[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.
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.
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: