Audrey Hepburn’s granddaughter Emma Ferrer Talks to Harper’s Bazaar
Photographed by Richard Avedon’s grandson, Michael Avedon
The first images I have of her are, interestingly enough, when she was quite young,” Emma Ferrer says of her paternal grandmother, Audrey Hepburn. “I remember seeing a photo of her jumping on a trampoline—I believe this was before I understood that she was famous. But I remember thinking that she looked like a friend I wish I could have had.”
Of course, Audrey Hepburn—or simply Audrey, as she will forever be known—has always been a luminous presence: She was a brilliant actress, a timeless style icon, and a tireless crusader for the world’s underprivileged children as an International Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. She was also a devoted mother who put aside her career at its peak to raise her two sons, Sean Ferrer, whose father was Audrey’s first husband, the actor Mel Ferrer, and Luca Dotti, from her second marriage (to the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti).
One thing that Audrey never had the chance to do, though, was enjoy the experience of being a grandmother. In late 1992, she fell ill during a UNICEF trip to Somalia and died a few months later, in January 1993, of a rare form of abdominal cancer.
Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, Audrey’s first grandchild, was born in Switzerland in May of the following year to Sean and his then wife, Leila. Now 20, Emma is the eldest of Sean’s three children and spent most of her adolescence in and around Florence, Italy, where Sean, who runs an agency that deals with intellectual property and is also a filmmaker and keeper of the Audrey flame, lives outside the city. (Luca, his wife, and their daughters occupy his mother’s former apartment in Rome.)
“Muse” is an overused word these days, but that’s exactly what Audrey was for the legendary photographer Richard Avedon. She was, in a word, his inspiration, and their interaction played out over a number of years in the 1950s in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon photographed Audrey on the streets of Paris, in fashion stories, and several times as a cover subject for the magazine. Even though he worked with some of the biggest models of all time—Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh, Carmen Dell’Orefice—he was completely enamored with Audrey as a subject, and she loved sitting for him.
Avedon, of course, was memorably fictionalized in the 1957 movie Funny Face. Though he didn’t appear in the film, he served as an adviser. The part of the photographer, Dick Avery, was played by Fred Astaire. Audrey was cast as Avery’s muse—the mousy but promising bookstore clerk who, under his tutelage, blossoms into a glorious supermodel in Paris.
“I remember seeing a photo of her jumping on a trampoline. I remember thinking that she looked like a friend I wish I could have had.”
I met Emma in Florence on a Monday in late June, but the week before, she sat for the photo shoot that produced the images you see here. In what might be considered life imitating art—or, perhaps, art imitating art—the man behind the lens was none other than Avedon’s 23-year-old grandson, Michael, now himself a young photographer, much like Dick was when he first shot Audrey.
Today Emma is four years younger than Audrey was when she appeared in 1953’s Roman Holiday, a breakout performance for which she won an Oscar. Emma herself has no designs on acting, though, like her grandmother, she has studied ballet. Instead, Emma’s heart is set on becoming an artist. To that end, she is entering her third year as a student of the Florence Academy of Art.
As anyone who has been there knows, Florence is the sine qua non of Italian cities: the birthplace of the Renaissance, the center of art and culture, the home of the Medicis and of Dante Alighieri, and, not incidentally, the original base for the fashion houses of Gucci, Pucci, Cavalli, and Ferragamo. Florence looks remarkably as it did during the 15th century, the enormous cathedral, its dome engineered by Brunelleschi, dominating the cityscape. Michelangelo’s David has resided in the Accademia Gallery since 1873. Where better for an art student to study?
Sean reminded me that I’d met Emma before, in May 2003. She was only nine at the time. I was then editor in chief of Town & Country, and we’d just done an entire issue on Audrey, accompanied by a special exhibition at Sotheby’s, timed to the 10th anniversary of her death. But when Emma walked through the front door of the hotel where I was staying, the Portrait, I recognized her instantly. First there was her gait—she fairly floated. Then I noticed the unmistakable, graceful posture of a dancer. Though she is not her grandmother’s doppelgänger, there are definite similarities—the arched brows, the almond eyes, the long lashes, the full mouth, the radiant smile. And like Audrey, Emma is tall, with the legs and bearing of a gazelle.
