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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Julie Andrews' autobiography: I could have read all night

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Julie Andrews. Growing up, I spent endless hours listening to the "My Fair Lady" Broadway soundtrack on...

Seattle Times movie critic

"Home: A Memoir of My Early Years"

by Julie Andrews

Hyperion

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Julie Andrews. Growing up, I spent endless hours listening to the "My Fair Lady" Broadway soundtrack on my great-aunt's enormous console stereo; or playing Maria in our neighborhood productions of "The Sound of Music"; or holding imaginary umbrellas aloft, pretending that, like Mary Poppins, I could fly. I didn't know much about the lady herself — she was English, my mother said — but there was something about her crystalline voice and calm, gentle presence that made me feel happy and safe. In "The Sound of Music," I adored the moment at the end of "Do Re Mi" where she clapped a hand to the top of her head when hitting that final absurdly high note, as if she just might explode. It seemed, to me, an expression of impossible joy.

A beloved icon of stage and screen for many decades, Andrews was from the beginning the kind of star who inspired feelings of great affection from those who watch her; a raindrops-on-roses combination of magnificent vocal talent and down-to-earth warmth. Now 72, Andrews has finally written an autobiography, or at least part of one: "Home: A Memoir of My Early Years" (published by Hyperion; in stores Tuesday) covers her life until 1963, when she began work on her first film, "Mary Poppins."

Home, she writes, was her first word and one of enormous resonance in her life, a life marked by a difficult childhood and a determination, from an early age, to create a sense of security for herself and her family. The woman whose voice meant home for so many of us, it turns out, struggled to find the serenity we all associate with her.

Looking back through not-quite-rose-colored glasses, Andrews has written just the book we might expect of her: filled with warmth and generosity, never saccharine yet always kind. A spare, elegant prose stylist (Andrews is no stranger to writing, having produced a number of books for young people since the '70s), she calmly debunks a few myths about herself; speaks frankly about her complex and troubled relationship with her mother and stepfather; and writes movingly about how she discovered, as an adult, that she'd fallen in love with performing. As a child on the English vaudeville circuit — whose parents quickly came to depend on her financially — singing was work, rarely pleasure, a source of income to help the family keep their modest home.

Writing the book clearly gave her cause to ponder how she felt about an early life spent on the stage. "In my youthfulness," she writes, "it never occurred to me that when I appeared onstage, I could perhaps make a small difference." In early adulthood — she was a Broadway star while still in her teens — her attitude began to change. "I now began to develop a sense of fulfillment in the doing — in the attempt to convey joy and to bring pleasure to people; to help them transcend their everyday worries and problems for the few hours that they are a part of the theater experience. I was finding reasons, motivations, a deeper core — and an answer as to why I was given the gift in the first place."

"All I want is a room somewhere"

Andrews was born Julia Elizabeth Wells in 1935 in Walton-on-Thames, near the great Thames River, whose babbling music charmed her as a child. Her father, Ted Wells, was a gentle handicrafts teacher; her mother, Barbara Morris, a vivacious, ambitious pianist. Their marriage was brief; when Julie was just 5, Barbara left the family for a young singer named Ted Andrews. "I can only wonder at the strength of my mother's passion, and what it must have cost her to go," writes Andrews, clearly still trying to understand. "I think she felt guilty about her decision for the rest of her life."

Ted Andrews soon became Julie's stepfather, and her surname was changed to his so their vaudeville act would seem like a seamless, happy family. The truth was rather different: Ted Andrews was a heavy drinker, his marriage to Barbara was tempestuous and at times violent and his stepdaughter often miserably unhappy. But somewhere along the line, he gave her a gift: Perhaps as an attempt to get to know her, Andrews writes, he began to give her voice lessons. Though often repeated (most recently in the new "Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography" by Richard Stirling), Andrews writes that the popular tale of her voice being discovered as she sang to her family in the air-raid shelters of World War II was a publicity gimmick. Nonetheless, this little girl had a very big voice, and a very bright future.

