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Andrews unearths her ‘deeper level’

Special to The Times

The so-called Age of the Memoir has brought with it a wide variety of suspect motives for committing one’s experiences to paper -- the desire for easy notoriety or family revenge, or the chance to pull off some unethical fabulism -- but in Julie Andrews’ case, the goal was a little different.

“I wanted to write a memoir of what it was like to be around at the end of the vaudeville years in England,” she said last week in conversation with Patt Morrison of The Times at a Town Hall’s Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills (the two women will revisit their chat on Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA).

Even devoted Andrews fans may not know much about Andrews’ history in vaudeville, that vanished diversion of the emerging Victorian-Edwardian middle classes that gave audiences everything from dancing poodles to slapstick comedy, and in Andrews’ case, four-octave-range preteen singers. By age 12, the actress who would later rise to worldwide fame as Eliza Doolittle in the stage version of “My Fair Lady,” then on film as Maria in “The Sound of Music” and, of course, as the original supernanny, Mary Poppins, was hitting a high F above C in a London musical review called “Starlight Roof.” Her astonishing performances had British reviewers labeling her “the prodigy with pigtails.” (Regrettably, she says, complications from surgery to her vocal cords in the late 1990s have left her vocally impaired.)

But, as “Home: A Memoir of My Early Years” explains, all was not precocious on-stage triumph for young Julie. In fact, while her evenings may have been ripe with song in a cavalcade of rundown English theaters, her days were characterized by wartime air raids, shaky finances, the specter of alcoholism, barely dodged molestation and uncertain parentage. If her first word was, as she reports on Page 1, “home,” it eventually became a lament, shorthand for a childhood sacrificed to talent and other people’s demons.

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Her mother deserted the upstanding country schoolteacher who, for years, Andrews believed to be her biological father. The boozing troubadour with whom her mother then took up and married later made unsuccessfully lecherous visits to Andrews’ bedroom. Then she learned that Dad actually wasn’t -- that her birth had been the result of an adulterous tryst between her mother and a man whom Andrews is at one point introduced to, but whose identity we never learn.

The twin revelations of “Home” were tightly held secrets for Andrews until the book’s publication this month. “I didn’t speak of it until now because I didn’t want to hurt the family,” the 72-year-old dame commander of the British Empire said. This is an interesting admission, given that she also revealed that, in writing the memoir, extensive therapy had failed to completely resolve her family issues.

“I realized that I was still unconsciously angry with my mother,” she said, after receiving a standing ovation from the Writers Bloc audience, who ranged in age from those who remember the Broadway run of “My Fair Lady” to those who know Andrews as Queen Clarisse Renaldi in “The Princess Diaries” movies.

Her fans have definitely gotten behind the memoir -- it shot to the top of the bestseller lists, and this Sunday it will top out at No. 1 among hardcovers tracked by the New York Times. “The success of the book has been dreamlike,” she said. “But I’ve had a fairly acute shyness and reserve all my life, and now I’ve said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to talk about it!’ ”

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For her part, Andrews seems comfortable with her confessions -- although she did bristle slightly when she mentioned that the British press has had a “field day” since the book came out. “I was a little bit disappointed. The press seized on the more delicate bits, the more sensational parts.”

After the event, having spent an additional half an hour fielding questions and, in response to one young girl’s query, proving that she can still say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” backward, Andrews relaxed with a cup of tea and revisited her teenage trauma.

“I was in analysis for many years,” she said, looking extremely well-maintained in a navy pantsuit adorned with leather buckles, her brown-blond hair swept back crisply from her face and her eyes showing no sign of tiredness -- that bold Andrews sexiness, maternal and theatrical at the same time, hasn’t faded. “I felt I had been there, done that. But writing the memoir forced me to go to a deeper level. I didn’t understand what I felt until I started to read what I had written.”

For Andrews, the lesson of a difficult mother-daughter relationship has been to develop richer engagements with her own children, specifically her daughter Emma, with whom she has written numerous children’s books (“Simeon’s Gift,” the “Dumpy the Dump Truck” series) and whose editorial expertise she sought in banging “Home” into shape. “I was getting so far behind,” she said of the memoir project, which was initially commissioned by Hyperion in 1998. “But Emma gave me the nudge I needed.”

The two collaborated in high-tech style: They first conducted iChat video interviews by computer, then Emma had the transcripts typed up so that Andrews could review, edit and write. “It was two years of work,” she recalled.

The result effectively blends three main elements: personal journey, family reminiscence and plenty of anecdotes about the heyday of the Broadway musical. Andrews’ life has featured several strong women, most notably her childhood singing instructor, but perhaps because of her relationship with her stalwart “real dad” -- a “rock solid” personality who would do things like take her to fields of nightingales to hear them sing in unison -- and her challenging connection to her mother, great men of the stage and screen figure prominently in her storytelling.

The section on “My Fair Lady” finds her dueling with costumer Cecil Beaton and a flatulent Rex Harrison, as well as being trained to be a cockney lass by Moss Hart. “Camelot” places her under the seductive gaze of the charismatic Richard Burton, whom Andrews claims made a (failed) dressing room pass at her. She eventually marries Tony Walton, a childhood friend and prominent set designer, and, by the memoir’s end, she’s headed to Hollywood at the behest of Walt Disney, who had wooed her to play Mary Poppins. For the last 38 years, she has been married to director Blake Edwards, with whom she did her most controversial movie, “S.O.B.,” which involved an undercutting of her squeaky-clean image, culminating in a glimpse of her bared breasts.

Not that she has always held a defiantly wholesome view of her chosen craft. In fact, it’s the opposite, as an ecstatic description of the raptures of the stage in the book makes clear: “To describe now what theater means to me, and what the work feels like, is difficult . . . it is to do with the joy of being a vessel, being used, using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder. If only one could experience this every night. It is as great as sex . . . that moment before climax. It is as overwhelming as the mighty ocean. As nurturing as mother’s milk to an infant. As addictive as opium.”

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In other words, there was more to Eliza, Mary and Maria than met the eye. Andrews may have smoothed away the rough edges of her upbringing, achieving iconic status in the process, but she understands the role that the human hurly-burly, not always pleasant or safe for prime-time, has played in her life.

“Reflective as she is, Andrews has never taken her success for granted, and she’s aware that, had her mother never left her father, she might never have ascended to the heights that she has. Still, in proper British fashion, she’s reluctant to chalk it all up to the vicissitudes of luck. “I know I’ve been fortunate, but the key to my success is that I’ve been ready, time and time again.”

Was it her talent that allowed her to transcend adversity, or adversity that fueled her talent? She considered the question for about a minute, acknowledging its coy inversion but zeroing in on the salient aspect: her continual quest for home. “I wanted to be pulled up,” she finally said. “I was looking for a way to make life better.”


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