Audrey Hepburn's love is for children

November 06, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- When Audrey Hepburn woke up Sunday, groggy from anesthesia after undergoing surgery in Los Angeles, her thoughts were in Miami, according to a close friend.

If not for the sudden discovery of a cancerous tumor on her colon, Ms. Hepburn would have been in Miami this weekend. She was to be inducted into the Miami Children's Hospital's International Pediatrics Hall of Fame, which honors physicians and others for their contributions to the health and happiness of children.

"When she came out of the anesthesia, she said, 'How long do I have? I have to put on my makeup. How long do I have before the Children's Hospital?' " said Ann Lyons, organizer of the hospital's annual fund-raiser. Ms. Lyons spoke to Robert Wolders, Ms. Hepburn's longtime companion, Monday night.

The induction will go on as scheduled, Ms. Lyons said. Mr. Wolders was contacting Ms. Hepburn's Hollywood friends, including Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, to see if any could stand in for the Academy Award-winning actress at the last minute, she said.

Doctors described Ms. Hepburn's tumor as a "low-grade malignancy" and said they were confident it had not affected other organs. She was expected to be released within a week.

"She's just such a special lady," Ms. Lyons said Tuesday. "She's been so concerned about mankind and children. She was a perfect inductee for us, and she'll still be inducted." The ceremony will be hosted by Larry King.

In a telephone interview from her Switzerland home last month, Ms. Hepburn recounted the myriad images she's seen in her 63 years, sweeping the spectrum of good and bad, sweet and bitter.

The good was very good: She thrived in the dazzle of 1950s and '60s Hollywood, starring in such movies as "My Fair Lady" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." She won an Oscar in 1953 for "Roman Holiday."

And the bad has been very bad: As a child, Ms. Hepburn lived through the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. And since 1987 she has toured such troubled spots as famine-torn Ethiopia and the shelled ruins in Yugoslavia as a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) goodwill ambassador, monitoring the plight of children.

Those experiences were frightening, life-altering. But until last month, she said, she had never seen anything like the horror she found in the East African nation of Somalia. Her crusade to publicize the plight of the country, ravaged by civil war and drought, was driven by the empty stares of Somalia's children, she said.

Memories of Somalia made it hard for her to sleep at night, even when she was thousands of miles away, nestled in the familiar comfort of her Swiss orchard farmhouse. The children follow her in her dreams, she said.

"I've spoken to so many journalists and people who've been everywhere who say it's the worst ever. The magnitude of it is so incredible. You've had 20 years of very strict repression with the regime they've had and four years of civil war and two years of simply no water," she said in impassioned cadences.

When UNICEF asked her to go to Somalia this year, Ms. Hepburn couldn't say no. For two years, she had tried, in vain, she said, to call attention to the emergency. Children are still dying daily by the hundreds there, she said.

She told of relief workers' grim routine: The first morning task was to load trucks with the bodies of children who didn't live through the night. The next was to separate the children who were sick from those who were merely starving. Workers had to feed children a spoonful of food at a time at long intervals dTC because they had lost all will to eat, to live, she said.

"It's the eyes that haunt you forever," Ms. Hepburn said. "That is perhaps the most devastating, when you see a child, and the stares, and they've seen too much, and they seem to have died on the inside."

One reason the world has been slow to wake up to Somalia's problems, she said, is that for many people, Africa is far removed, both geographically and culturally. Ms. Hepburn rejects that.

"It wasn't too far away for us to get our slaves there many years ago. It wasn't too far away for the colonials to enrich themselves. Today it's far away because it's another culture, and we don't know too much about it."

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