With Roman Holiday, which earned her the 1953 best-actress Oscar, Audrey Hepburn became not just a major Hollywood star but also a living icon for the Eternal City. Alongside intimate photographs from his new book, Audrey in Rome, Luca Dotti recalls his mother’s three-decade love affair with the Italian capital, while Laura Jacobs examines what the images reveal about her style.
A short time ago, while letting me off by my doorstep in Rome, a taxi driver said to me, “I know this place. Years ago I used to bring a beautiful woman here.” That woman was my mother, Audrey Hepburn, but with the strange grace Romans can so unexpectedly display, he refrained from naming her. During the nearly 20 years in which Mother lived here, many people in Rome knew her the way that taxi driver did: as a woman who was fond of taking her children to school and of going on long walks with her dogs. Sometimes these private moments were captured when a photographer happened upon her as she stood on a side street near Campo de’ Fiori with her husband, waiting for her mother-in-law to buzz them in for Sunday lunch.
Her life wasn’t always like this—quite the opposite. My mother’s fame began with her role in Roman Holiday (1953), made only a short time after World War II, when people were still recovering from the loss and deprivation it had caused. With that film, my mother became almost a second Colosseum: an icon of the city, an icon of a different, free-and-easy Roman spirit that was symbolized by a girl who traveled the world on a Vespa. In 1955 she came to Rome again to film the colossal War and Peace at Cinecittà. When she stepped off the airplane at Ciampino Airport, she was welcomed as a foreign star (at the time mistaken for an American), but by then she was Roman by adoption.
These were the years of Rome as “Hollywood on the Tiber,” a nickname that dated back to Quo Vadis (1951), when the city was transformed into a giant film set. The major film companies sent their stars to Rome, from Montgomery Clift to Orson Welles to Anthony Perkins (photographed chatting with my mother during a flight to Taormina), from Shelley Winters to Ava Gardner. The Italians didn’t just stand there looking. With investments from producers such as Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis, Italian cinema proved itself capable of giving lessons and collecting awards, even from America’s Hollywood—La Strada (1954) and Le Notti di Cabiria (1957), both directed by Federico Fellini. Along with these giant producers came meticulous craftsmen who were inspired to create epic films; their efforts were made public by cunning press agents. The Romans experienced the real-life dream of seeing foreign stars descend from the silver screen to stroll the streets of their city, pursued by hordes of photographers eager to immortalize them.
In this environment, three years after King Vidor’s War and Peace, my mother began filming The Nun’s Story (1959) with director Fred Zinnemann. She confided to friends that she felt that this role was deeply hers—closer to the personal aspirations that would later lead her back to Africa as a UNICEF ambassador. She began to spend more time in Rome both on set and off, and her image evolved to include characteristics of the Roman spirit. This would not have been possible without the eye of costume designer Piero Tosi or the artistry of the De Rossis, the hairdresser Grazia and her husband, Alberto, a makeup artist and inventor of “the mascara look” and the “wing” eyebrows that forever framed my mother’s look. She met them on set, but they remained close friends throughout her life.
In Rome, my mother inevitably became a protagonist of the snapshots taken by roaming freelance photographers, later dubbed “paparazzi,” after Walter Santesso’s character, Paparazzo, in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Mamma was never caught off guard by them, at least not while doing anything worse than wearing a sleepy expression late at night in a club. Aided by her training in classical ballet, she naturally displayed impeccable composure on every occasion. Even so, she can’t be given full credit for her dignified appearance. In those days, actors and photographers often developed friendships. My mother had her favorites, to whom she gave exclusive shots in exchange for flattering images. Her favorite shots were those taken by Pierluigi Praturlon. He was an omnipresent photographer of the “Hollywood on the Tiber” scene, and he was often requested to take photographs for William Wyler, King Vidor, Vittorio De Sica, and Federico Fellini. Pierluigi inspired the climactic scene in La Dolce Vita, having portrayed his friend Anita Ekberg illuminated by his car’s headlights as she waded across the Trevi Fountain at the end of an evening of clubgoing. Actresses loved even his off-set photographs, because, while his photos celebrated the diva aspect of their personalities, Pierluigi was also able to capture something deeper.
