Sean Hepburn Ferrer: “We hope that ‘Little Audrey’s Daydream’ will become a book that survives”

“Little Audrey’s Daydream: The Life of Audrey Hepburn,” recently published by Princeton Architectural Press, tells the story of one of Hollywood’s most renowned actresses. But unlike the numerous Audrey Hepburn biographies that have seen the light of day up until now, this one is totally different. It’s a children’s book that tells her story for a new generation in a delicate way, from her own perspective as a child growing up in Belgium and Holland during World War II as she spends her days in bed due to the lack of food and heating. She daydreams what her life will be like after the ward ends into her actual adult life as an actress, mother, and above all, humanitarian.

This most enchanting look at young Audrey Hepburn when she was a little girl with big dreams, hoping to become a ballerina, was written by her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer (b. 1960) and his wife Karin Hepburn Ferrer. Previously Mr. Ferrer authored the bestseller “Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit” (2003).

The authors of “Little Audrey’s Daydream”: Sean Hepburn Ferrer and his wife Karin Hepburn Ferrer. Photographs: courtesy Sean Hepburn Ferrer.

Although she passed away in 1993, the legend of Audrey Hepburn is still very much alive: the Academy Award-winning actress became one of the most beloved stars of all time when she appeared in “Roman Holiday” (1953), and subsequently starred in “Sabrina” (1954), “The Nun’s Story” (1959), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), “The Children’s Hour” (1961), “Charade” (1963), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “How to Steal a Million” (1966), “Wait Until Dark” (1967), “Robin and Marian” (1976), “Bloodline” (1979) and her final feature “Always” (1989). She didn’t only make some of the best films ever, she also worked with some of the best directors, including Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, King Vidor, William Wyler, George Cukor and Steven Spielberg. Film director Stanley Donen, who made three films with her, once told me, ‘What Audrey Hepburn had, you couldn’t teach, you couldn’t even learn it.’ On top of that, the star who captured the hearts of millions, became a style and a pop-culture icon.

Yet her most important role was that of a UNICEF ambassador and humanitarian, which earned her the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in December 1992. That year, although ill with cancer, she continued her work for UNICEF and traveled to various countries, including Kenya and Somalia. Three months later, on March 29, 1993, she was awarded posthumously the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Award ceremonies. Her son Sean accepted the award, as Ms. Hepburn had passed away on January 20, 1993, at her home in Switzerland at age 63.

With few words and approximately 25 illustrations by Dominique Corbasson and François Avril, “Little Audrey’s Daydream” got rave reviews on the websites of The New York Times, Today, and People—just to mention a few. Both an Ebook and Audio book are also available.

Following in the footsteps of his mother’s incredible and enduring humanitarian legacy, Sean Hepburn Ferrer and his wife Karin are donating all of their author proceeds from “Little Audrey’s Daydream” to EURORDIS—The Voice of Rare Disease Patients in Europe.

After previous one-on-one interviews with Mr. Ferrer about his mother’s life and work (2016) and his exhibition “Intimate Audrey” (2019), this coronaproof interview was conducted online to talk about his latest book. Referring to the Coronavirus pandemic, he says that his mother’s difficult childhood during World War II has parallels to what children are experiencing today.

The cover of “Little Audrey’s Daydream: The Life of Audrey Hepburn.” Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press

On the surface, “Little Audrey’s Daydream” is a children’s book, and considering adults also treasure Audrey Hepburn, there’s no age limit to this book. It broadens your horizon and introduces a timeless Audrey Hepburn, always positive and uplifting, a larger-than-life persona, who in difficult moments reached out to help others. “Don’t just dream about yourself, but dream about what’s best for all,” Mr. Ferrer says is the most important lesson in the book which is inspired by the actual events in the life of his mother.

Mr. and Mrs. Ferrer wrote this book as an homage to Audrey Hepburn’s fierce determination, imagination, and resilience in spite of the traumatic events she experienced during her childhood. It offers a beacon of hope during difficult times and inspires young children to pursue their dreams and passions.

Mr. Ferrer, what age group are you trying to reach with “Little Audrey’s Daydream”?

While on paper it looks like a book for children, it’s really for children of all ages—the child in all of us. Princeton Architectural Press understood this concept immediately. It’s a little bit like Hello Kitty. On face value, it’s for 3-year-olds, but 50-year-old women also wear Hello Kitty T-shirts under their blazer. It’s for parents to read to their children, and it has the layers for parents to understand what children don’t. I’ll give you an example. In the last scene, she finishes her daydream and then falls asleep. And that’s what children will comprehend. Yet adults will understand that it signifies the end of her life. What people experienced during World War II, like the loss of freedom, is also relevant in the midst of a pandemic. It’s making the book even more valuable than it was before. In essence, what our parents experienced during World War II, is what our children are experiencing now during the pandemic. One of the first things I thought of at the beginning of this pandemic, was we will never look at refugees quite the same way in the future. They live this way every day of their lives. The average time a refugee remains in the system is 16 years. It becomes a lifestyle, and children become adults in refugee camps. So it opens up a whole set of issues relevant to children.

