The difference between a lady and flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. That’s a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s book Pygmalion which was published in 1912. Fifty three years later that book would become the blockbuster movie, My Fair Lady, starring one of America’s most favorite actresses – Audrey Hepburn. This role as Eliza Doolittle, along with her portrayal of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s are definitely two of Audrey’s most indelible performances, ones that made her a household name around the world.
For a woman who lived in the public eye, for most of her life, I think there was a real irony in George’s “not how she behaves, but how she’s treated” statement that was fitting for his character but also fitting for the actress who played her. As a woman adored around the world, often referred to as beautiful, fragile, and delicate, there was much more to Audrey Hepburn than people gave her credit for. Thankfully, a new documentary just recently released on Netflix offers intimate insight into Audrey’s life that dispels myths not often discussed in the stratosphere surrounding her celebrity persona.
In the fashion world Audrey was idealized for her waif-like figure, slim and youthful. She championed the pixie haircut and wearing pants and preferred a simplicity in dress that bordered art house cool. But her thinness was a result of childhood malnutrition, not a diet-riddled aesthetic that she curated throughout her life. Her personal style was a result of simplicity, comfort, and a humble nature not an innate desire to be the fashion maven she became. Her features was determined desireable by the beauty industry yet she never felt very beautiful herself – often remarking that she had insecurities over the size of her nose, her flat chest, her boyish hips, her dark hair all which felt especially apparent to her in the time of Hollywood when the ideal feminine physiques equaled hour-glass curves and blond bombshell hair.
The documentary depicts, through interviews with her family and friends, the other sides of Audrey that reveal tenderness balanced with tenacity, love entwined with loyalty, and a steadfast determination to make a difference using the skills she worked hard for and the favorability she gained as a result of her acting career. It shows that she deserves to be remembered for much more than her famous character’s association with a luxury jewelry brand, or for creating the iconic little black dress terminology or for being the innocent, fresh-faced ideal of romantic fantasies.
As a serious humanitarian, a creative artist and a woman trying to humbly navigate the world, Audrey was smart, sincere and authentic above all else. Like a postscript to the stunning 2003 memoir, Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit that her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer wrote almost 20 years ago, the documentary offers insight into Audrey’s personality and how she unsuspectingly became the icon that she did. Sean’s book, all those years before, was my first glimpse into Audrey’s personal life. His story began just days after Audrey passed away at the age of 63, and is told from his own sesnsitive perspective of life with a woman who was both loved by him and by the world at the same time.
Like the documentary, Sean shares close details about his mom’s life… her thoughts, philosophies, perspectives… and tries to make sense, as an adult, of the two very different lives she lived between her public persona and her private one. If you get a chance to read the book or watch the documentary you’ll learn all the details of Audrey’s life… her hunger years, the fractured relationship with her father, her desire to be a ballet dancer, the start of her acting career, her marriages, her emotional ups and downs, her personal triumphs and her public trials. My favorite part of Audrey’s story though does not include her movies, or her designer clothes or her glamorous Hollywood connections. My favorite part of Audrey’s life was her favorite part too – her 18th century Swiss house…
Deemed by Audrey as the happiest place on Earth, she retreated to the small village of Tolochenaz to raise her two children and to rest in the quiet privacy that Switzerland offered. A sanctuary of a centuries old shuttered stone house with a big garden and lots of room for family and friends, the house was named La Paisible (meaning The Peaceful in French). True to its name, it is where Audrey felt most comfortable. Dogs (Jack Russels), flowers, and bright light tumbled out of every room. A highly cultivated and cared for garden dotted the landscape. Rooms stood ready to entertain and to inspire. And even though some photo journalists were invited in occasionally for publicity purposes, for the most part it was a private place where Audrey could revel in the thing that she cared for and craved most… love and affection.
It was at La Paisible in Switzerland, that she indulged her love of food and flowers and the joyful simplicity that came with growing both. Sean was quick to point out in his memoir that Audrey was an eater despite what everybody thought about her figure and the ways in which she went about maintaining it. She had cravings too just like everyone else but her philosophy on food always returned to balance and appreciating where it came from and how it was made. A craving for something sweet yielded a square of chocolate not a whole box. Meals were made with things she could cut and clip from the garden just outside her door. Grocery shopping was never a chore, always a joy. Her table was surrounded with laughter and fun and comfortingly familiar faces.
