By Bayley, Stephen
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
A visit to the Audrey Hepburn website produces a terrible numbing effect, like drowning in a swirling vat of seductively warm, opiated marshmallow. A hypnotic torrent of purring, sickly sweet approval blunts the sharpest critic's senses. Perfection never knew - or perhaps needed - so many adjectives. In even vicarious electronic contact with this actressy person, the wide- eyed (and just possibly ga-ga) visitor is given privileged access to the "aura of an angel on earth". I dare say the star of Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady had blackheads, a carnivorous publicist and a foul temper first thing in the morning, but she is described instead as "innocent, ethereal in her rare beauty". A special ambassador to Unicef, Ms Hepburn travelled to "areas afflicted by famine and devastation" where her presence may very possibly have irrigated drought and eased hunger with radiant, high-calorie virtue.
In her last film, Steven Spielberg's Always, Hepburn actually played an angel in white sweater and slacks. Her death in 1993, aged 63, enhanced a reputation already engorged with very sticky, triply distilled Goodness. In her life Audrey Hepburn was above criticism, in her death she moved to territory far beyond it. Beautiful, flawless, vice-free. Moral, kind, intelligent. To mutter anything even mildly contrary about Audrey Hepburn is to besmirch blameless virtue with the foulest profanity.
We all elected Audrey Hepburn to this impossible status. Lacking conventional saints of a contemporary relevance, we invent them. Our saints have to be immune from criticism, modification or abolition. We seem to need these fixed points in our negotiation with the chaos of the world. We seem to need people worth veneration. We seem to need what Audrey Hepburn has become. This perfect woman is a sacred cow.
As is Martha Stewart, the All-American lifestyle guru, who imminently goes on trial for "obstructing justice by covering up her part in an insider share-trading scandal". Half of America still adores her, however, and will not let go of this rarefied image of perfection.
In our turbulent and Godless vanity, sacred cows provide pleasing stability. The expression comes from India, an import from the Raj, where it was noted that pious Hindus venerate the cow. It is a principle of Hindu belief that all the deities reside in the body of this most useful and delicious female bovine animal. Each deity has a specific location in the anatomy of the beast: the "Devagana" (or heavenly and celestial beings) are located in, for instance, the anus. Because of the divine nature of the cow's every organ, criticism is blasphemous, modification impossible and abolition sacrilegious. Vasishtha tells us, however, that by bathing in water mixed with cow dung we may become sanctified. As every visitor to the Audrey Hepburn website soon concludes, such is the healing power of the concept even the prospect of immersion in diluted excrement promises a life-enhancing experience. In our busy technical world, there is something of sympathetic magic about the whole business. The sacred cow is our return to primitive religion.
Medieval hagiographies tell us that even vicarious contact with saints, touching the hem of their garments to offer an example, improved existence's lot. Imitation of the saints had even more dramatic effects. It was on this basis that Martha Stewart achieved her lofty status: she offered a form of redemption. Rather as a medieval penitent in his forest grove would encourage followers to emulate his piety and chastity in order to achieve a holy state, so Martha Stewart said bake cup cakes like me, watch my videos, copy my parterres, follow my recipes, read my magazines and you can have my standard of living.
With an announcement she made in 1991, Martha Stewart declared her own canonisation. "Martha Stewart," Martha Stewart mystically said, "is no longer a person. …