When did you write the book? What does the timeline look like?

We wrote the book a few years ago, but at first we couldn’t find a publisher. I didn’t have illustrations at the time, so I was going around with the text alone. Most American publishers are very structured about age content: ‘It should be for 4 to 7, or 7 to 10-year-olds.’ They tend to compartmentalize the product. So I decided to self-publish it for the launch of the exhibition “Intimate Audrey” in Brussels [May 2019]. Therefore I needed illustrators, and my good friend Laurent Durieux who recreated a magnificent poster of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” introduced me to Dominique Corbasson and François Avril. Unfortunately Dominique had cancer and she knew this would be her last work [she passed away in 2018 at age 60]. This makes the illustrations even more precious and valuable and touching. She’s leaving this as the legacy of a rich life as an illustrator. Fortunately we still have François, her husband, who is equally a master. Dominique was a celebrity with global exhibitions including Japan, and she had also done advertising campaigns for many global brands and different companies. Karin and I immediately loved their style.

So you wrote the book before you had decided to do “Intimate Audrey”?

Yes, I had the book before I decided to green light “Intimate Audrey.” I knew I wanted to do the exhibition, and my brother and I had each kept a collection based on what we saw as a potential future exhibition. This exhibition was originally planned for her 80th birthday but it took ten years to come to fruition—we opened for her 90th. I started putting down the milestones of the story sometime around 2015-2016. At the end of 2017 there was the auction at Christie’s, and that is when I began preproduction on “Intimate Audrey” for her 90th birthday anniversary. At that time I had sort of given up on trying to find a publisher. I asked Karin to weigh in as she’s fluent in philosophy and complex systems science. She purified it and ensured that the concepts we were putting forth were really unassailable on all levels. Once we gave it to the publisher, they did some editing on the language, without changing the essence of the concepts and the questions they pose.

Sean Hepburn Ferrer with his mother Audrey Hepburn at their home La Paisible in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, early 1980s. Photograph: courtesy Sean Hepburn Ferrer

Was it difficult to actually write for children?

We have to be very careful what we program children with. They are exposed to all kinds of ideology, whether at home, in the streets, or at school, and they are educated in the image of the mindset of their family and their teachers. A child’s mind is something beautiful yet fragile, and the idea is to foster its growth, not to attempt to structure it according to our own experiences.

What about the chapters you chose? Can you elaborate a little bit on the choices you made?

I always had three acts in mind: her youth, her career and style, and her third act as a humanitarian. The milestones immediately jumped out as for the past 27 years I have been curating her life with exhibitions, books, editorials, etc. Her life is like a play which has been perfected by thousands of performances. That is why these milestones are so well-polished, they emerge naturally. Without overthinking it, I sort of surrendered to the natural emerging of these milestones which are a combination of important moments of her life, and little fractions… instants like the smiling in the dark or the skating on the rivers to go to school. Each of these open a world onto themselves. Skating on the rivers to go to school is a world that we don’t know anymore, but it opens a world of dreams of a time past. So with those milestones, I gave the sort of oneliners to the artists, then they painted and I redrafted the text to fit, whether to compliment or counterpoint the illustration. But I didn’t say to them, like a film director would, ‘You have a point of view here, the child is there on the left, and to the right there is a dog.’ I didn’t do that. I let them create the visual world. So it’s not like a ‘music video,’ it’s a ‘word video’ [laughs].

After “Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit” [2003], this is your second book on the life of your mother. A totally different concept. Was “Little Audrey’s Daydream” easier for you to write?

One might think that a little book with two dozen illustrations and few words is easier than writing a 600-page book. But it isn’t so. It’s much harder, because you’re painting with a much smaller brush when you’re laying out a story which has to be so essential and so contained. The less space you have to develop something, the harder it is.

Will the book be released in other languages ?

Children’s books don’t sell that many copies, to start with, unless they become legendary like “Le petit prince” [1943, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry]. Our Japanese publisher is a company that began in the medical arena; last year they published a children’s book which was very successful and they came to us full of desire and the understanding of its spirit. And so we went with them. This first printing is all for English speaking territories, and we are awaiting to hear from Germany, Italy, France… I’m very fortunate that my only other book “An Elegant Spirit” [2003] has sold over a million and a half copies. So although those publishers are not usually children’s book publishers, at least we have that history to give some measure of comfort to our potential publishers.

Authors Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Karin Hepburn Ferrer. Photograph: courtesy Sean Hepburn Ferrer

That makes your book a challenging project?