Taught by soprano Lilian Stiles-Allen to think of each note as the latest in "a beautiful string of pearls," the awkward-looking child with the long legs and hair ribbons became a star, singing in vast theaters, on the radio and on one memorable evening before the Queen. Andrews remembers a lucky omen on opening night of her first West End show: A Cockney-accented flower seller, hearing that the 12-year-old was making her debut, gave her a bunch of fresh violets "for luck" — a loverly gift, to be sure.

In 1954, Andrews received an offer that seemed impossible to refuse: a two-year contract for a starring role in the Broadway musical "The Boy Friend," a 1920s-style romp. But she was reluctant. "Given the fact that I was almost single-handedly holding the family together, that Pop was drunk a great deal of the time, that my mother was unhappy and my young brothers miserable, there was every reason not to go." Convinced that it would be madness to refuse, Andrews coolly insisted on a one-year contract — and got it. On the eve of her 19th birthday, she made her Broadway debut to rave reviews. Audiences danced the Charleston in the aisles.

"I could have danced all night"

And then there was Eliza Doolittle, the role Andrews would call "one of the most difficult, most glorious, most complex adventures of my life." Lerner and Loewe's musical "My Fair Lady" was to premiere on Broadway shortly after Andrews' year with "The Boy Friend" came to an end, and the writers were charmed by the young soprano. A trip home before rehearsals began was an emotional journey, with Andrews desperately worried about her family. "Who would cheer them and help banish the bleak depression in the household?" she remembers wondering.

Rehearsals were daunting, with the legendary designer/photographer Cecil Beaton rude and dismissive, and co-star Rex Harrison "quite rightly, making a stink about this silly little English girl who couldn't manage the role." But a weekend of intensive work with director Moss Hart (of whom Andrews writes with especial affection) helped her find the character's spark. Andrews repeats a telling comment from Hart to his wife: Asked whether the young actress handled the coaching well, Hart responded, "Oh, she'll be fine. She has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India."

Though anxiety about her family seems ever-present (and Andrews gently conveys her dismay when her mother, upon a visit to New York, expressed little enthusiasm or pride in her daughter's "My Fair Lady" performance), the later chapters of "Home" convey a life that seems touched by magic.

Those were years of acclaim on stage, in "My Fair Lady" and, following, "Camelot"; hobnobbing with the rich and famous; and finding love with an accomplished young man (designer Tony Walton, whom Andrews had known since childhood and whose stable, loving family seemed a haven for her), leading to marriage and a daughter, Emma. In the book's closing pages, Andrews and her husband and baby are flying to Hollywood, toward the "kind, creative hands of Walt Disney." As it turned out, she wrote, "I was going home."

"Before I gaze at you again / Let hours turn to years"

Perhaps Andrews has another memoir planned, covering the years of "The Sound of Music," the flop "Star!," the career revival in "Victor/Victoria," the amicable divorce from Walton and long marriage to (and movies with) Blake Edwards, and the heartbreaking loss of her singing voice due to throat surgery in 1997. But if she doesn't, "Home" gives us a lovely way to know this gracious yet remote star, whose book is no tell-all but a heartfelt, thoughtful and occasionally witty look back at the young woman she once was and the eventful life she led. And if the kind words she finds for virtually everyone she mentions (even Beaton and Harrison, though she has fun describing the latter's onstage flatulence) occasionally seem almost too good to be true — well, would we expect anything else from Julie Andrews?

"Home" reveals her to be not only a gifted, unique performer, but a woman with a remarkable ability to reflect and forgive, and a writer capable of quietly stopping a reader in her tracks with description. Consider this passage, on the sensual experience of being onstage: "The dust has a smell so thick and evocative, one feels one could almost eat it; makeup and sweat, perfume and paint; the vast animal that is an audience, warm and pulsing, felt but unseen."

As a kid, I wanted to be Julie Andrews. As an adult, I still do.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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