Without a doubt, one of the most interesting reads of the fall has to be Victoria Loustalot’s recently released Living Like Audrey: Life Lessons from the Fairest Lady of All (Lyons Press, 2017), which takes a look at the life of film (and fashion) icon Audrey Hepburn, the lessons that we might take away from the way that she lived her life, and how we might incorporate those lessons into our own lives. Read on to see what Victoria had to say about Audrey, how the book came about, and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): As I think you already know, I think your first book [This Is How You Say Goodbye] was brilliantly written. Arguably this book is a bit of a shift away from that. So, first and foremost, I was wondering what interested you about Audrey Hepburn, in particular, and how or why you decided to write about her?
Victoria Loustalot (VL): You know, it wasn’t actually my idea. The project was pitched to me and I was intrigued by it. I actually didn’t know that much about Audrey Hepburn when I started. I certainly admired her. I liked her films. I was a casual fan, you might say, but I was intrigued. I realized pretty quickly — before I even accepted the project — I thought that I do admire her. She seems to have a lot of fans. She’s very popular and that popularity doesn’t seem to be waining. Yet, so many people — even those who call themselves fans — know so little about her. I thought that, in and of itself, was intriguing to me — particularly in this day and age, where it’s pretty easy to think you know so much about a celebrity.
It doesn’t mean the information is necessarily accurate, but with social media and people presenting an image of themselves in this sort of intimate way — with their Instagram or Snapchat or what have you — that doesn’t mean there isn’t a team behind that effort, but there’s this feeling of camaraderie. There’s this feeling that if I comment on a celebrity’s Instagram post, there’s this chance that they themselves are going to see it or that they might respond, and it feels like this direct connection.
Here was an icon from another generation who people felt this close intimacy to, but actually knew very few concrete details about. I wanted to explore that — how she did it in her own time and also the strength of her magnetism, both in her own era and so many generations later, and why that was and why we were so drawn to her. That’s not necessarily something that would’ve ever occurred to me on my own, but once I committed to it and dove into it, it was really exciting and felt really right. I was so glad to have had the opportunity.
One of the things that I like so much about writing is being open to exploring topics or people or stories or ideas and coming to it from the perspective of just wanting to learn. I think that writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is a sort of free pass to ask questions and to be curious — to seek out interviews. If you’re an accountant and call someone up and you say ‘I heard you on this thing,’ or ‘You run such and such business and I really want to talk to you about it. It sounds really interesting,’ they’re like ‘Wait. What? Why? Why would I talk with you?’ If you say ‘I’m a writer and really interested in your work and I’d love to chat with you about it,’ people are really excited, more often than not. Not always, but most of the time. They’re excited to tell you about their passion and this was just an opportunity to explore a new topic and learn something, and then hopefully share some of what I learned with other people who might be interested.
AD: Yeah. I definitely get that. I feel the same way when it comes to writing, and I think your book just seems so thoroughly researched and so well done. I think there really is so much to be learned about her. I can’t say that I knew too much about her. Obviously there are some movies that I think everybody knows — Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday being a couple of the ones that I think are better or more widely known — but beyond that it’s not like I can say that I knew much about her, and I can’t say I’ve seen too many movies of hers.
VL: She also didn’t make that many movies. She actually made far fewer movies — it was sort of quality, not quantity.
AD: Which also seems to have been more of a guiding philosophy on her end.
VL: I think that’s right.
AD: You also discuss how that, at the time, actors — or some actors, anyway — were sort of able to get away with being kind of elusive, but it really didn’t work the same way for actresses. Yet, somehow, she still managed to do that. She was somehow still able to have this private side that many, at the time, could not. I just found that kind of surprising.
VL: It’s really true. I think it speaks to her talent, really — her talent on the screen and her talent as a human being. That’s sort of an odd way to put it, but that’s kind of how I think about it in terms of the relationships that she nurtured. She could afford to have those boundaries because she was such a talented actress, because she was such a professional and such a hard worker. She could have that privacy and people still wanted to work with her, she was still offered films, and people still felt drawn to her. So, I think she didn’t need to participate in the other side of it. I think you could even argue that, in some ways, that privacy that she took for herself and her family made her all the more appealing because it was different and unexpected. Whatever little slice people thought they knew or saw, they wanted more. So, she was intriguing.
AD: I would think that would’ve been pretty difficult, even back then. I think we have a tendency to think maintaining some privacy is more difficult today if you’re in the public eye. I think that’s true to a certain extent, but I think even though we do live in the age of social media, and in an age where everyone has a phone with a camera on it, it seems like maintaining that privacy would’ve been pretty difficult back then as well.
VL: I think that’s really true. We sometimes tend to think it was so much easier. It is certainly true that is someone were walking around Rome or Los Angeles and saw Audrey Hepburn, they wouldn’t have a camera on them to snap a photo the way that anyone can be paparazzi today. However, she was sort of very intensely hounded by paparazzi and professional photographers — particularly when she was in big cities like Rome. I recently watched the HBO documentary about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher and there’s video and photographs of the ways in which Debbie Reynolds was hounded by photographers with her two young children in tow during the scandal between her and Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor. It was sort of jarring, because somehow we don’t think it was as bad back then, but it was very intense. If anything, the paparazzi crowds were even bigger because that was the only source of photography.
