The Good Will of Audrey Hepburn Lives on



Maria Keogh sent us this exclusive interview with Sean Hepburn Ferrer,  Audrey Hepburn‘s son. Sean discusses his Irish heritage, his mother’s influence on his life, her spirituality and the changes he would like to see in the world. He also discusses his and his family’s continued work to keep Audrey’s legacy with UNICEF alive.


Gandhi once said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. It might not be the over-riding aspect, one would expect coming out of an hour interview with the son of possibly the most recognised actress in history. But that’s the overwhelming view as Sean Hepburn Ferrer relives his youth; from growing up around film sets with his mother and his later work with UNICEF, where he set up the Audrey Hepburn Society for disadvantaged children.
He’s a man driven for causes such as social equality and justice, with a deep love of his family. Perhaps that the unquestionable influence of his mother on his life. Although he spent some time with the Hollywood star on sets in his youth, it was her time spent as a mother which he felt was her greatest legacy. He was just a few months old when he was on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). But as he grew older, and with his mother in the height of her career, she put it to one side to focus on her son. The film industry could wait. Her son could not. 
“The special nature of the relationship we had was the fact that she was someone graced with simple, great choices. When she wanted to have a family she didn’t try and juggle too much at once. While I was still a young boy, I could travel to the set and be with her.
“But when I started school, within a year or so she stopped her career to become a full time mom. If there is any gift she left me with, that was most certainly it. The extraordinary opportunity to have a real relationship with her as a woman rather then an accessory to a Hollywood career which happens a lot of Hollywood families.”
Talk of family briefly has the conversation drift to his Irish heritage, and a longing to visit Ireland. His father’s (Mel Ferrer) mother, Mary Matilda Irene O’Donohue was an Irish American and while he has spent time in his Spanish ancestral home, connecting with Ireland is an ambition of his. 
“I would love to visit Ireland I have been hoping to come with my family. The biggest attraction for me would be to rent one of those float boats and go down the Shannon. Obviously my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were both of Irish heritageMy grandmother was O’Donohue, so I have a double Irish connection in addition to name being Sean. 
“I have always cultivated the Spanish genes we have in the family. We spent a lot of time there and my children are all trying to speak Spanish. So, I want to come to Ireland and to connect to that what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’  which is a wonderful description which doesn’t exist in any other language. It’s properly understood by the Irish. Connecting to Ireland would help the children to connect and understand themselves more as when you go back to a country with strong roots something special happens.”
His mother’s simplicity came across in the smallest details. She adopted a survivalist approach when he was having trouble with a girlfriend saying: “Well, make sure that your grades are doing good in school otherwise you will have two problems instead of one”. The two-time Academy Award winner left a mental frame with her son, a way of thinking that every parent wants to impart on their children. She wanted to help him to think for himself, a muscle he would develop and then take on for the rest of his life. He contributes the need or the lack thereof of the “paper thin inspiration” which accompanies modern living to her, but her legacy went beyond her son and lives on today.
“She was very influential throughout her career and to all generations due to a combination at the time of a fresh new look, sex appeal which revolutionised that era’s regular classical Italian mama. It was also down to her keen fashion sense. She had a clear view of style and fashion and this kept her current throughout the ages. 
“She found a look and stayed with it throughout her life. She was also recognised for the work she did as the third ambassador for UNICEF ‘ the twig people feel in love with on screen turned out to be what they expected – a beautiful oak tree’. With a pause ‘There is something real and honest about Audrey that caught the audiences eye and kept their attention’.
That still lives on today, with his mother’s face and voice attached to adverts, magazines and posters. He’s become attached to certain films for personal reasons. There is her debut musical film Funny Face (1957) was “terribly important” to her because she had always wanted to become a dancer, but had to give that up. Breakfast at Tiffany’s’and My Fair Lady are important to him for different reasons. One has aged well and the other hasn’t.
“I’ve that particular affection for those pieces and affection turns to loss of perspective as people say: ‘It must be so difficult for you to see your mother in films or up on a posters’ but I’ve learned to live with it even though she is no longer here. It becomes more difficult when I see her in ‘Always’ and that’s because she looks like the mother I  lost and like the person who died in my arms. So, I can’t call that an affection because it’s probably one of the rare times I have to connect with at a deeper level yet it’s a valuable piece of film historically for me because of that.”
Audrey was a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, and was working in Somalia, caring for children in the war-ravaged country when she became ill. She got sick and what was thought to be a virus, picked up in Africa turned out to be cancer. It was inoperable. She died a few weeks later. Her name lives on in the memorial fund at UNICEF and the Audrey Hepburn children fund, both of which Sean created. After 20 years he stepped down as chairman and member of the board of the Audrey Hepburn children fund in favor of his brother and became the chair of the Audrey Hepburn society at UNICEF. It is what Sean describes as a ‘big donors club’ – essential to UNICEF which is entirely funded from voluntary donations — two thirds from government funding and a third from the private sector.
“There isn’t a line item budget in the UN budget for UNICEF. They were told after the war; yes you can stay but you have to raise your own funds. That’s why they have theses national NGO’s. There is basically only one UNICEF in New York and Geneva and all the others are NGO’s, licenced by UNICEF to fundraise. While they share a brand, they are technically doing two different things.
“So we are on our way to raising $100m, which is a drop in the bucket of the annual budget of $4 billion. It is itself about urgently a billion short considering all the devastation that has happened on a regular basis; Ebola, drought, tsunamis or earthquakes. Consider that in some cases organizations like UNICEF are keeping entire countries afloat. Yet if we all do our little piece it helps back to the thought where everyone takes responsibility. If everyone donated a dollar to our cause we could start to eradicate issues at a much greater rate than diluting our efforts.”
You can make that difference and donate to the UNICEF Appeal

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