Forget "diamond in the rough": When a 22-year-old unknown dancer and dabbling actress flitted before the camera’s lens, screen-testing for the great director William Wyler in 1951, she seemed already a shining and singular jewel. Tall yet elfin, elegant but approachable, determined behind an effortless aura, Audrey Hepburn had a way of charming the photographers, writers, stage producers, and filmmakers who encountered her to the point of mild confusion. "I can't say at the moment whether or not we will use Miss Hepburn in 'Roman Holiday,'" wrote Wyler to the British colleague who’d overseen her screen test — producers had reportedly been thinking of Elizabeth Taylor as his star — "but if we don't, you may be sure it will not be because of anything in the test — which is as good as any I've seen in a long time."
Audrey, of course, did win that role. And for the next few years after her casting in "Roman Holiday," as an undercover princess who takes a break from royal boredom with a dashing reporter (Gregory Peck), the course of her life accelerated faster than that Vespa speeding down la strada.
The pictures here — nearly all of them rarely seen and recently unearthed outtakes from a few of the countless shoots starring Hepburn — represent a five-year whirlwind in the actress' early career, a period in which she won an Academy Award and a Tony within days of each other, romanced Humphrey Bogart and William Holden on the big screen, married for the first time, and partnered with the French designer who'd help make her an icon of simple, classic style. So much was still ahead for her — "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Funny Face," humanitarian missions, and more real-life love — and yet these pictures glow with the sparks that started it all. On what would have been Hepburn's 89th birthday, a look back.
(Above: Audrey in Italy circa 1955, riding high beside her then-husband and "War and Peace" costar Mel Ferrer in the timeless style for which she'd become known — black turtleneck, slim pants, and chic, pulled-back hair.)
SPLENDOR IN THE GRASSJust five years earlier, Audrey was one of many chorus girls appearing in a West End production called “Sauce Piquante.” But soon enough, editors — including those of the U.K. publication Picture Post — picked her as the standout. “She sings — in snatches — and dances her way, in some very pretty scenes, conspicuously well through the show. So well that at least two daily paper critics noticed her, and one of the ‘Sundays’ predicted a certain future for her. And we ourselves asked her to come out to Kew [Gardens].” For the May 1950 feature, titled “We Take a Girl to Look for Spring,” Picture Post photographer Bert Hardy captured Audrey frolicking not only in that beloved London locale, but also in Richmond Park. Eighteen months later, a photo from Hardy’s day with Hepburn landed the magazine’s cover, after Audrey had been cast in “Gigi” on Broadway. Here, a rare and likely never-seen outtake from that original shoot.
Bert Hardy/Picture PostNO DELICATE FLOWEROn the verge of just 21 years old, Audrey had already experienced much in her life. Before she moved to London to pursue her career, she and her family lived under German occupation in the Netherlands (an uncle and a cousin were shot and killed, while one brother labored in a camp and another went into hiding). She performed silent ballets to raise money for the Dutch resistance and, according to biographer Ian Woodward, suffered anemia, respiratory ailments, and other afflictions tied to malnutrition. Pictured: a portrait of the rising star, originally published in the May 1950 Picture Post feature but rarely seen since then.
Bert Hardy/Picture PostTAKING A MOMENTAudrey refuels between clicks of Bert Hardy’s camera in this picture, likely never before seen. On this day, wrote Picture Post, “she needed taking out — of herself, as much as anything else.” At the time, her rehearsals for “Sauce Piquante” gobbled up most of her days, and she was “at it from ten in the morning until one or two o’clock after midnight.”
Bert Hardy/Picture PostHELLO, FIDOYears later, the icon would have another canine companion: her Yorkshire terrier, Mr. Famous, once photographed riding in the basket of her bicycle on a studio lot during the making of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Bert Hardy/Picture PostDIFFERENT, SPECIALAfter an outfit switch, Audrey gets into action in Richmond Park. This Audrey Hepburn, Hardy recalled in his 1985 biography, “seemed a bit different from the usual type of starlet…. I took some pictures of her in the park and down by the river. I liked her, and we sat around and talked a bit before setting off home.” Suddenly Hardy realized he’d dropped his lighter somewhere. “I turned round and drove all the way back to the park, where we retraced our steps and crawled about in the long grass looking for it. The girl eventually found my lighter. She was very nice about it, and we all drove home.”
Bert Hardy/Picture PostFETCHINGNot long after this 1950 shoot, the aging French novelist Colette, on the lookout for the right actress to star in the stage adaptation of her novel “Gigi,” spotted Hepburn on a gig in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby. With just a glance from her wheelchair, the author “knew at once she had found what she had been looking for,” LIFE magazine reported of that lightning-bolt moment. (Though LIFE deemed the play middling, Audrey’s appeal was undeniable — “by turns pert, naive, passionate” — and by 1954 she had won a Tony, for her role in “Ondine.”)
