Beyond the glamour: Audrey Hepburn's son opens up about her struggles in new interview

Sean Hepburn Ferrer sat down with TODAY to discuss "Little Audrey's Daydream," a children's book that tells his mother's story for a new generation.
/ Source: TODAY

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Sean Hepburn Ferrer believes that if his mother, the legendary Audrey Hepburn, were alive today, she would be using Instagram to convey her image like any millennial or Gen Zer is currently doing.

“People say to me, ‘What do you think your mother would think about this new world with Instagram?’ And I pause and I just say, ‘Well, she really was the queen of Instagram because she was more photographed than anyone else,” he told TODAY.

Portrait of actress Audrey Hepburn, mid 1950s.Getty Images

“She always used to say, ‘It's the tune, not the words.’ You can say whatever you want, it's the way you say it.’”

Born in 1929, Audrey Hepburn is revered as a fashion and film icon, ranked by the American Film Institute as the third-greatest female screen legend of all time, and inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame, which according to Vanity Fair, is "the highest honor a sartorial savant can receive."

Best known for her roles in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “My Fair Lady,” Hepburn is one of only 16 people who have achieved EGOT status, winning Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards for her artistry. In December 1992, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her charitable work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. One month later, she died of appendiceal cancer at the age of 63.

Hepburn Ferrer, the son of the Hollywood icon and actor Mel Ferrer, knows a lot about his mother’s depiction in the media, as he and his half-brother, Luca Dotti, are co-owners of Hepburn's right of publicity and their unanimous consent is needed for licensing her likeness and image. That’s something that Hepburn Ferrer spends a lot of time doing, constantly unearthing new images of his mother from artistic and creative shoots.

Audrey Hepburn modeling a Givenchy outfit for Vogue in 1963.Bert Stern / Conde Nast/Getty Images

"Sometimes I will discover a whole shoot of my mother I have never seen before. It's mind-boggling to what an extent they understood the value of image, and it comes from humility," he said. “If there's some creativity to it, then you've created a piece of history that is something we can relate to. This is who we are because that is who we were. And therefore, if we look back and that's who we were, hopefully it points us in the right direction for the future.”

"A daydream for children"

His own family history is something he is telling in a creative and new way, introducing the legacy of his mother in a children’s book, hoping to provide some inspiration for a younger generation.

“She often used to talk about the fact that during the war, her mother, because there was a little food and no heating, would have her stay in bed throughout the day, especially during the Dutch Hunger Winter, to preserve her calories,” he shared. “And so I thought to myself, she must have sat there and sort of wondered what it would be like after the war. Wouldn't it be lovely way to sort of tell her story, her real life, as a daydream for children who do that sometimes?”

"Little Audrey's Daydream" by Sean and Karin Hepburn Ferrer

The book, titled “Little Audrey’s Daydream," is out now, and begins with Hepburn's childhood in Europe during World War II and the German occupation of the Netherlands, going through her illustrious career, and ending with the charity work she did in adulthood. “Her strong spirit and determination throughout her life will inspire readers of all ages,” the publisher's description for the book reads.

“She's the girl from across the landing who puts a little black dress and she's a wonderful package of imperfections."

“I thought it was a nice time to sort of tell this story in simple terms and it is really the same questions and three pillars that often people are asking me about,” he explained. Hepburn Ferrer believes the three categories that pique people's interest most are his mother's celebrity and acting career, her inner and outer elegance, and her humanitarian work.

But what he feels resonates above all else? Her relatability.

“She's the girl from across the landing who puts a little black dress and she's a wonderful package of imperfections and yeah, she pulls it off and she goes out there and makes it happen,” he said. “And we root for her and we feel a certain ownership, we feel her as one of us, that is really the best way I can describe it. And it's extraordinary.”

Audrey Hepburn on the set of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961. Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard / Getty Images

"It was very, very hard for her"

From her childhood during World War II to her cancer diagnosis in her later years, Hepburn dealt with great obstacles during her lifetime, many of which are detailed in “Little Audrey’s Daydream.” But Ferrer Hepburn also revealed another struggle — his mother experienced pregnancy loss multiple times before and after giving birth to him in 1960.

Audrey Hepburn and her son Sean in 1961.Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

“She talked about the first but then the last one, it was almost to term,” he shared. "And then she told me it was one of the hardest things she ever had to deal with in her life, without a doubt.”

Ferrer Hepburn says that he thinks that the losses partially informed why he and his mother had such a special, unbreakable bond. “I think when she finally had me, it was more than just the desire of having a child,” he said. “It was also a healing from these experiences. But I know it was very, very hard for her. That she did talk about.”

Actress Audrey Hepburn leaving movie theater with 9-year-old son Sean Hepburn Ferrer in 1969.The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Some of the heavier subject matter of her life that is incorporated into the book, made it rather difficult for Hepburn Ferrer and his wife, Karin, who co-authored the book, to find a publisher, as some thought the content was too dark for a child.

Sean Hepburn Ferrer hopes his new book will introduce a whole new generation to Audrey Hepburn.Amazon

"They were more important publishers, maybe size-wise, but they always wanted me to pare down the story to work only for a six-year-old," he said. "I don't know how to do that. And I don't want to do that because I grew up in a culture which was not a child-centered society."

Hepburn Ferrer hopes that fans of his mother read the book not only to introduce her legacy to their children, but also to enjoy it themselves. The book’s dedication simply reads, ”For the child in all of us.”

He also noted that all of the author proceeds are going to EURORDIS, a rare disease organization in Europe because "it was a rare form of cancer that took her from us."

On what we should learn from his mother's legacy and story in 2020, Hepburn Ferrer said that it’s “OK to have a dream.”

“It's OK to choose your path, have a dream, not a fake one, and never let it get to your head then,” he explained. “And that the nice guy in this case, the humble person, the true one... can also succeed once in a lifetime.

“She always used to say, ‘If you ever have a doubt in life, do what's best for the other person. Take yourself out of the equation and you will see magically, everything will work out.’”