UNICEF ambassador Hepburn speaks out on hunger in Africa

June 05, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- As stately, sleek and elegant as the columns that surround her in the Capitol, she stands in front of the podium facing a throng of cameras, reporters and Hill aides who've come to "have a look at the old girl," as the old girl herself puts it.

So let's have a look: navy blue suit and white blouse with blue stockings and sensible blue pumps. No earrings, no nail polish, no necklace or brooch; hair pinned back simply, only the slightest smidge of makeup.

No frills. No need for them. This old girl, after all, is Audrey Hepburn.

The legendary film star puts on a pair of glasses, says good morning sweetly and reads from a hand-written statement about the famine in Ethiopia, which she calls "potentially the greatest human catastrophe in living memory."

As UNICEF's Goodwill Ambassador, in Washington on an "emergency trip" because of the grave situation in Africa, she is impassioned and lyrical as she addresses the crowd, some of them members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Are we going to stand by and watch this human agony?" she asks.

At 62, she is still as graceful as the child who trained as a ballet dancer in Europe, as plainly beautiful as the young woman who started out as a model, and as poised and enchanting as the actress who nabbed an Academy Award for her first big movie, "Roman Holiday."

So the last thing one expects to hear from this fairest of ladies -who also testified before a Senate subcommittee on foreign operations yesterday -- is that the spokesman role doesn't fit quite as well as that of Eliza Doolittle or Holly Golightly.

"I'm not cut out for this kind of thing," says the ever-modest Ms. Hepburn of the fund-raising aspect of her work for UNICEF. "I'm not used to speaking in public. I'm not used to writing speeches. I was writing this morning at 6 o'clock after I had some breakfast, and worrying about all of this. The stress has been full time.

"But this is also my choice."

The actress, who has made her home in Switzerland for the last 36 years, was named UNICEF's Goodwill Ambassador two years ago, after a trip to Ethiopia where she saw children squeezing a handful of mud to get a few drops of water to drink and mothers digging ditches to bury their children.

"It's an opportunity that was given to me," she says of the ambassadorship. "There was no way I wouldn't have accepted it. If somebody said to you, 'Go down the road and you can save a child,' wouldn't you do it? It's as simple as that."

But not quite. The twice-divorced mother of two grown sons admits, "It's a trauma every time" -- every time she visits a drought-stricken or war-torn nation, every time she reads statistics about children dying of starvation.

"It just kills you," says the Belgium-born film star whose longtime companion, former actor Robert Wolders, accompanies her in her travels. "You deal with it by doing something about it. You really fall apart when you feel helpless."

There is also a connection with UNICEF that goes back to Ms. Hepburn's childhood. Growing up during World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland, she suffered severe malnutrition and received life-saving food, medicine and clothing from the United Nations relief agency that was the forerunner to UNICEF.

She supposes her background affects her present work on some level: "We are, finally, a product of our childhood, adolescence and our youth." But she doesn't believe her own wartime experience has made her any more caring than the next person.

"I suppose I saw a lot more at an earlier age than most. It just happens to have been part of my childhood -- fear, repression, hunger and cold."

In many ways, the repression of her childhood stands in stark contrast to the grandeur of her Hollywood life, playing pixies and princesses opposite such stars as Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison. Although she ended her film career in 1965 to raise her first child, she describes movie-making as "an activity which I adored and had marvelous fun doing," but which she doesn't miss.

"I like doing -- and I'm maybe doing more today than I ever have," says the actress, who has traveled to such countries as Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Sudan and Bangladesh on behalf of UNICEF. (Back home, she unwinds by walking her three Jack Russell terriers.)

In fact, she says, her acting days can't compare with her work today, work that is far more stressful than any scene from any of her 26 movies, but "has to have priority. . . . I was extremely fulfilled having a good time doing pictures, but this has to be -- emotionally -- more important."

Which is not to say she couldn't be lured back to the screen, as she has been four times since her "retirement," most recently to do Steven Spielberg's 1989 film "Always."

"But it would have to be short," she jokes, explaining that she intends to devote all her time and energy to relief work. "Good and short. Short and good. And a great director. I'm not asking for much."

She knows her film career gives her the cachet, the ability to attract crowds and attention for UNICEF. Even though more than a quarter-century separates her from such classics as "Roman Holiday," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Funny Face" and "My Fair Lady," she sees "there's still enough curiosity" from the public about her.

And obviously, still enough admiration. Just last April, Ms. Hepburn was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, XTC which put together a collage of her movie clips for a gala tribute.

"I think for the first time in my life I was able to enjoy myself looking at myself," says the leading lady who has always preferred watching other people's movies. "I felt detached. I guess I knew it was too late to do it over."

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