AD: You also talk about some of the lessons you can learn from Audrey, what one can take away from how she lived her life. One of the things you say is that she was unassuming. There’s that passage where you write ‘When you are unassuming like Audrey, you have the great privilege and the great power to move through life ruffling the world’s feathers only if and when you want or need to. You have the extraordinary ability to listen and to observe and to learn from people when they have the most to teach — that is, when they think they are unobserved.’ I thought that, too, was an interesting observation and a very accurate one as well.
VL: It’s that whole notion of learning a lot more by standing back and listening and observing. You’re not paying as much attention when you’re the one talking.
AD: One of the other things I personally found of interest — and I think is particularly relevant — is the section in which you talk about the importance of being gracious and about what respect is.
VL: Yeah. I learned a lot. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect and to take a step back. It’s impossible to take on a project like this and really dive into the life and choices and philosophy of someone like Audrey Hepburn and not think about your own daily decisions and actions and choices. That was really sort of delightful — to see how much working on the book impacted my own behaviors or the way I interacted with people. Taking that extra beat or taking that extra breath and trying to be more thoughtful and conscious. Even if I ultimately made the same decision or said the same thing, it was done with more consciousness or more awareness because I was constantly thinking ‘What would Audrey do?’ because I had to be in that frame of mind to complete the book. Of course that’s going to bleed out into other aspects of your life, which was really lovely and welcome.
AD: I obviously don’t want to give too much away, but I think there certainly is a lot that can be gleaned from the book. For instance, there is nothing wrong with being ambitious, but I think she went about it differently. As you say in the book, it wasn’t this sort of ruthless ambition.
VL: It really wasn’t, and you know I want to make clear that there are many ways to skin a cat, and they are totally legitimate and wonderful choices and other ways of going about your life. Audrey’s philosophy or Audrey’s approach isn’t the only one, but it really resonated with me. That’s not to take away from the approach or the work of anyone else — famous or not. I think this is just one idea and one way to explore things, and I think that’s sort of an important component. I don’t mean to suggest that this is the way everyone has to do it, but I think that she did do things a little bit differently than we sometimes think about doing things today, and I think this book is a nice way to contemplate that or consider an approach sometimes.
AD: You also talk about how she was this sort of alternative role model for a lot of women, particularly in her day. She really wasn’t some sort of cookie cutter actress or celebrity. She really seemed to have been her own person.
AD: I think that even today that can be a bit lacking.
VL: And even if it’s not lacking, it never hurts to have a reminder.
AD: As I said, I think it really is such an interesting read, and I’m sure there’s so much more than we could discuss here, but is there anything else you wanted to touch on in particular?
VL: I think one of the things I like about this book is that it’s an easy book — it’s not a very big book, size-wise. It’s an easy book to sort of have out on an end table and, when you walk by it, flip through it and take a look at a photo. Almost all of the photos have a quote on them as well — most of them — and enjoy the photo, enjoy the quote and sort of dip in and out of it. You know, when you’re feeling vulnerable or struggling to be gracious or are struggling to know how to respond to a situation, you can flip to that section and read a couple of paragraphs.
I like that notion, but you can certainly read it from start to finish the way that you might a novel, which is lovely and I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing that, but I also think there’s something really nice and unique about this book. You don’t have to read it that way, either. You can take a look at the Table of Contents and see what jumps out at you and you can start there. I think there’s something useful about that, and I think books used to be more like that and it was a nice opportunity to create something that felt that way — to create something that could really be sort of a resource. Hopefully, when you turn to a page, you learn a fact that you didn’t know or read a quote that you hadn’t heard before — because she is so popular and there has been so much written about her. I worked really hard to try and include quotes and tidbits that were new to me and that I hadn’t heard and that felt fresh. I hope readers feel that way, too.
AD: Switching gears a bit, I know that when we discussed your memoir, I asked you about your influences. This time, I thought I would go a bit of a different route. So, what have you been reading lately? Are there any recommendations you might have?
VL: Absolutely. I guess you could say it’s Audrey’s influence. I’ve been reading older books — either books that were written a long time ago or books that are new but take place in the past. This was several months ago, but I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which is his second novel. I just thought it was absolutely delightful. It’s really, really lovely. You can very easily see it being made into a movie and, in a different time and if she was the right age, I could see Audrey playing the lovely young girl who is the central figure in the life of the gentleman in question in the title. That’s something I read not too long ago. Then I’ve also been reading a lot of Dorothy B. Hughes — the journalist and novelist who wrote detective noir, among other things. She was also a poet and reviewed other crime fiction. I think she also wrote a biography of the person who Perry Mason was based on [Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason]. She died in the nineties, and I think most of her books were set in the 1940s — which is very much Audrey’s time. So, I have been reading quite a bit of Dorothy B. Hughes as well, which has been fun. Just something a little bit different. Then I also read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which is historical fiction as well — before Audrey’s time, of course. I haven’t been reading too much in the present day, which may be Audrey’s influence, consciously or unconsciously.
AD: I actually just was looking at one of those books — A Gentleman in Moscow — the other day. I just kind of spotted it on a table in a bookstore.
VL: It’s really wonderful. His first book was Rules of Civility, which I don’t know if you’ve read that, but that’s also delightful and that’s also a period piece — although it doesn’t take place in Moscow. It takes place in New York. I highly recommend both of his books.
Victoria Loustalot was born in California and lives in New York. She earned her BA as well as her MFA from Columbia University. Living Like Audrey is her second book of nonfiction. Her first is the memoir This Is How You Say Goodbye. For more information, visit her website.
You can also find my 2013 interview with Victoria Loustalot regarding her memoir This Is How You Say Goodbye by clicking here.