Audrey Hepburn, You Heart Breaker

[updated January 20, 2012]

Nineteen years ago today, January 20, Audrey Hepburn died of colon cancer at the age of 63.

This video of “Moon River,” sung by Audrey Hepburn, is hands down the best Hepburn tribute I’ve seen anywhere. It takes a minute to load, but the quality is better than the same video hosted on a Russian site.) The video got pulled from YouTube, but thanks to Hepburn’s enormous, global fan base, the tribute lives on.

And the song lives on too. Covers of “Moon River” are everywhere. It seems the entire world loves this simple, beautiful song.

But try finding a cover that does justice to the original, which was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

By her own admission, Hepburn could not carry a tune, so she performed “Moon River” in a breathy, conversational style. Even so, songwriter Mercer considered Hepburn’s version the definitive one amid numerous hits by some of the biggest names in show business.

Many of the video tributes to Hepburn play “Moon River” over images from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But in her personal life the actress had little in common with the troubled call girl created by novelist Truman Capote.

Hepburn’s lineage as a descendant of King Edward III of England — and her own classy persona — would seem to make the restless princess she plays in Roman Holiday a better fit.


An even closer fit might be her character in the compelling Fred Zinnemann film The Nun’s Story.

Hepburn plays the Belgian nun Sister Luke, who leaves her 17-year calling because she could not obey orders to remain neutral during World War II.

In one devastating scene, Sister Luke learns that her physician father, attending to refugees, was gunned down by Nazis. (Ironically, Hepburn’s own father was a Nazi sympathizer who abandoned the family.)

In 1939 Hepburn moved to Holland and studied ballet, and a few years later she danced to raise money for the Dutch Resistance. “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance,” she said.

In Hepburn’s presence, two relatives were shot to death for participating in the Resistance. During the desperate winter of 1944, Hepburn lived on tulip bulbs. In 1946 she read the galleys of Anne Frank’s diary. “I’ve never been the same again, it affected me so deeply,” she said.

Not exactly the life of a social butterfly in Manhattan.

Even so, it’s the images from Breakfast at Tiffany’s no one can forget. While Hepburn’s sincerity, depth, warmth, compassion and humility made her an unlikely choice for the role of Holly Golightly, those same traits enshrined her forever in the hearts of the public.

Blogger Pierre Cantillero writes that the lyrics of “Moon River” are not terribly romantic, and he’s correct that the words reflect Johnny Mercer’s childhood. In fact, when a childhood friend heard the song, he told Mercer that the line about “huckleberry friend” reminded him of when they used to go berry picking together. Mercer replied that’s good, because that’s exactly what he intended.

Mercer had originally wanted to call the song “Blue River” because he liked the sound of the word, but that title was taken. Mercer and Mancini settled on “Moon River” to get a similar sound, and they decided they liked the slightly melancholy scene the phrase suggests.

But I like the explanation in one of the comments on Cantillero’s blog. A reader wondered what exactly is a “moon river.” Another reader replied that it’s a river “created on the ocean when the moon shines on it.”

As for how “Moon River” became the most romantic song of all time, I suspect it’s because the song digs up memories of first love, which usually happens when you’re still a bit of a child. The idea of running away together — drifting and aimless in terms of geography, but deeply rooted in each other — resonates still.

Today won’t you raise a glass in memory of the one and only Audrey Hepburn? Or just sing a verse of “Moon River.”

My playlist of “Moon River” covers is here, on YouTube. Here’s one from the playlist:

About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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12 Responses to Audrey Hepburn, You Heart Breaker

  1. Tabbie says:

    She was an angel I swear.

    Yet another delightful multipart tribute to something beautiful and someone great. Thank you for this.

  2. On YouTube there were many tributes with photographs and footage of Audrey Hepburn, but I liked the one above. For a second opinion, I played it for my husband, who was standing behind me. “What do you think?” I said as I wiped away tears. I looked back and saw that he was doing the same.

    The word special gets thrown around a lot, but in her case, the word applies.

  3. Tabbie says:

    I’m most impressed, by the way, with Camei Illia.

  4. Tabbie says:

    And yes, baby is adorable beyond words.

  5. Camei’s cover was one of the first I heard when I began researching this post. I loved it right away. She was always a keeper no matter what else I had to eliminate.

  6. I almost included this cover by Morrissey. I like how Morrissey changes just a few words, and the song takes on a whole new meaning.

    Two drifters
    Off to see the world
    I’m not so sure the world
    Deserves us

    We’re after
    The same rainbow’s end
    How come it’s just around the bend?
    It’s always just around the bend.

  7. MdnssG says:

    I was pleasantly surprised when I saw myself on that list. Thank you for putting me on there. :]
    I especially love the Subway Harmonica Player.
    That was great.

  8. MdnssG: You have no idea how many piano covers I endured before I found yours. They lacked nuance – plunkety plunk plunk. Or they were grandiose. I’d just about given up on the piano for this post, so I’m really glad you decided to record and upload your lovely version.

  9. Elisa & Michele says:

    We are the “Italian couple” (we are brother and sister, from Padua – near Venice -); we want to thank you for choosing our video; it was just an improvisation of a song that we like so much. We’re really surprised to see us in your list!
    We especially like Aldo Blaga’s voice.

  10. Thank you for that correction Elisa & Michele. I enjoyed your version of “Moon River” very much. And yes, Aldo Blaga was so close to Sinatra that I looked for visual clues to be sure he wasn’t lip syncing. Amazing voice.

  11. Ivan says:

    The “Italian couple” is really awesome … In this moment I am proud to be italian …

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