Ever play that marvelous “what if” game that asks which famous figures, alive or gone, you’d like to have at a dinner party? I’d like to have Julie Andrews. Though she’d be charming seated next to some prickly pear with bad manners, say Genghis Khan, I think she’d have much more fun with someone with a keen wit and an eye for the ladies – Benjamin Franklin, perhaps.
This is the impression, at any rate, that one gains from her new book Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. Blessed with a voice of luminous quality and unquenchable warmth, “our” Julie has been claimed by the public since she stepped on stage. At various times she’s tried to cut through the treacle, the goody-goody image created by her early roles (turning herself into a gay icon in the process), to some success. Still, we insist, Julie Andrews will be what we want her to be.
All the more reason we should, unimpeded, listen to her tell her own story – a story that sounds very much like what I imagine her conversational style to be. It’s not a great work of prose, if you believe in such things, but it’s generous, observant, and never dull. When she is happy, things are lovely and charming. When she is sad, they are not. What may surprise readers is that life for her was often sad, at least in the beginning.
Julia Wells was born to working parents on the banks of the upper Thames, and it is the river that most reminds her of home:
To this day, when I am flying into England, it is the view of the river that I search for as we descend toward Heathrow. And suddenly, I see it – stately, sparkling, winding through the meadows, forever soothing, forever serene.
It is interesting that she chooses this metaphor, for home was often more of an idea than a reality. Her mother, a talented pianist, soon left the family to go touring with Ted Andrews, a minor revue performer. Touring led to an affair and separation soon followed. Julia, as she was originally christened, went to live with her mother and “Pop” in London at the beginning of WWII. Her younger brother stayed with her dad.
The separation was very painful. “Dad” appears as a patient, selfless man, in love with his wife and devoted to his kids. Like Ratty in The Wind and the Willows, the river was his territory, he enjoyed messing around in boats, and one senses that in some ways, home for the young Ms. Andrews was really him – a stable and protective force.
Stability was in short supply with her mum, Barbara. The daughter of a drunk womanizer and his timid, musical wife, Barbara appears as a distant mother in Home, haphazardly manic and depressed. Unsurprising, considering that both Barbara and her dancing sister Joan had watched both parents die of syphilis.
Unsurprising, too, that Barbara chose Ted Andrews, a man as sociable and volatile as Julia’s grandfather. Initially, the pair had little money and took a small apartment in sooty Camden Town. For a while, Julia slept in a cold utility room with exposed pipes. The light was left on all night, to prevent the rats from emerging.
The war raged on, with frequent close calls from bombing raids and trips to the Underground shelters, and family fortunes began to improve a little. Barbara gave birth to son, Donald. Ted began to give Julia singing lessons. They moved out of the city. And Julia Wells became Julie Andrews.
Though she is remarkably ambivalent about Pop in her book, to an outside observer he comes across as a blustering, dangerous man. A man who thought it permissible to tell a young girl, not yet ten, that she should come and cuddle with him like her mummy. Andrews escaped being physically violated, just, but was mercilessly exploited – hence the new stage name. Ted saw the enormous potential in his stepdaughter’s voice and resolved to take full economic advantage of it.
It’s a voice that follows the word mellifluous in the dictionary. In her youth it was higher, so high that Andrews could top a high F above top C on a daily basis. Initially brought on as a little novelty to her parents’ act, she was soon in demand in variety shows and revues. Thanks to the wonders of recording, you can hear her on YouTube singing the “Polonaise” from Mignon, the somewhat twee act that helped her to the title “Britain’s youngest singing star.”
Andrews’s fame was growing, but she was still a child. She spent much of her early teenage years touring with Mum and Pop, training her voice and watching her parents descend into alcoholism:
When my parents escorted me up to London, they would go to the Backstage Club between shows, a theatrical hangout where they could drink and socialize. Because I was underage, I wasn’t allowed in the club, so I would have to stay in the hall – where I could smell and see the bar and hear the clink of glasses.
As they grew less and less professional, Andrews grew more, taking over the responsibility of being the breadwinner. Her education, fragmented at best, ceased at the age of fifteen and she was left to fend for herself in a rough and tumble circuit:
These were the dying days of vaudeville. The provincial theaters were shabby beyond compare, filthy, with terrible facilities and chipped, cracked paint everywhere. The wood on the dressing tables was splintered, the floors were sticky, lightbulbs dusty.
It is in these years, perhaps, where Andrews gained the calm veneer and “stagy” presence that has sometimes irritated critics. Though moved to tears by an emotional song, she concentrated on suppressing her feelings and cultivating control. The smiling publicity shots, and her subsequent interviews, tell you nothing of the loneliness she admits here.
Nor do they reveal that she herself was the product of another of her mother’s liaisons. In the book she has little time for her real biological father, an unnamed figure. He comes too late. In charge of caring for disintegrating adults and her younger brothers, she threw back her shoulders and went on. Thankfully, she had both friends and luck on her side. There was her singing teacher, “Madame,” her Aunt Joan, and her childhood pal, Tony Walton, whose gregarious middle class family was everything hers was not. And there was a fortuitous performance in the pantomime Cinderella. Spotted by the director of The Boy Friend, she was thrust into the role of Polly Browne and bound, though not quite in a coach and four, for Broadway.
Broadway marks the beginning of a new Andrews, and a break from her past. Though she still supported her family monetarily and worried constantly about her siblings, she was an ocean away from the day-to-day troubles. She had an affair with another actor, lived in a tiny apartment, and experienced her first taste of real panic.
Vaudeville had not prepared her for The Boy Friend, and she admits that during rehearsals she had absolutely no clue what to do. Reverting to hammy tricks, she grew worse and worse. It was only a last minute intervention by the American producer Cy Feuer that saved the day. He told her to play it straight, as a guileless innocent. She did. And it worked.
Some will say that she has spent the rest of her life retuning this role, but I think this is unfair. After all, we can’t all be dark and twisted – there’s only so much Scorsese to go around. Plus, it is a precious few (thanks to Jack Warner) who have had the luxury of seeing her chuck a slipper at Rex Harrison’s head. My Fair Lady calls for a spitfire and the box office takings suggest she delivered.
It almost never happened. After singing for Lerner and Loewe, she auditioned in front of Richard Rodgers, for the forgotten Pipe Dream. Hearing about the previous meeting, and in an act of great theatrical magnanimity, he told her to take Lerner’s offer if it came.
A baptism of fire awaited her. Not only was she expected to carry the score, she needed to learn a Cockney accent, be dramatically believable, and accommodate Rex Harrison, who had never sung in a musical before. Despite the daily afternoon teas that she instituted with Stanley Holloway, a.k.a. Alfred P. Doolittle, she tells us she was feeling anything but calm.
Again, it took an intervention, this time by Moss Hart, to point her in the right direction. She doesn’t say much about what he did in the 48 hours of rehearsal that he devoted to her, but she does include one of his most memorable lines. When asked by his wife how the session had gone, he replied, “Oh she’ll be fine. She has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India.”
My Fair Lady was a hit and she belted it, day in, day out, both on Broadway and in London, fitting in her twenty-first birthday and a marriage to Tony Walton in the meantime. Actors on long runs have wonderful stories of mishaps and adventures, and she does not fail her readers.
On one memorable occasion, for instance, the very proper Rex Harrison let fly with a very windy noise just as Eliza had finished ticking Henry Higgins off at his mother’s house. The subsequent dialogue (“Henry, dear, please don’t grind your teeth,” “So you are a motor bus; all bounce and go and no consideration for anyone!” “No, my reverberating friend, you are not the beginning and the end”) had both her and the audience in hysterics.
From My Fair Lady she goes on to describe Camelot and her friendship with its inspiring force, T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King. Her time with T.H. White on the island of Alderney is revealing. A moody and messy genius, T.H. is the one she mothers, who teases her about her need for praise – “Let’s tell Julie she’s pretty today…pretty Julie!” – who taps into the girl who was forced to grow up too fast.
After all, at this point she was still in her very early twenties and, how should we say it, blessed with an active imagination? In the original production of Camelot, working with a magnetic Richard Burton and a devastatingly handsome Robert Goulet, she finds her attention wandering during Goulet’s love songs to muse on the divine proportions of his legs. With Burton, she has even more trouble:
I’m grateful that Richard remained professional with me, and didn’t press his luck until much later in the run. In all honesty, had he turned his considerable charms on me early in rehearsals, I do not know what my reaction would have been. He was that attractive.
She doesn’t succumb to his charms, of course, but oh, is she tempted.
Since this is a memoir of her early years, we cannot follow her past the initial stages of planning for Mary Poppins and the birth of her daughter Emma. Blake Edwards, the career lulls and highs, Victor/Victoria, her disastrous vocal operation – these are in the future.
In the future, too, is the movie Star!, based on the autobiography of Gertrude Lawrence, another singing lady who carried herself from the streets of London to glory. Julie Andrews failed to win the critics in that role, and one can see why. Lawrence was magnetic, true, but she was also self-centered and desperate for fame. Quicksilver personified, she lived for nothing but the lights. She called her memoir Star!; Andrews calls hers Home.
It is home that matters, whether it is the one she makes on the stage or with her family, to whom I am sure this book truly belongs. Unlike Lawrence, Andrews does not slip through the fingers or melt into the moonlight. We trust her as Mary or Maria because we sense the command. She’s there, steady as the rock of Gibraltar, as constant to her audiences as the river she loves. But even rivers have their secrets:
“I wonder what hidden depths lie within our Julie?” Alan Lerner said to Moss Hart one day, while Andrews walked along. And she replies many years later,
I suppose I still appeared a little glacial at times. I managed a jokey reply, but inside, I was yearning to say something pertinent and truthful. I wanted to let him know, “I’m in here, Alan. Believe me, I hear you. I’m in here.”
In here she is, with her worries and her humor and her incomparable professionalism, and I am very glad that she’s allowed us backstage.