Audrey Hepburn: The State of Gratitude

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Audrey Hepburn, captured by Bob Willoughby.

Marian Seldes saved everything, with the exception of grudges, because I never knew her to denigrate or to harbor ill will toward anyone, even those who might well have deserved such treatment. In a section of her memoir The Bright Lights (Houghton Mifflin, 1978, and Limelight, 1984), Marian wrote of a box in her collection that read ONDINE, inside of which were all the collected items associated with her time in that production. Ondine, written by Jean Giradoux, and translated from the French by Maurice Valency, had its Broadway premiere in 1954,  was directed by Alfred Lunt, and starred Audrey Hepburn and her husband/mentor Mel Ferrer. Marian was cast as Berthe, whom she described as “malevolent, an enemy to fragile, lovely Audrey.”

Marian met with me in her apartment on West 71st Street in the summer of 1993, which was kept as it had been when she went downtown, to Central Park South, to care for Garson Kanin after the death of his wife Ruth Gordon in 1985. Marian never left Kanin, and they eventually married, but this apartment remained intact for years, full of books and photographs and memories. Marian walked me through some of the items, including an envelope that held colored fragments of paper, which had passed for snow in her first stage appearance on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1942. “I was in the crowd,” she told me, “and we marveled at Leonide Massine, who was dancing in Petrouchka. I looked out at what they called the ‘Golden Horseshoe’ of the Met–marvelous amber lights–and I thought I was in a beautiful and safe place, and I would be there forever, and I have been.”

The ONDINE box held notes in Marian’s tiny, spidery handwriting–like that of Jacqueline Kennedy’s and so many other girls who went to good schools and were told, as Marian put it, “to be quiet and polite and of very little trouble”–photographs, a piece of fabric, various other tokens, but mostly the lid of the box being opened acted as an incentive for Marian to speak of her “brief, beautiful” friend Audrey Hepburn.

“It was a magical time for me,” Marian said, “and I was treated with so much care and affection by both Alfred Lunt and his wife [Lynn Fontanne]. Lynn and I would spend time together during the days, and she would gently tell me how I should dress, what I should eat, and, as you know, how to breathe properly.” [From a book on health, Marian had decided it was best to inhale deeply and fully, to fill the lungs and to bring a glow to the face, but she did not realize how comically loud her breathing had become.] “Lynn had to tell me that she could hear me breathing; she could hear me coming from distances. It was a good lesson.”

During the time of Ondine, Marian’s mother passed away. Marian inherited her mother’s dark hair and alabaster complexion; her height; her patrician manner. Marian did not wish to inherit her mother’s lethargy and illness. “I remember my mother almost always as ill,” Marian told me. “I always think of her in bed, propped up by pillows, reading or sleeping, being tenderly cared for by my father. I did not want to be that person, even though I loved my mother so much. My mother made me aware, at an early age, of the value of time, the danger of time lost, and so I took care of myself, and I wrote things down, and I saved things. If I saved things, they did not disappear or die: They remained alive and in my memory.”

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Marian Seldes in Ondine, costumed by Richard Whorf, and photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

Marian enjoyed nibbling at the buffet of religion and spirituality, and she and I were the only two people we knew who possessed all three copies of We Knew Mary Baker Eddy, a trilogy of testimonies of those who had lived with, among, or in the study of the founder of Christian Science. Even those we knew who studied Christian Science (Katharine Hepburn, Mildred Natwick, Ruth Gordon) had not owned these books, or had not kept them. “I keep everything,” Marian admitted, “even some of the tenets of Christian Science.”

Audrey Hepburn had been trained in Christian Science–her mother, Marian said, was quite devout–and so one conversation at what was then the 46th Street Theatre (and is now the Neil Simon) turned to that religion, and what it meant to these two young women.

“Audrey and I were roughly the same age,” Marian remembered, “and yet our lives, while devoted to acting, were so different. I saw myself as awkward, dreaming, stumbling toward something, a theatre, perhaps, that did not exist. Something I dreamed. For Audrey, stardom had burst upon her, fallen on her like those little pieces of paper that served as snow that I showed you. It was more like a wave, actually, a huge wave that was wild and loud, but, when it reached her, simply lapped at her feet. She calmed and charmed anything and anyone who approached her. I was shy and apologetic and, always, always, so star-struck. I watched how Audrey dressed, what she ate, how she behaved. I wanted to know her secrets. One of her secrets was Mel, who was very strong, very smart, and he told her everything she should read or think. I did not like how he spoke to her, or how he spoke to Alfred Lunt. Mel was brusque with all of us, and Audrey held that beautiful face up to him like a hungry bird and ingested everything he said. I thought Mel was a far more brutal wave than the one that fame and her admirers brought to her everywhere she went. I felt that her fans loved her, and I didn’t know, really, how Mel felt about her.”

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Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, in 1956.

Fear brings people together, often in hatred and destruction, but also in friendship. Marian and Audrey did not believe in hatred, and they both fled disagreements, discord, so they found comfort with each other, silence amid so much noise and light. “I was a character of darkness,” Marian said, “and Audrey was this glorious water nymph, bathed in light, wearing such diaphanous costumes, and I felt we were the same off the stage, out of character. I had loss in my life, doubt, and I wondered if there would be a place for me in a theatre that might or might not exist. And here was Audrey, surrounded by people and offers and demands and Champagne and flowers, and she was, ironically, given the play we were in, drowning. I asked her how she managed it.

“Audrey had the most remarkable eyes–dark and beautiful, very full of feeling, and she cried easily. I mean to say that she teared up, and never so much than when she was grateful or relieved. She looked at me and she told me that hers was a life of so much gratitude. She had so much after having so little for such a long time. She loved to care for her mother, her friends. She took such joy in helping others in the cast, and she helped me: She took the time to let me know I was worthy; to let me know I had meant something to her. She was grateful to me and for me. She was grateful that Mel loved her and was willing to educate and shape her. I did not agree that she needed such things, but she did, and she was grateful for all he had done for her. Mel had made the New York production of Ondine possible, and Audrey believed that Mel had delivered to her the Oscar she had just won [for William Wyler’s Roman Holiday], and she would believe that the Tony she would win for Ondine was delivered to her by him as well, just as Alfred Lunt had been hired to elevate her. put light upon all that she was. ‘And,’ Audrey said, ‘all I did was dream it. I believed that there was beauty in dance and in acting and in living among beautiful words and beautiful people, and now it is true, and I am grateful. I cannot believe in lack for myself or for others. I acknowledge what I have, and I share what I don’t need, and there is no lack.’ Audrey had taken the kernels of Christian Science, and she had expanded them to to suit her, but she was aware, in a way similar to mine, that life was very fast and could be very tough, but we had to keep our minds and our hearts always in a beautiful place. We always had to be grateful. A grateful heart remembers, she told me, and so she could not mind a busy day when she recalled the days of hunger and fear and loneliness. The gifts had been delivered to her, and she was grateful, and I’ve taken that lesson with me. I am always, always grateful, and I can–I must–immediately forget anything that blocks my gratitude. Audrey taught me to live in the state of gratitude.”

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Audrey Hepburn in Jean Giradoux’s Ondine.

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