It is not our intention that this just be a lovely little children’s book that will come and go. We hope and dream it will become a book that survives, much like “Goodnight Moon” [1947, written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd]. That is a wonderful children’s book that has become legendary. It had the vision and legs to make it through the ages. I know there’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of books that are better than ours, but I certainly have the desire to support it, to give it the chance to become something that is timeless.

Did you get any response from people who have worked with your mother?

There’s nobody left. I did send a copy to John Isaac who was her photographer during the UNICEF years and he loved it, but there’s not many of her friends that are around anymore. However, all the feedback from the journalists that have read it, has been lovely. The reactions we had were very encouraging. I always say to American publishers that I grew up in a culture where Tintin was for children from 7 to 77, I hope this one will be too. Some of them said, ‘It doesn’t work that way.’ But we can’t keep on living in a child centered society. It’s a sort of ‘the tail is wagging the dog’: we need to learn how to say things to children so that we’re not undoing their natural ability to see the essence of the truth. When a grandpa dies rather than ‘Grandpa fell asleep,’ it’s better to say, ‘His body gave up, he was tired, and his spirit is still with us.’ I’m giving this as a bad example, but we need to respect children, not trying to convert them into our own misguided perceptions of life.

You think you’ll ever write a third book on your mother’s life and career?

No, I think I’ve said everything I have to say on that subject. I really come from a film background—scriptwriting and scriptdoctoring, so I love to take a script and help the dialogue. That’s something I really know how to do. But writing a book or a children’s book takes me ten times the amount of time it would take a normal writer who writes every day. That’s not my specialty. So I think, less is more. “An Elegant Spirit” was the sort of ultimate spiritual autobiography, and Barry Paris wrote the best historical biography on her life [“Audrey Hepburn,” 1996]. Now with “Little Audrey’s Daydream” I hope I completed the essence for future generations, because over the past 20 years her fan base has shifted from our generations and our parents to children—young tweens and teens and they are now becoming young adults. She’s loved across all different age groups, and I wanted to ensure that her story gets passed on to the next generation as well.

Book covers of “Audrey Hepburn” (1996) written by Barry Paris, and “Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit” (2003), written by Sean Hepburn Ferrer

Do you have plans to produce films again?

I’m working on developping a film right now, with a very good writer. It’s a sort of classic action thriller, but with the loss of theaters and lockdowns everywhere… I was hoping that there would be areas that would go through the pandemic and come out of it at the other end, but it seems to be recirculating everywhere pretty evenly. Now we have pandemic fatigue to deal with: if people slip once, this thing doesn’t forgive. So you have to be very methodical: you have to leave your shoes outside, you leave your packages outside, wash your hands a thousand times a day, wear a mask, social distancing, etc. You really have to think about it all the time, every moment.

In several countries, the number of Covid deaths is at least one plane falling down each day. That’s terrifying, isn’t it?

People don’t realize how many have died. Granted cancer takes many more lives each year as does heart disease. But we have somehow learned to live with that. I don’t think the world is ever going to be quite the same again. We may go back to having all the things we had before—like tourism, public events, etc. and most importantly the jobs that were lost. Yet although we may get it all back, the way we look at things will be different. Hopefully it will make us better in the end. Maybe all of this is nature’s way to lean down and politely say, ‘What are you doing with this beautiful planet I gave you? This perfectly well-balanced planet, you’re polluting it, you’re burning the forests and killing so many species.’ We always used to say that we couldn’t lose the Amazon rainforest, because there might be things that we hadn’t discovered and which might cure cancer, for example. All of that is now coming around as we are losing it all. People are discovering new components in nature that can be incredibly vital. But I’m always hopeful, I believe in humanity in the end, so I assume we will take this and turn it into something better. The question is how much more we need to endure before we’re forced to the ‘high way.’

Many film projects have been postponed or cancelled as a result of Covid, but are there maybe new projects coming up that focus on the work of your mother?

There’s a fabulous new documentary, “Audrey” [trailer] made by Salon Pictures, a London-based company which is famous for having two BAFTA nominations for the “McQueen” documentary [2018], and they also made one of the two films about Winston Churchill [“Churchill” in 2017, starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson]. “Audrey” is the most complete documentary and biography about her life. They really dug deep and found footage that had never been seen before—such as the clips from Maria Cooper, Gary Cooper’s daughter. In the U.S. it will be released by Netflix, and UIP has it internationally. So I’m doing promotion for both now, uniting forces in promoting both projects.

Are you associated with the documentary as well?

No. I helped them as much as I could and they gave me credit for the interview, and at the end there’s a special thank you as Sean Hepburn Ferrer, spiritual godfather.

Did you also give them footage and home movies?

I think most of what they got, they got through fair use licenses, otherwise it gets very complicated. But it’s a very rich piece, it’s really about her life and who she was. A bit like the “Intimate Audrey” exhibition. I’m very pleased with it. All these projects seem to align beautifully.

Interview via Google Meets,
November 10, 2020

Book trailer, “Little Audrey’s Daydream”