Family and early childhood (1929–1938)
Audrey Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston or Edda Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston on 4 May 1929 at number 48 Rue Keyenveld in Ixelles, Brussels, Belgium. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston (21 November 1889 – 16 October 1980), was a British subject born in Auschitz, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary.[a] He was the son of Victor John George Ruston, of British and Austrian descent and Anna Wels, of Austrian descent. In 1923–1924, Joseph had been an Honorary British Consul in Semarang in the Dutch East Indies, and prior to his marriage to Hepburn's mother, he had been married to Cornelia Bisschop, a Dutch heiress. Although born with the surname Ruston, he later double-barrelled his name to the more "aristocratic" Hepburn-Ruston, mistakenly believing himself descended from James Hepburn, third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Hepburn's mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra (12 June 1900 – 26 August 1984), was a Dutch noblewoman. She was the daughter of Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra, who served as Mayor of Arnhem from 1910 to 1920 and as Governor of Dutch Suriname from 1921 to 1928, and Baroness Elbrig Willemine Henriette van Asbeck (1873–1939). At the age of nineteen, Ella had married Jonkheer Hendrik Gustaaf Adolf Quarles van Ufford, an oil executive based in Batavia, Dutch East Indies, where they subsequently lived. They had two sons, Jonkheer Arnoud Robert Alexander Quarles van Ufford (1920–1979) and Jonkheer Ian Edgar Bruce Quarles van Ufford (1924–2010), before divorcing in 1925.
Hepburn's parents were married in Batavia, Dutch East Indies, in September 1926. At the time, Ruston worked for a trading company, but soon after the marriage, the couple moved to Europe, where he began working for a loan company. After a year in London, they moved to Brussels, where he had been assigned to open a branch office. After three years spent travelling between Brussels, Arnhem, The Hague and London, the family settled in the suburban Brussels municipality of Linkebeek in 1932. Hepburn's early childhood was sheltered and privileged. As a result of her multinational background and travelling with her family due to her father's job,[b] she learned five languages: Dutch and English from her parents, and later varying degrees of French, Spanish, and Italian.
In the mid-1930s, Hepburn's parents recruited and collected donations for the British Union of Fascists. Joseph left the family abruptly in 1935 and moved to London, where he became more deeply involved in Fascist activity and never visited his daughter abroad. Hepburn later professed that her father's departure was "the most traumatic event of my life". That same year, her mother moved with Hepburn to her family's estate in Arnhem. Sometime in 1937, Ella and Hepburn moved to Kent, England, where Hepburn was educated at a small independent school in Elham.
Hepburn's parents officially divorced in 1938. In the 1960s, Hepburn renewed contact with her father after locating him in Dublin through the Red Cross; although he remained emotionally detached, Hepburn supported him financially until his death.
Experiences during World War II (1939–1945)
After Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, Hepburn's mother moved her daughter back to Arnhem in the hope that, as during the First World War, the Netherlands would remain neutral and be spared a German attack. While there, Hepburn attended the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945. She had begun taking ballet lessons during her last years at boarding school, and continued training in Arnhem under the tutelage of Winja Marova, becoming her "star pupil". After the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Hepburn used the name Edda van Heemstra, because an "English-sounding" name was considered dangerous during the German occupation. Her family was profoundly affected by the occupation, with Hepburn later stating that "had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week… six months… next year… that's how we got through". In 1942, her uncle, Otto van Limburg Stirum (husband of her mother's older sister, Miesje), was executed in retaliation for an act of sabotage by the resistance movement; while he had not been involved in the act, he was targeted due to his family's prominence in Dutch society. Hepburn's half-brother Ian was deported to Berlin to work in a German labour camp, and her other half-brother Alex went into hiding to avoid the same fate.
"We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they'd close the street and then open it, and you could pass by again... Don't discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It's worse than you could ever imagine."
—Hepburn on the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands
After her uncle's death, Hepburn, Ella and Miesje left Arnhem to live with her grandfather, Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra, in nearby Velp. Around that time Hepburn performed silent dance performances in order to raise money for the Dutch resistance effort. It was long believed that she participated in the Dutch resistance itself, but in 2016 the Airborne Museum 'Hartenstein' reported that after extensive research it had not found any evidence of such activities. However, in his 2018 book Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, author Robert Matzen claimed he found proof she had directly supported the resistance. In addition to other traumatic events, she witnessed the transportation of Dutch Jews to concentration camps, later stating that "more than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on the train. I was a child observing a child."
After the Allied landing on D-Day, living conditions grew worse, and Arnhem was subsequently heavily damaged during Operation Market Garden. During the Dutch famine that followed in the winter of 1944, the Germans blocked the resupply routes of the Dutch people's already-limited food and fuel supplies as retaliation for railway strikes that were held to hinder German occupation. Like others, Hepburn's family resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake cakes and biscuits; she developed acute anæmia, respiratory problems and œdema as a result of malnutrition. The van Heemstra family was also seriously financially affected by the occupation, during which many of their properties, including their principal estate in Arnhem, were badly damaged or destroyed.
In 2018, the audio biopic series The Secret History of Hollywood produced a fifteen-part series based on this period in Hepburn's life titled Audrey – The Girl Before the Girl.