No New York City fire escape would be complete without Audrey Hepburn on it singing ''Moon River.'' At least that's the firm conviction you arrive at while watching Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the trouble is that any subsequent experience of New York City fire escapes and much else, including ''Moon River,'' tends to be disillusioning. This is known as the Audrey Hepburn effect. It's not just that her blend of patrician poise and girlish spontaneity turns out to be elusive in real life. It's that she made it so tangible, which is why women imitated her Holly Golightly set off a run on little black dresses and large sunglasses and why men fell in love with her.
Biographies of her, including this brisk, sensible one, Audrey Hepburn, by Warren G. Harris, are bound to take an elegiac turn. Her life, like her beauty, had a fragile, precarious quality. A case of whooping cough stopped her heart for a moment a few weeks after she was born (in Belgium, in 1929), and her health was always delicate. Emerging from the war a scrawny beauty with a passion for chocolate and ballet, she soon drifted into bit parts in British films. While shooting one in Monaco, she was spotted by the venerable French writer Colette, who decided she was the perfect Gigi for a Broadway stage version of her novella. On opening night, Audrey stole the show, and soon starred in her first movie role (Roman Holiday), followed by an Oscar and a dozen other memorable films.
Harris is good on movies and marriages (to actor Mel Ferrer and an Italian psychiatrist/playboy), but the essential, private Audrey seems to elude him and perhaps us all. There were a few discreet affairs with costars (William Holden, maybe Albert Finney), but the significant part of her offscreen life was devoted to her two sons, her home in Switzerland, and finally her brave work for UNICEF worldwide. She died of cancer at age 63 in January 1993. And it still doesn't seem possible. B+