Bert Hardy/Picture PostTURNING IT UP...Hardy snapped a series of Hepburn and the dog leaping over logs in the wood; here, a rare outtake.
Bert Hardy/Picture Post...AND BRINGING IT DOWN
Bert Hardy/Picture Post'DEFIES DEFINITION'“Nobody ever quite sums her up because Audrey defies definition,” declared LIFE magazine in 1953. “She is both waif and woman of the world. She is disarmingly friendly and strangely aloof. She is all queen (her grandfather was a Dutch baron) and all commoner — you can imagine her lifting a lorgnette at a ball or milking a cow in a barn.”
Bert Hardy/Picture PostWHO'S A HANDSOME BOY?Her future love interests would be lookers, too: Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, and George Peppard, to name just a few.
Bert Hardy/Picture PostENCHANTED FORESTAudrey plays peekaboo through the foliage. In most of Hardy’s charming shots, the young actress achieves an air of mischief by always glancing away from the camera, but in this rare frame, she takes it straight on.
Bert Hardy/Picture PostGAME, GAMINEAnother rare Bert Hardy picture of the actress reveling in springtime.
Bert Hardy/Picture PostAN IDEAL MODELShe didn’t start off wanting to be an actress — Audrey trained as a ballerina, but was told she was too tall to have real success. Still, it’s clear that the grace and elegance of that classical form lingered in her movements.
Archive PhotosFROM LONDON TO NEW YORKFast-forward three years: Audrey Hepburn had starred on Broadway and in “Roman Holiday,” collecting top prizes for both. She’d also fallen in love with the man she’d soon marry, her “Ondine” costar Mel Ferrer. But this rarely seen color photo from 1953 shows her in the midst of her next big collaboration: working with director Billy Wilder on “Sabrina” (opposite costars Humphrey Bogart and William Holden). The role signaled Hepburn couldn’t be pigeonholed — she could play not only a privileged princess, but now too the quick, humble daughter of the help. Beyond what it did for her acting career, “Sabrina” cemented Hepburn in the American imagination as an icon of style: On screen, her character spends a transformative period in stylish Paris; behind the scenes of the film, Hepburn met designer Hubert de Givenchy, who created Sabrina’s iconic white ball gown and greatly impressed the actress who wore it. Their relationship, designer to muse, “was a kind of marriage,” Givenchy told the Telegraph in 2015, the year he released a book of sketches called “To Audrey With Love.”
Archive PhotosA MOMENT'S RESPITEBut getting swept in the whirlwind could be exhausting. In this rarely seen photo dated circa 1955, Hepburn is captured during a brief break at Bürgenstock, the Swiss Alps resort where she married Mel Ferrer the previous year. Reflecting on the pace of her life following her astonishing Oscar win, Hepburn told Larry King in 1991: “Obviously, when something like that happens to you, there’s all the paraphernalia that comes with it, everybody wanting to interview you, and I was working, you know, burning the candle at both ends. One day I suddenly said to myself, ‘It’s all great but I’m not getting any sleep, and I can’t prepare my work.’... I was so new to it all, I said yes to everything.”
Archive PhotosA CIGARETTE AND A CUP OF TEAA rare color image from Hepburn’s break in Switzerland. Is she wearing her favorite color? Though she’s often quoted as having said “I believe in pink,” the words attributed to her on Pinterest and posters available for sale on Etsy, the provenance of the quote is unknown.
Archive PhotosTHE NEWLYWEDSIn another rare shot recently discovered in FOTO’s vast archives, Ferrer helps his wife get camera-ready. She was 24 and a first-time bride (in Givenchy, naturally) at the time of their wedding. He was 37, with three failed marriages behind him (including two to the same woman).
Archive PhotosTHERE'S THAT SMILEIn a letter to her old elocution coach Sir Felix Aylmer, Hepburn couldn’t contain the joy of her marriage. “How dearly we would love you to be with us on our wedding,” she wrote in the letter, which was up for auction along with other missives related to Audrey in 2016. “We will have the car take you up to our mountain peak, Friday, for a gathering in our chalet of our nearest and dearest!... Saturday will be the wedding… We want to keep it a dark secret in order to have it without the ‘press.’” Here: Audrey looking bright in another rarely seen picture taken at Bürgenstock.
Archive PhotosSLIM PANTS, ESPADRILLESDespite the pixieish features and modish style on display in this rarely seen photo, Hepburn around this time was preparing to star (alongside Ferrer) in an adaptation of the weightiest of 19th-century Russian tomes: Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Archive PhotosWORLD-FAMOUSNear the entrance of a Swiss lift offering tourists views of the Alps and Lake Lucerne, Audrey signs autographs for a group of young girls in this rare shot recently unearthed in FOTO’s archives. Even toward the end of her life, she found the fascination she sparked in others to be baffling. “It’s still something that is totally unbelievable to me,” she told Larry King in 1991. “I know it’s there — I’ve got to believe it because I see the reactions, I see the photographs, the critics and the people who recognize me on the street… [but] I’m still totally puzzled…. It’s very hard to say this without sounding soppy, [but] how is it it’s really me they want to talk to?” She went on to confess she never believed herself a good actress: “I just have to deal with my own feelings instinctively, and I’ve had great directors and partners.”