Mamma trusted him. He caught her perfectly on the terrace of the Hotel Hassler when she opened the telegram announcing her New York Film Critics Circle best-actress award for The Nun’s Story. Pierluigi became a member of the family, one among the few invited to my parents’ wedding, in Morges, Vaud, Switzerland, in 1969. In the short movie of the event filmed by my uncle Luca, Pierluigi can be seen kissing my brother, Sean, on the forehead.
Over the years, I’ve met several people who claim to have introduced my parents. It is a fact that in 1961 my mother went to the Rome premiere of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Olimpia Torlonia, my father’s best friend, but seven years passed before my mother actually met my father.
At the time of her marriage to my father and my birth, in 1970, my mother’s public life as an actress and the days of paparazzi photographs came to an end, by her choice. She slowly withdrew from the spotlight, and her priorities began to change. And Rome made it possible.
Since the beginning of the 1960s, the busy star who joked at openings with Alberto Sordi and danced with Renato Rascel had been assembling a Roman circle of friends and making a home in the city. Henry Fonda, who performed with my mother and Mel Ferrer in War and Peace, met and married an Italian, Afdera Franchetti, in Rome. The couples saw each other frequently, and through Afdera and her sister Lorian, Mamma began to live the life of a true Roman. Perhaps in part because of its indolence, Rome always protected my mother, giving her time and space.
Although relatively brief, my mother’s career was extremely intense, constructed using the discipline she had applied to her life since her childhood, a period painfully marked by World War II. At 13, she wanted to become a ballerina and began working hard toward achieving that goal. At 16, in Nazi-occupied Holland, she suffered from hunger. She survived by eating turnips and boiled tulip bulbs until the liberation, when she was saved by the newly formed United Nations.
Not even 10 years passed before she became a star. But my mother had none of the tantrums we often associate with celebrity. Throughout her life she rose at dawn, a habit formed when she had to arrive on time to a set looking perfect and knowing her lines by heart. I believe she still holds the record for magazine covers—she appeared on 650 of them. Without a doubt, this exposure meant a great deal of fame and a lot of glamour, but shooting that many magazine covers also meant she spent a total of nearly two years of her life doing only that. At a certain point, she decided she wanted to do something else. She made that decision not once but twice: first to be a full-time mother, then to be a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. During both of those times in her life, public images of my mother grew increasingly rare and finally came to an end. After her impromptu comeback in Robin and Marian (1976), directed by Richard Lester, she made few other films. She made her last appearance on-screen in the role of an angel named Hap in Always (1989), directed by Steven Spielberg.
I’ve preserved the snapshots of those private years of the 1970s in my own albums, which are not unlike those kept by many other Italian families. In those photos Mamma takes me to the park or to swimming lessons. She meets with my teachers. She takes the dogs for walks. She learns her way around the small local grocery stores, Rome’s famous pizzicagnoli. She cooks for herself and for friends, especially spaghetti al pomodoro, her favorite dish. By the time she left Rome, in the mid-1980s, I was grown.
My mother’s house in the Swiss countryside became the home base she returned to in order to rest and recharge before setting off once again for Africa, Latin America, or Asia to perform the humanitarian missions to which she dedicated the last period of her life. She sought to give other children the help she had received when she was a child; she sought to repay the good fortune she’d had. Those images are not included in Audrey in Rome, but Audrey Hepburn the star, the mother, and the UNICEF ambassador coexist happily in the person who appears in each photograph, whether public or private; she was always true to herself. A woman who loved to care for flowers, she cultivated her life with grace and dedication.
Words by Lucca Dotti, Audrey Hepburn's son
First published in Vanity Fair, May 2013 Issue
Photo credits to the owners