A Memoir of My Early Years
By Julie Andrews
Hyperion, 339 pages, $28.95
Before I began reading Julie Andrews's Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, memories of Pauline Kael's devastating comments on the actress in the nauseatingly saccharine Sound of Music bubbled in my mind: "the clean, scrubbed look and the unyieldingly high spirits; the good sport who makes the best of everything; the girl who's so unquestionably good that she carries this one dimension like a shield. ... Sexless, inhumanly happy, the sparkling maid, a mind as clean and well brushed as her teeth."
Wide-sweeping and savagely mean? Yes, but true to the spirit of the film version of Maria von Trapp, the singing novice turned singing nanny turned singing stepmother of the biggest singing and dancing brood of operetta and commercial fame. Despite her glorious soprano (with three octaves) and crisp diction, Julie Andrews had a film personality that seemed likely to create acute diabetes, for she was an advertisement for spoonfuls of sugar in almost every circumstance. On film, she was too good to be true and more virginal than the Virgin Mary.
However, the silver screen never revealed the real Andrews. Indeed, neither did Andrews - until this memoir, which shows us how most of her early years were anything but sweetness and light.
Ignore the soppy and inept poem to England in her epigraph, with its "Silver tinsel on the ground," "spun gold and steel" and her heart soaring like an airplane, or the instances when she sounds steeped in triteness ("forever soothing, forever serene") or ever-mindful of diplomacy and tact (except in the case of Time journalist Joyce Haber, who caused Andrews to famously remark: "That woman should have open-heart surgery - and they should go in through her feet!"). The fact remains that Dame Julie has a story that surprises with its unexpected revelations - such as her being the descendant of a great-grandmother who was a servant, a great-grandfather who was a gardener and maternal grandparents who died of syphilis. Though she confesses to weeping when singing some arias, she's truly a tough dame.
Her memoir is, of course, tinged with nostalgia for English vaudeville and music hall, the pantomime tradition, pastoral England and, most of all, Home (a word with many connotations). "Home" was the first comprehensible word Julie Andrews uttered as a child, and home was Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, where she was born on Oct. 1, 1935. "Dad" was Ted Wells, officially a "practical handicrafts teacher" who was fond of church music and had crisp diction and a light "bathroom baritone" voice. Julie loved him more than she did her mother, Barbara, a pianist who became the accompanist for young Canadian tenor Ted Andrews, the vaudevillian she would run off with and then marry, plunging with him into alcoholism, sordid domestic violence and financial hardship.
In fact, Ted Wells was not her real father. That mystery man turned up quietly at an upper-class party to which her mother had taken her. She didn't know who he was until her mother informed her on the drive home. Andrews never reveals his real name; nor does she reveal (quite understandably) any depth of feeling for him.
This deliberate reticence could be a form of revenge. Part of it is a case of English understatement, of course, but part of it is also Julie Andrews's preferred literary and moral mode. When this real father turns up at a party at the height of her My Fair Lady fame, she resents his "horning in on something that should have been my dad's province." The man sends her an annual Christmas card, but when he dies, that's the end of the matter for her.
She is similarly blunt and firm in her treatment of stepfather Ted Andrews, a man she disliked for his hard-drinking, physical abusiveness and sinister sexual transgressions. She had to put a lock on her door after he had twice tried, drunkenly, to get into bed with her.
She always knew how to settle things efficiently. It helped that she had immense vocal talent. After singing lessons from Lillian Stiles (Madame) who taught her about voice placement and techniques of coloratura and articulation, she became a child star at 10, performing before Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) at the Stage Door Canteen. At 12, she sang Polonaise from Mignon for Starlight Roof (you can find it on YouTube), and was hailed as the "prodigy with pigtails" and the "pocket-money star."
She was given a bunch of violets for good luck by a Cockney flower seller in Leicester Square (long before she came to play one herself), developed a crush on Vic Oliver, headliner and epitome of class and style, and got to work with the likes of Norman Wisdom, Max Wall, Max Bygraves, Richard Hearne (Mr. Pastry), Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Harry Secombe, Eric Sykes, Joyce Grenfell, Larry Adler etc. - a veritable Who's Who of English vaudeville - becoming, in short order, "Britain's youngest singing star" and "Britain's youngest prima donna."
In truth, she was the family breadwinner who single-handedly held the family together because drunken Pop's career was by now non-existent, Mom was unhappy, and her younger brothers miserable.
But then came The Boy Friend, in which she played Polly Browne. She still didn't know much about researching a role or "breaking down" a script, but she quickly won the role of Eliza Doolittle, which brought her into the orbit of temperamental Rex Harrison, who denounced her in vulgar terms before he came to recognize her talent. Of course, she had had the part pasted on to her by Moss Hart, the show's director, but she learned quickly, and when Camelot came along with Richard Burton, Robert Goulet and Robert Coote, she compounded her stardom. She admired Goulet's voice and sexy legs, and she felt a subtle, suppressed attraction to Burton, who flirted outrageously with her.
However, happily married to designer Tony Walton (her childhood sweetheart, with whom she had daughter Emma), she kept focused on her art and career, making remarkable television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Garry Moore Show and in specials, especially in the company of her beloved friend Carol Burnett. It wasn't long before Walt Disney wooed her for Mary Poppins, and the rest was Hollywood and movie history.
Her memoir ends with characteristic sugar. She hires "a sweet young nanny," all is "serene and happy" and she feels "supremely blessed." Somehow, after the gritty struggle against poverty, a broken home, an abusive stepfather and the rigours of vaudeville, this final sweetness doesn't seem false. There must be a sequel, of course, because everyone would want to know how she got from the asexual Mary Poppins to the androgynous Victor/Victoria, among other things.
Keith Garebian's new book is Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems .