Jonathan deBurca Butler
Among the rows of ornate tombs and headstones in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, Dublin sits a simple bright slab of marble. On either side, small white vases hold remnants of flowers that have all but withered. The slab itself is blackening and the plot before us has not been tended for some time. The inscription reads: “In Everlasting Memory of Anthony Hepburn-Ruston. Always remembered by his loving wife Fidelma and daughter Audrey.”
Audrey Hepburn’s father died in Baggot Street Hospital, Dublin on October 16th 1980. He was 91-years-old. For thirty-five years the father of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars had lived in Dublin virtually unnoticed.
Joseph Anthony Ruston was born in Bohemia in 1889 to an English father and his German wife, Catherina Wels. He was schooled privately and lived something of a privileged early life.
“He was highly educated,” says Sean Hepburn-Ferrer, Audrey’s eldest son. “He spoke thirteen languages. He was a beautiful horseman. He knew how to fly a glider. He used to take my mother up in the glider; she remembered it vividly. So he had a sort of dying-aristocracy upbringing. I don’t think he worked very hard in his life but he was a very intelligent man.”
As a young man, Joseph worked for the British Diplomatic Service. When World War I ended he found himself stationed in the Dutch East Indies. Here he met and married a Dutchwoman, Cornelia Bisschop. Not long into their union he became attracted to another Dutchwoman eleven years his junior. This was Ella van Heemstra, a baroness from Arnheim. In 1926 Joseph divorced his wife and proposed to Ella. They were married in September of the same year.
By now Joseph had found work with tin merchants Maclaine, Watson and Company and he managed to obtain a transfer to London. After a year he was moved to Brussels in Belgium where he was charged with opening a new branch of the company. It was here that Audrey was born in May 1929.
According to Audrey, her parents were not the most affectionate parents but she was well looked after.
Both parents were followers of fascism and even raised funds for British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley. Evidence suggests that Joseph was well thought of within the organisation – well enough to dine with Hitler in Munich along with Mosley and some of his associates.
Biographers have come up with all sorts of explanations for Joseph’s departure from the family home in 1935. For Sean Hepburn-Ferrer the reason is simple.
“I think he ran from my grandmother,” he tells The Sunday Independent. “She was sort of rigid and she could be pompous at times. He didn’t really know how to deal with her and so he ran.”
We know that shortly before the Second World War, Ruston was living in Regent’s Park in London. An announcement in the London Gazette, dated 21st April 1939, has him adding the surname Hepburn to his own. It had been the surname of his maternal grandmother’s mother and he believed its lineage to be of some standing. As to whether he thought it might help him prove his Britishness during the impending storm about to hit Europe is unclear but it does nonetheless prove that Audrey didn’t just pull the name out of a hat to help her career as has been suggested in some quarters.
Joseph saw Audrey intermittently while she boarded at a school in Kent in England. When World War II broke out her father raced from London to take her from her school and put her on a plane to what he thought was refuge in Holland.
“You know this is tough for a little girl,” says Hepburn-Ferrer. “He goes to fetch her from her school in England, he puts her on this orange plane to Holland. It’s almost like the last scene from Casablanca. Emotionally you can’t imagine what it does to you. He disappears, then re-appears and takes her to a plane before the war; this is heavy stuff. And then she doesn’t see him for years.”
As it turned out, it was almost twenty years before they met again. Once Joseph had put Audrey on the flight to safety, he returned to London where he was arrested for his association with fascism. He would spend the war interned on the Isle of Mann. Germany ignored Holland’s neutrality and thus Audrey spent the war in fear and danger.
Whatever distance there was between them before the war, had deepened by its end. Ella informed her daughter that her father was dead.
He was, in fact, alive and living in Dublin. After his release from prison, Joseph came to Ireland where he started a new life. By 1950 he had met and married Fidelma Walshe. Joseph was now in his early sixties. Fidelma was only thirty.
For the next ten years he followed his daughter’s rise to stardom from a distance but never made contact.
“My mother was kind of reluctant to talk about her father,” says Audrey’s second son Luca Dotti from his home in Rome. “In the simplified version of the story he went out for a packet of cigarettes and he didn’t show up again. Then he comes to the school and takes her to the airport, knowing that he would be arrested. And thereafter he didn’t look for my mother; firstly because he thought his political past might hurt her career but also because he didn’t want to be seen to be ringing at the door for money. Some biographies just say that he left and that was it but this other version of the story is much more respectable.”
“I think one of the things that needs to be appreciated about Joseph is that she sought him out,” says Audrey’s former long-term partner, Robby Wolders. “Once Audrey became famous, he didn’t try to take advantage of her. He never tried to capitalise on her. He never asked for help and I always had the feeling that he was dreadfully embarrassed about leaving Audrey and her mother in the lurch. I think he was an extremely proud man and I think like so many born in that sort of Victorian period he was unable to express his affection.”
It was Audrey who made the first move. By 1959 she was thirty, married and famous. She had won an Oscar for her role in Roman Holiday (1953) and she had just completed filming one of her most powerful films, The Nun’s Story. With the help of her husband, Mel Ferrer, she tracked her father down to Dublin and a meeting was arranged for the foyer of the Shelbourne Hotel.
“I think the fact that he left her when she was so young affected her entire life which is why my father made all those efforts to find him,” says Sean Hepburn-Ferrer. “And I think Joseph felt very sheepish when he finally did meet her. I think he was a very reserved man.”
According to some biographers, the pair met briefly, had a chat and that was the end of it; they didn’t speak for another twenty years. Hepburn-Ferrer’s recollection of the relationship is slightly different however.
“I only remember him from afar,” recalls Ferrer. “But he used to come to Switzerland, where we lived, now and again. I remember him standing in the courtyard of the house. So I remember a very serious, elegant man. Not very warm. He didn’t smile much.”
Luca Dotti also says he “knows for a fact” that his mother visited Joseph with his father, Andrea Dotti, whom she married in 1969.
Letters written by Audrey to her father also tell us that a line of communication had been opened up between the pair. The letters continued right up to his death. They are regular, warm and open and start with the greeting “Dearest Daddy and Fidelma”. In them, Audrey spoke of her films, her children and her busy lifestyle.
On August 31st, 1964, she wrote to her father that she “wanted to write much sooner but left almost immediately for Paris — just got back and had to plunge instantly into the packing for Rome, trunks and all, as we suddenly have to go soon as Mel starts in Rome on Monday.”
In July 1980 she tells Fidelma that her “marriage [to Andrea Dotti] is in bad shape” but she hopes she “can perhaps come [to Dublin] for the day”.
At the time of that letter, Joseph and Fidelma were living in an apartment on Sydenham Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin. According to one of their former neighbours they had been there “certainly since the early 1970’s”.
Geraldine Rowand, lived on Sydenham Road at the same time.
“I was in my twenties when I lived on Sydenham Road,” she recalls. “I remember he was quite a grand man, very tall. He was always very well dressed, a British [colonial] type of thing and he used to go off with his dog, a poodle, for a walk every morning in Ballsbridge. It bit him once and did quite a bit of damage to his hand but instead of putting it down he had its teeth removed. I remember he used to hand feed it chicken.”
“I was in their house once,” she continues. “She [Fidelma] was very nice and she was helping me with something. It was a rented apartment beside our house and you felt it was all a little bit beneath him. They did have these beautiful pieces of furniture. I’d say there was something of an age difference. She was very glamorous. They were nice neighbours.”
“He kept himself to himself,” recalls another former resident. “The other neighbours on the road were sort of invisible to him. He lived across the road and the only time we ever spoke to him was a time when Annie, their housekeeper, came over because Mr. Hepburn had fallen in the bath. He was a very tall man and she couldn’t manage him at all and she came over to my husband. That was the only time they actually exchanged words to the best of my knowledge.”
By September 1980, Audrey’s father was quite ill. At this stage in her life Audrey was seeing Dutch actor, Robby Wolders. He remembers accompanying Audrey to Dublin some weeks before her father passed away.
“Audrey and I went to see him just about a month or six weeks before he died,” he recalls. “I remember there was an Indian doctor with him and they seemed to have a wonderful relationship. It really struck me because like so many people of his period he was somewhat biased, let’s say, towards minorities. When I mentioned it to Audrey she found it wonderfully ironic. You know, here he was at the end of his life and one of the people he had looked down on was here looking after him.”
“Anyway while we were visiting, I was left alone in the apartment with him because Audrey went out somewhere with Fidelma and he just opened up,” he continues. “Strangely enough, he chose to convey to me the feelings he had for Audrey and the love he had for her. And an extraordinary thing happened. I had this St Jude around my neck which bore a striking resemblance to him. So I took it out to show him and he held it the whole time we spoke. There was something wonderfully gentle and serene about him. He might have been a pistol in his early years, particularly in terms of his political philosophy but at this stage in his life he looked quite sage; almost saint like. I’ve never quite seen someone approaching the end look quite that peaceful. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that we came to see him but I can’t be certain.”
Audrey did not go to her father’s funeral. Wolders explains that she was away working with UNICEF when news came through of his death.
“She was very saddened,” recalls Wolders. “I’m sure she had a great sense of loss and there was a disappointment there that there were no more chances for growing closer. It was, in a way, the end of an era.”