[15 April 2008]
In her new memoir, Julie Andrews recalls a February 1963 plane trip to Los Angeles. Walt Disney had seen the freckled actress in Camelot on Broadway and hired her to star in a lavish musical fantasy he was planning, Mary Poppins. Andrews, then-husband Tony Walton and baby daughter Emma hurtled across the country, Emma tucked into a bassinet. “As it turned out,” Andrews writes, “I was going home.” An account of that trip, and just a brief mention of the celebrated film that ensued, are the final words of “Home,” which brims with eloquently told anecdotes about a difficult British youth spent in vaudeville, radio and concert performances—eons before the umbrella-toting nanny, hill-traipsing governess, Victor or Victoria ever trilled a note.
Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, is a lucidly told and engaging autobiography by the Oscar-winning actress, who has confined her literary career thus far to a series of successful children’s books. It chronicles the childhood of Julia Elizabeth Wells, born in 1935 to an aspiring vaudevillian mother and teacher father and named for two grandmothers, one of whom would die of “Paralysis of the Insane,” or syphilis, which “was certainly not `genteel.’” Andrews’ own aspirations to gentility—and her very working-class reality—characterize the first 18 years of her life, spent as a World War II-era latchkey kid.
Young Julia shuttled between the nature-loving father she adored (“Dad”) and her mother, a less-trusted figure who caused a rift in the family when she took up with Canadian tenor Ted Andrews (“Pop”). Her tenuous relationship with “Pop” was further strained when he made a disorienting sexual overture. A few years later, Julia learned that “Dad” was not her real father. Julia would eventually take her stepfather’s more mellifluous name, as her stature on the British theater circuit evolved, but it’s clear that “Dad” was the emotional anchor in her complex world.
More harrowing moments of Julia’s adolescence occurred during the Blitz, when bombings often forced the family to retreat into the London Underground for safety. As the war escalated, Julia, her mother and stepfather moved to Kent, where air raids, too, were a daily part of life. Julia was the only family member with the ear to differentiate between the fighter aircraft of the Royal Navy and German “doodlebugs” overhead, so she was charged with alerting neighbors, by whistle, whether the steady drone of an aircraft means it was safe to continue baking or necessary to retreat to a shelter.
Naturally, Andrews is at her most engrossing when telling backstage anecdotes. After moving to New York and making her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend, she was called on by director Moss Hart to create Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Andrews recalls that Rex Harrison, in his first musical role, was a “basket case” whose nerves spurred him to try and back out of the New Haven premiere hours before the curtain was to rise.
Her more enduring affections are saved for Hart, who spent a long weekend helping her overcome insecurity about the role. “Dear Moss. He later told me that he had said to his wife, Kitty Carlisle, `You know, if this were the old days, I’d have taken her to the penthouse at the Plaza Hotel, locked the door, made passionate love to her all weekend and she’d have emerged Monday morning—a STAR!’” Came Carlisle’s arch reply: “If you think it’ll do any good—go ahead.”
Equally gratifying are the encounters with backstage visitors, such as Helen Keller, who could neither see nor hear My Fair Lady but conveyed to Andrews that she identified with Eliza because of her own problems with language.
Andrews goes easy on theater colleagues, even her hard-drinking Camelot co-star, Richard Burton. She reserves the vinegar for outsiders, such as Time magazine reporter Joyce Haber, who was invited by the cast of Camelot to attend two weeks of rehearsals in Toronto, then published a negative piece about the show. “Many years later,” Andrews writes, “she did several hatchet jobs on me and my husband, Blake, prompting my remark, which Blake loves to quote: `That woman should have open-heart surgery—and they should go in through her feet!’”
As long runs in Broadway musicals took their toll on her precious four-octave voice, Andrews was obliged to see a string of specialists for treatment.
Those increasingly frequent office visits presage what fans know would come years later, when a botched throat surgery would threaten to silence her singing voice forever. Andrews still sings; fortunately, she also writes—a good thing, because there are still four decades left to chronicle.