Before Emma and I got together, I visited the new Gucci Museo in Piazza della Signoria. There, amid the vintage handbags, apparel, and shoes was a framed photograph of her grandmother taken in the 1960s. Later, while waiting for Emma in the lobby of the Portrait, I spotted two books on display: Audrey a Roma, based on an exhibition that Luca had curated documenting her years in Rome, and Audrey 100, a volume consisting of 100 images of Audrey chosen by the family, by everyone from Philippe Halsman to Mel Ferrer. Clearly, Audrey was in the Florentine air.
For the better part of the next two days, Emma and I did what we both love to do in Florence: We wandered the streets—some glutted with tourists, others positively deserted—and took in the scenery. We had lunch at the Trattoria La Casalinga, walked to Via Tornabuoni, Florence’s Rue du Faubourg, and popped into the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, housed in Palazzo Spini Feroni. Dedicated to the works of the founder of Ferragamo, the museum has on display an array of wooden foot molds designed for the brand’s most renowned clients. On one row hang the lasts of Gloria Swanson, Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren, and, naturally, Audrey.
“When I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I enjoyed it the same way any young girl would.”
Emma was born in Morges and spent her first year at La Paisible, the Hepburn family’s country house in the Swiss village of Tolochenaz, near Lausanne, where in her later life Audrey lived with (though never married) the Dutch-born investor and former actor Robert Wolders. When Emma was two, Sean and Leila relocated with her to Los Angeles. Even as a child she liked to draw. She also took art and ballet classes and attended Crossroads, the private arts school. “Growing up there felt entirely normal, since I was only a child,” Emma recalls, although she admits that had she remained in L.A., she might well have become that dreaded Hollywood brat. “I know kids who had to go into rehab,” she tells me. “It’s only now that I realize certain elements of a Hollywood lifestyle are, in fact, not entirely healthy.”
Sean and Leila divorced when she was six. At 14, Emma moved with Leila to Florence, mostly so Emma could be closer to Sean, who had settled in the Tuscan countryside. (Leila has since returned to L.A.) Sean remembers Emma as “a sunny child, always looking for something new to keep her interested,” and because of her parents’ breakup, probably mature beyond her years. As we walked and talked, Emma spoke of the deep impression that art school had made on her. “I always drew and liked to take art lessons,” she explained, “but I needed intellectual skills to learn about balance and structure.” She showed me some of her drawings on her iPhone: charcoal portraits and sketches of human figures and plaster casts, all done from life. She listed some of the painters she admired—Rembrandt, Titian, Velázquez, and Zurbarán—and talked about learning to imitate the work of other artists. “At first I resisted the process of copying because I felt it wasn’t original,” she says. “But the truth is, I drew in a very naive way.”
The conversation inevitably leads to the subject of Audrey. “I still have that image of her on the trampoline very clearly in my mind—strangely enough, a lot more clear in ways than images that I see of her every day in shopwindows,” says Emma. “I’ve been questioning a lot lately what she means to me. I knew her image, of course, and that I happened to be, by pure chance, related to her. But as a child I couldn’t really relate to Audrey Hepburn, the actress. To me, she was family. I can live with her through my father. His stories are all about his growing up. But honestly, I haven’t seen all of her movies. When I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I enjoyed it the same way any young girl would. I’ve seen My Fair Lady and Roman Holiday, but I suppose my favorite is Funny Face.” I suggested that we find a way to watch an Audrey Hepburn movie together. Between Charade and Sabrina, we chose Sabrina and made a date to go to her father’s house the following day to watch it.
I ask Emma if she has anything of Audrey’s. “All I can think of are her cashmere turtlenecks, which I adore and wear all throughout the winter,” she says. “And a white antique stuffed teddy bear.”
