It seemed like a good deal at the time.) Ella married oil executive Quarles van Uford and moved to his Shell company’s location in Batavia (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies, where two sons – Audrey’s halfbrothers – were born. But Ella soon divorced Quarles and married Hepburn-Ruston there in 1926.
Thinking she was a lot wealthier than she was, he moved them back to Europe, where Audrey was born, with much chaotic travel back and forth between Belgium and London, where Audrey was sent to boarding school at age 5. Her father’s pretensions of becoming a banker were overshadowed by his toxic political involvement with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. Ruston and Ella toured Germany with the infamous Mitford sisters, met and praised Adolf Hitler, before he suddenly walked out on his wife and 6-year-old daughter. It was a shattering event from which Audrey said she never recovered. Her mother’s dubious judgment in marrying such an wanker was repeated three years later when Hitler declared war on England.
On September 17, 1944, the day of the greatest airborne invasion in history, 15-year-old Audrey Hepburn was exhilarated by the prospect of liberation and incredulous that it was taking place in her own provincial town. A vast number of Allied paratroopers had been dropped behind enemy lines, charged with taking five towns and bridges over the Rhine, thence to join up with land forces for a quick advance into Germany and on to Berlin, ending the war in a single lightning stroke. The Germans had been in retreat since D-Day, but British Gen. Montgomery disbelieved reports of two powerful Panzer divisions reorganizing just outside Arnhem. Four of the five bridges were taken. But the fifth, in Arnhem, was “A Bridge Too Far” and the scene there was a disastrous massacre.
Arnhem’s actual liberation, six months later, brought desperately needed food, medicine and clothing from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), forerunner of UNICEF. She wouldn’t forget it. But for now, like millions in the rubble of Holland, she was an emaciated adolescent suffering from jaundice, anemia, severe edema and colitis. After half a dozen years under the Nazis, she weighed 90 pounds.