Audrey and Bill:

Rebecca Wynne-Walsh details The secret romance between classic Hollywood’s biggest stars

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“Once upon a time, on the north shore of Long Island, some thirty miles from New York, there lived a small girl on a large estate,” with these words, the unmistakeable voice of screen goddess Audrey Hepburn narrates the opening frames of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. Sabrina, a retelling of the classic Cinderella story, spiralled into as much of a fairytale romance offscreen as it was on. This is because the set of Sabrina would be the place where two soulmates would meet, embark on a whirlwind romance and ultimately, as is the case with all of the deepest romances, they would break each other’s hearts. Penelope Cruz’ fiery screen siren of Vicky Christina Barcelona repeatedly insisted that “only unfulfilled love can be romantic”. There is infinite wisdom and unfortunate truth in her words, words that have great resonance in the story of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. Their love story is one that is criminally under-told, there is nothing more heartbreaking than soulmates, destined to find each other but doomed to separate. These legends of Hollywood’s golden age found each other on the set of Wilder’s film and proceeded to fall madly in love. Though their romance turned out to be one better suited to the land of dreams than that of reality, they did make one more film together, almost ten years on from their initial meeting at the very start of Hepburn’s Hollywood career.

The year is 1953, Hepburn fresh off the resounding success of Roman Holiday has captured the hearts of both Hollywood and the world. For all her success, it is no secret that all she truly wanted was to capture the heart of one man, his identity as yet unknown, and to build a happy and stable family life with him. Audrey Hepburn’s greatest dream was to realise the normalcy, the affection and the family connection she was denied growing up in war-torn Europe. Until that dream came true however, she would continue her role as Hollywood’s elegant, stylish and spritely fixture of the silver screen. Billy Wilder knew she would be the perfect lead in his latest project. Sabrina followed its title character, a chauffeur's daughter for a wealthy Long Island family, through the trials of becoming a woman, finding love and finding herself. Hepburn would have two love interests in the film. The serious and hard-working older brother and the energetic, playboy younger brother. The siblings were playing by Humphrey Bogart and William Holden respectively.

By this time Bogart was already a steadfast Hollywood legend but he was, much to his outspoken annoyance, unequivocally outshone by the undeniable chemistry that was growing between his co-stars. William Holden, or as he was known to most, Bill, was at the peak of his career at the time of Sabrina’s production. Fresh off the massive successes of Sunset Boulevard, Born Yesterday, and Stalag 17 Holden was one of if not the most desirable leading man Hollywood had to offer. He was known as the “Golden Boy” for his easy charm, classic good looks and endearing humour. Though married, Holden had a very definite reputation as a committed womaniser, apparently with his wife’s unspoken knowledge. The arrangement Holden had with his wife worked because, although he had his dalliances, he was never at risk of leaving her, that is, until he met Audrey.

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The pair fell head over heels for each other so quickly it was almost love at first sight. They provided each other with a new lease of life and began to spend every spare moment together. They indulged in long drives or walks in secluded parks. A repeated haunt of theirs was Lucy’s El Adobe Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, favoured for its apparently excellent food but for its well-known darkened alcoves, the perfect spot for two young lovers to hide in plain sight. All seemed to be going exactly to plan, Hollywood’s hottest property were about to become its biggest power couple. With Holden on the cusp of finally divorcing his wife (something he would follow through on regardless), the fairytale romance came to a resounding halt with one very important revelation.

One romantic night in a Los Angeles park, Audrey playfully showing off her ballet skills to her beloved Bill as he lay on the moonlit grass acted as a prologue to the pair’s in-depth conversation about their future together. Though they had had this conversation many times before, this time it was different, everything was becoming real. As Audrey waxed lyrical about the family they would have, Bill could stay silent no longer. Holden, already a father of three, had undergone a vasectomy. He was the love of her life, but he would never be able to give her the life she dreamed of, he couldn’t, wouldn’t have any more children. He had not been able to tell her up until this very moment, knowing in his hearts of hearts that she would not relinquish her dream of becoming a mother. The truth had, as he expected, shattered his fantasy of spending the rest of his life with Audrey Hepburn. Reality, as it so often does, got in the way of romance. Hepburn knew what she wanted, she had always known, and despite her naive, almost childlike screen persona she was a determined woman and felt deeply that no one man could be worth her giving up everything else. She called off their affair shattering the two hearts involved.

Both went on to have incredibly fruitful and iconic careers. Hepburn will forever be remembered for her roles in, Funny Face, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and My Fair Lady. She even went on to marry a couple of times and, despite her health problems, finally managed to have not one but two children of her own. Holden himself starred in such classics as Love is a Many Splendored Thing, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch, and Network. But, by the time lingering contractual obligations surfaced and Paramount re-called Hepburn and Holden to make one more picture together it was clear that Hepburn had handled the lost romance far better than he.

On the set of Paris When it Sizzles, almost 10 years after their initial meeting, this time Audrey was the married party. Holden had assumed they would rekindle their old flame but Hepburn was determined to keep him at arm’s length. She knew they could not be together, she also knew her heart would not survive losing him again. It was soon apparent to her that Holden’s heart had not even survived the first break. Holden and Hepburn’s last tango in Paris as it were, was coloured by his self-destructive spiral into alcoholism. Despite Audrey’s attempts to help, while he grew to manage his addiction, he never overcame it and eventually it killed him. In a gruesome death, Holden was found in a pool of his own blood having drunkenly slipped and cracked his head open. He was alone, his body was found four days later. In accordance with Holden’s easy-going and nonchalant personality, no funeral service was held, he never liked big scenes. Hepburn’s friends and family all noted her life-long affection for Holden, she would never experience another love like theirs, neither did he.  

A character in Sabrina makes an entertaining and insightful observation of the heroine: “A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven”. While Holden and Hepburn alternated burning the soufflé and not cooking it at all one thing is clear, the flames of their love burned for a lifetime, and never more brightly than in Wilder’s 1954 classic.

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