The next day was sweltering, so the prospect of a late-afternoon drive to Sean’s place in the Tuscan hills came as a relief. And because it was June 24, the Feast of San Giovanni—Florence’s patron saint—most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Fortunately Sean had offered to cook us dinner.
By the time we reached the house, a 17th-century villa nestled in the vineyards of the Frescobaldi family in the Chianti Rufina, the weather was palpably cooler. Emma lives in the upstairs room of a converted barn that also contains Sean’s office and a screening room. After we arrived she showed me a handful of her figure paintings with intense shadowy backgrounds.
“I couldn’t really relate to Audrey Hepburn, the actress. To me, she was family.”
We settled into the screening room to watch Sabrina. Directed by Billy Wilder, the 1954 movie stars a youthful Audrey as Sabrina, the daughter of Fairchild, the British chauffeur to the Larrabees, a wealthy family who live on an estate on the North Shore of Long Island. In desperation, Fairchild sends Sabrina off to cooking school in Paris in order to make her forget about David (played by William Holden), the dashing son of his employer, with whom she has long been infatuated. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you can probably guess what happens next: Sabrina returns from France, transformed into a gorgeous, stylish, sophisticated woman (dressed, by the way, by Hubert de Givenchy) and completely turns David’s head.
We were about three quarters into the movie when Sean announced that dinner was ready. At that point we’d been joined by his wife, Karin Hofer, her son, Adone, and Emma’s boyfriend, Richard, a 27-year-old American from Nashville. Emma and Richard met when he taught some of her classes at the art academy in Florence; when the term ended, their relationship began. “He taught anatomical sculpture as well as drawing and painting,” Emma tells me. “We were friends for a while before anything happened between us.”
Sean, an excellent cook, prepared a four-course meal. A gentle breeze was in the air, as we sat at a table under an extended pergola overlooking a grove of olive trees and listened to the honking of a family of wild boars (probably the same dozen that Emma said she’d seen while on a run a few days earlier). Later I asked Sean about Audrey and how much of her he sees in Emma. “My mother was the same as she was on the screen: unassuming, humble, funny, emotional, strong, delicate,” he says. “Fortunately Emma has much better boundaries than either Mom or I ever had. But the genes are strong—and the comedic gene is alive and well. And I can’t help but think that both had to quit professional ballet because they were too tall.”
Life will soon change for Emma when the academy opens a Stateside branch in January, in an arts center in Jersey City. She’s planning to move there to continue her studies. She won’t be going alone; Richard will also be coming to help run the new outpost. “I have mixed feelings about leaving Florence,” she confesses. “I worry about finding the kind of organic food I like to eat and wonder where I will live,” she says. “At the same time I am so excited about being in New York.” The evening was all very relaxed and chatty—until we noticed that it was 9:30 P.M. and realized we wouldn’t get back to Florence in time for the fireworks unless we made a mad dash for it.
Even the city’s outskirts were chockablock with spectators, primarily parents with kids on their shoulders. Eventually Emma, who was driving, stopped the car at the side of the road so we could get out and watch the grand finale. As I stood watching the explosions of color in the sky next to Emma and Richard, who were holding hands, I couldn’t help remembering that famous moment in Sabrina, when Audrey’s character is admonished by Fairchild for behaving like a woman of the world. As if in explanation, she says, “But don’t you see, Father? Everything has changed.” To which Fairchild snaps, “Nothing has changed. He is still David Larrabee, and you are still the chauffeur’s daughter. And you are still reaching for the moon.” With that she sinks into a rocking chair, turns her face up, her eyes half closed, as if in a reverie, smiles radiantly, gives a deep sigh, and utters the unforgettable line, “No, Father. The moon is reaching for me.”
When I returned to New York, I received an e-mail from Emma in which she referred to our watching Audrey in Sabrina. “It had been a while since I’d seen one of her films, and the feeling was indeed magical,” she wrote. “Somehow, seeing her in her youth and brilliance reminded me that I do, in fact, carry her spirit along with me.
“Sometimes when I was younger, I felt confused toward what having a grandmother like her could mean in my life,” she added. “But I am now understanding.”
Source: Harper’s Bazaar