Archive PhotosTOP OF THE WORLDHepburn and Ferrer get a peek at the thrilling view in this rarely seen gem discovered by FOTO’s editors. She had roots all over the world — born in Belgium, raised in the Netherlands, trained in England, and made a star, of course, across Europe and all the far-flung outposts of Hollywood, USA — but Hepburn would choose a small, modest cemetery outside her home in a Swiss village as her final resting place.
Archive PhotosHIGHS AND LOWSDespite the playfulness on display in this rarely seen photo, the couple endured some difficult times behind the scenes. Hepburn suffered a miscarriage in March 1955, and another one four years later after falling off a horse during the filming of “The Unforgiven.” The couple finally welcomed a son, Sean, in 1960.
Archive PhotosNO JACKET REQUIREDShe also saw nothing very remarkable about her “attainable” style: “Women can look like Audrey Hepburn by flipping out their hair, buying the large glasses, and the little sleeveless dresses,” she told Barbara Walters in 1989. In this rare and recently unearthed picture, she models one such frock, a white cotton number perfect for hitting the links with Mel on a warmer, sunnier day at the Bürgenstock resort in 1954.
Archive PhotosLOVE IN THE AFTERNOONAnother rare picture of Audrey and Mel, taken on their golfing day. Three years later, Audrey would memorably wear a different white sleeveless dress in a gorgeous, grassy European setting — singing “S’Wonderful” opposite Fred Astaire in the finale of 1957’s “Funny Face.”
Archive PhotosTEE FOR TWOTheir son Sean Ferrer, observed a Telegraph reporter who once met him, grew up to be surprisingly burly, nearly unrecognizable as Audrey’s son. “The Ferrer genes are awfully strong,” Sean told him, “but if you saw the rest of my mother’s family, you wouldn’t be so surprised… And she was the princess of the family — more graceful and agile than the rest… But don’t forget, she wasn’t exactly small. She was 5ft 10in and looked more delicate on screen than she was in person. She had the kind of figure that’s naturally elegant. She used to say to me: ‘I’m fake thin. Don’t tell anyone.’”
Archive PhotosACTION!Also key to Audrey’s success, LIFE magazine observed in a cover story in 1953, the year before this rarely seen picture was taken, was her extreme determination. In fact, Mark Shaw, the photographer on that shoot, “dubbed her ‘The Monster’ because of her rigid devotion to work. He relies on the judgment of a tough group, the hard-boiled band of ‘grips,’ ‘juicers,’ ‘gaffes,’ ‘best boys’ and other studio technicians who have seen the bright young stars come up and go right back down. ‘They said, ‘We can tell when someone has got it.’”
Archive PhotosIN THE ROUGH“I knew how difficult it had to be to be married to a world celebrity, recognized everywhere, usually second-billed on the screen and in real life,” Audrey once said of her first husband, according to author Melissa Hellstern in her 2004 book “How to Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Guide to Life.” “How Mel suffered!” (In this rare and recently discovered image, though, Mel seems at ease on the green.)
Archive PhotosBUT FOR NOW, HIS FAIR LADYAudrey and Mel’s marriage ended in divorce in 1968, about 14 years after this rarely seen image from Switzerland was captured. By the time of their split she had mostly given up her film career in order to focus on being a mother to Sean, and in early 1970, remarried to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, she welcomed another son, Luca. “I don’t regret for one minute making the decision to quit movies for my children,” she told Barbara Walters in 1989. “If I’d done it the other way around, I’d be miserable today. I’d have had movies to look back on, and not have known my boys.” Besides her own children, Hepburn also cared for the children of the world in her role as a UNICEF Ambassador. Her humanitarian work led to a touching full-circle moment in 1993, the year of her death at age 63: She was awarded a posthumous Oscar named after Jean Hersholt, the film and radio actor who presented starry-eyed Audrey with her Best Actress statue in 1954.
Archive PhotosPARIS IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEAOther published images of Audrey taken at Paris’ famed Lido nightclub show her schmoozing with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But here, in this rare picture recently brought to light by FOTO’s editors, Audrey takes a moment to herself at a table inside the hotspot. The City of Light, of course, was of special significance to the actress, as it served as a backdrop in several of her best-loved and most enduring films (including “Sabrina,” “Funny Face,” “Love in the Afternoon,” “Charade,” “Paris When It Sizzles,” and “How to Steal a Million”).
Archive PhotosONE LAST LOOK"Good, bad, and medium? I think I've been particularly lucky," Hepburn told Barbara Walters in 1989, assessing the sum of her life.