Her son Luca in an interview in 2013, shared that his mom was a very practical person seeking above all a normal, grateful and gracious life. Acting was her job, but living was up to her to define. In making that distinction, she knew in her core the things she valued most in her life – family, nature, love, education, kindness, and respect for one’s own insticts and motivations. Growing a garden within a fingertip’s reach was Audrey’s way of creating beauty but also securing a viable food supply for her family, so that no one at La Paisible would ever have to know the hunger she felt as a child.
One of Audrey’s most favorite foods, which she ate on a weekly basis, was a simple garden-centric dish that can be thrown together in minutes with barely any technical instruction. In today’s post, we are making Audrey’s favorite pasta recipe, Spaghetti al Pomadoro…
It’s not a recipe that she invented herself, but it is one that she made every week for decades while living at La Paisible. Like Audrey’s loyalty to it, I’ve been toting this version of classic tomato sauce around in my own makeshift recipe book for the past 18 years.
Uncomplicated cooking at its best, this recipe calls for lots of basil, Audrey’s most favorite herb, and just a few other garden vegetable staples. Interestingly, the recipe also utilizes canned tomatoes, (or tinned as they are referred to in Europe!), which is an ideal choice when tomatoes are not in season. I like to make this recipe most in spring (with canned tomatoes) in anticipation of the vibrant season about to come and then again in high summer when homegrown tomatoes, just plucked from the vine come into the kitchen, fat and heavy and still warm from the sun. I like to imagine that this is how Audrey would go about preparing this sauce too – jockeying back and forth between using cans and her own homegrowns depending on the season. In either circumstance, the best way to experience the true beauty of this simple recipe is by acquiring ingredients that have been picked at peek flavor. If you can find them fresh at your local farmers market, or even better, pull them all from your own garden, then you’ll have a true Audrey Hepburn dining experience, just like the lady herself would have enjoyed.
Audrey Hepburn’s Spaghetti al Pomodoro
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
2 stalks celery
2 large cans of diced tomatoes
1 large bunch of fresh basil, separated in two equal bundles
3 – 5 tablespoons olive oil (also known a a long drizzle!)
1 box of spaghetti
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Salt & Pepper to taste
Peel and dice onion, carrots, garlic and celery. Put in a large pot. Add two large tins of Italian roma tomatoes and the basil. Add a long drizzle of olive oil and simmer on low for 45 minutes. Turn off heat and let sauce rest for 15 minutes. Serve over 1 box of pasta cooked al dente, with fresh parmesean and the other half of the basil cut in pieces with scissors.
I love this recipe for the way it was written. In casual, loosey goosey direction, like all good Italian food, it relies on cooking with your own instincts and offering just light suggesstions as outline for the finished end result. Sometimes I let the onion, carrot and celery mixture carmelize for few minutes in the olive oil before adding the tomatoes. Sometimes I bring the whole sauce to a boil before turning it down to simmer. Sometimes I add more garlic or a sprinkle of sugar or a dash of white wine or some oregano if the herbs are overflowing in the garden. Or sometimes I make it just as Audrey directed. Regardless, whenever I pull out this stained and spattered recipe from my makeshift book, I like to think of Audrey Hepburn, the glamorous interantional icon now turned regular, every day home cook, standing at the stove in her beloved kitchen in Switzerland, making this very same sauce in the very same way that we are making it now.
During her life, Audrey was never sensationalized as a good cook. Oftentimes, people assumed that she never ate or that she had little interest in food given her thin figure. As George Bernard Shaw wrote of his character… she was treated differently then she behaved. But her boys have set the record straight in their books and in their interviews and in the documentary just released. Audrey loved to cook and loved to eat. Most notebaly for and with her friends and family. And now, in the beautiful way of passed down recipes, she can cook for her fans too.
Cheers to Audrey for staying true to her spirit and for privately being so much more than the public ever knew. Cheers to her boys, Sean and Luca, who bravely confronted all the misconceptions that surrounded her. And to this humble pasta recipe for always reminding us that life doesn’t have to be extravagant in order to be delicious.