Imagine a vast attic lined with racks of beautiful, designer dresses, hats and shoes. Picture a big, red box brimming with glittering jewelry (albeit costume) once worn on the silver screen by one of the greatest beauty icons of all time: Audrey Hepburn.
That attic was the perfect children’s playground—a great space for a small boy like Pierluigi Christophe Orunesu to push his toy trains around to imaginary destinations, and for his sister, Marilena, to deck herself out in the necklaces, crowns and tiaras that once adorned Hepburn’s slender, graceful frame in movies like “My Fair Lady” and “Breakfast at Tiffanys.”
The Orunesu siblings spent their childhood at La Paisible, Hepburn’s house in the small Swiss village of Tolochenaz, where their parents, Giovanni and Rucchita, worked for the last 30 years of Hepburn’s life.This was the house that Hepburn chose to retire to and where she chose to raise her two sons, Sean Ferrer (who is Pierluigi’s godfather) and Luca Dotti. A large, modernized farmhouse that dates back to the 1700s, La Paisible had all the trappings of a movie star home: an elegant salon with beautiful, tasteful furnishings; a grand piano; loads of framed photos of Hepburn in all her star glory, surrounded by other stars of the day like Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Paintings by famous artists like Balthus and Alejo Vidal-Quadras decorated the walls of the house, and it hosted famous people like Roger Moore, Robert Wagner and the pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, to name just a few.
But to the Orunesus—natives of Sardinia who came to work for Hepburn through friends of hers in Milan—La Paisible was home, a place that was as much an embodiment of its name (“Paisible” in French means peaceful, tranquil) as it was a reflection of its owner’s natural grace and beauty.
There, life was simple, devoid of airs and graces. It was at La Paisible that Hepburn was most at ease, where she would spend her vacations while she was still working, and where, in her later years as UNICEF ambassador, she would unwind after long trips to some of the poorest, most disenfranchised parts of the world. Trips, the Orunesu’s say, that were emotionally draining on Hepburn for all the misery and suffering she witnessed, and that clearly moved her deeply. At La Paisible, Hepburn could relax, breathe in the pure air of the beautiful Swiss countryside she loved so much, and truly enjoy the simple pleasures of home: fresh food made by Rucchita; a garden—Giovanni’s pride and joy—abounding with fruit, vegetables and flowers of all kinds; and a lively gang of active Jack Russell terriers that had the run of the house and that she doted upon.“She loved a quiet life, she ate healthily and much of what we cooked came from the garden that my husband, Giovanni, tended,” recalls Rucchita. “We ate in a very seasonal manner, whatever we grew in the garden and what [Hepburn] would buy from the farmers market in [the nearby city of] Morges: cheese, bread and special items sold by local farmers.”
Hepburn’s favorite dish, in fact, couldn’t have been any simpler: “She loved pasta with tomato sauce and lots of fresh basil,” says Rucchita. “She adored basil and would fetch it herself from the garden.”
Life at La Paisible was relaxed, unhurried, and despite the paparazzi that every so often threatened to disrupt domestic harmony, Hepburn, her sons and the Orunesu’s lived together happily.Hepburn taught Marilena to swim in La Paisible’s pool. Pierluigi and Luca often lied on her bed and watched videos on her TV set.
There were traditions, most notably a large, family gathering at Christmas, where every member of the household would open gifts together under a magnificent tree. Hepburn delighted in putting together Christmas baskets filled with nuts, fruit, sweets and thoughtful presents (“She gave me my first camera and my first CD player,” recalls Pierluigi), and she loved hiding Easter eggs throughout La Paisible’s vast garden for a family egg hunt.“
I knew she was a star, a big star,” Marilena says, “but I didn’t see her that way at all, so for me, it’s always been weird to see a bag or a T-shirt with Audrey Hepburn’s face on it. That’s a commercial Audrey that I don’t know at all.”The Audrey the Orunesus knew was one who favored jeans, shorts and T-shirts. Most of the time around the house, she was devoid of makeup and accessories, though her dressing table held every kind of beauty product imaginable.”
She passed onto me a lot of the creams and perfumes that would get sent to her,” Marilena laughs. “She didn’t have any use for them but I was lucky—I got a lot of nice stuff.”But although the star was very much the gamine at home, she was nevertheless extremely disciplined in her skincare and beauty regime, a habit she inherited from her mother, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, who lived at La Paisible till she passed away in 1984.The Orunesus remember the Baroness as tall and slim with flawless carriage. She had innate elegance and impeccable manners, she treated everyone with respect and consideration, and she had enviably beautiful skin.
“I will always remember what marvelous skin [the Baroness] had—simply amazing,” says Marilena.Hepburn inherited that same skin, and though “I cannot remember her obsessing about her looks, at the same time she was an extremely disciplined person when it came to taking care of herself,” says Marilena. “Let’s not forget that in those days they didn’t retouch photos the way they do now, so [Hepburn] was extremely lucky to have the skin that she did.”Like her mother, Hepburn was simple and elegant. “She didn’t need to accessorize or dress up to be this way,” Marilena says.
Several years after Hepburn’s death in 1993, La Paisible was sold. The Orunesus retired to their native Sardinia, taking with them Hepburn’s favorite dog, Penny—“she was [Hepburn’s’] shadow, she was as nice and gentle as her,” says Rucchita—looking after the animal until she passed away at the ripe old age of 19.
They have been back to Switzerland a few times, since Pierluigi lives in Morges, and have seen the house from outside. But though they have their memories, La Paisible is different now than it was. It belongs to others; it is no longer their home.What they miss the most about the house, apart from its legendary owner, is the magnificent garden that Giovanni—a landscaper by trade and a man with an innate knowledge of and deep love for plants, trees, fruits and flowers—took immense pride in maintaining, knowing how much it meant to Hepburn.
The star would spend hours in the garden, working tirelessly alongside Giovanni, helping him tend to the roses. As the scent of her perfume—her signature scent Givenchy L’Interdit, which was created for her in 1957—wafted through the air, mixing with the smoke from the Kent cigarettes that were her habit, she talked with him about the plethora of flowers that grew there.“She would pick lots of flowers and fill the house with bouquets,” says Rucchita. “I made it a point to bring in bouquets and arrange them around the house when I knew she was coming back from a trip because I knew how much she loved flowers.”
The fruits from the garden—cherries, apples, plums and pears—were eagerly consumed by the entire household when they came into season, and were also made into jams, jellies and sweet sauces (again, Hepburn’s favorite dessert was simplicity incarnate: vanilla ice cream with a sauce made from “poires mirabelle,” or pear plum, as the small, yellow fruit is known in English).
Years later, Pierluigi and Marilena believe the garden and the surroundings they grew up in have much to do with their chosen vocations.Marilena, who initially studied law, says it’s the colors of her childhood garden that unwittingly inspired her to one day pick up a paintbrush and put color to canvas. Her paintings have been exhibited twice in Munich, where she now lives, and she has given away all the proceeds of her sales to an orphanage in India.As for Pierluigi—named for the Italian photographer Pierluigi Parturlon who snapped many portraits of Audrey while she worked for Cinecittà in Rome—growing up in perfect harmony with nature, and in such close proximity to a true, natural beauty, definitely inspired the creation of his company, Eurolactis, the only company in the world with a vertically integrated supply chain focused exclusively on the production of donkey’s milk, which has long been valued for its extraordinary health and beauty properties. Truly, growing up in Hepburn’s beautiful country home gave the Orunesu siblings a unique and fulfilling childhood—the memories of which continue to enrich their lives to this day.