“The hardest thing with this book was finding a voice,” Julie Andrews says.
She is talking, in a phone interview along with her co-writer, her daughter and longtime collaborator Emma Walton Hamilton, about her new memoir “Home Work,” which arrives on Tuesday.
The statement sounds, at first, like a joke — the voice of Julie Andrews is, after all, one of the most famous in the world, and not just the impossibly crystalline expanse of her singing voice, which, alas, was irreparably damaged during surgery in 1997. Whether in performance, interview or on the pages of the many books she has written, Andrews’ melodic cadence, often wry though always kind, is instantly recognizable.
But memoirs, like memories, are tricky things, the past reconstructed in the present, and finding a tone that reflects the reality of the former and the perspective of the latter is not easy. Although Andrews had already written one memoir, “Home,” she wanted “Home Work” to feel different because the two portions of her life were different.
“In ‘Home’ I was an adult telling a child’s story,” Andrews says, speaking from Sag Harbor, N.Y., where she lives, “but in ‘Home Work’ I am telling the story of my adult life. I wanted to write about how things came at me, about paying my dues, about learning my craft, learning who I was, learning to parent, all the homework that I did.”
The tone she and Hamilton settled on is conversational and strikingly matter-of-fact. Just like the title.
After all, when choosing a title for the story of her transition from “star of stage” to “star of stage, screen, television and the hearts of millions,” Andrews could have gone big. Very big. Her career certainly did.
While nothing like an overnight success — suggest that she took Hollywood by storm and you will be reminded, gently but firmly, that Andrews began working the British vaudeville circuit at 10 and made her Broadway debut at 19 — the fact remains that she began her film career by winning an Oscar for her very first movie (“Mary Poppins”), a feat she followed up a year later with the critically acclaimed antiwar drama “The Americanization of Emily” and a little picture called “The Sound of Music.”
“I was very lucky,” she says, a phrase that occurs often in “Home Work.” “I was blessed with a voice that gave me many wonderful opportunities.”
In the years the memoir covers, Andrews starred in countless films, television movies, specials and her own variety series, which won seven Emmys for its one and only season. The American Film Institute recently announced she will be receiving its 2020 Life Achievement Award (why it took so long is known only to them).
So when naming the book Andrews would have been forgiven a few superlatives. Instead, she called it “Home Work,” which plays nicely off “Home” while reminding readers that just because performers make it look easy doesn’t mean performing is easy. Especially when you are also dealing with, say, divorce, falling in love, raising children and entering psychotherapy. Or endless moving, ailing parents and a new marriage; troubled teens; a spouse’s struggles with addiction; and even, when she and that spouse, Blake Edwards, were adopting their second child together, the fall of Saigon.
In other words, life. Which requires a lot of work. Even when you are Julie Andrews.
Whether describing how the backdraft from the helicopter used to capture the famous opening shot in “The Sound of Music” knocked her flat into the mud on every take, or the difficulty of separating from and then divorcing her first husband, Tony Walton, her deep friendship with Carol Burnett or the grief she felt when she left her mother’s bedside hours before she died, Andrews manages to acknowledge the remarkable nature of her life while making it absolutely relatable, to offer perspective rather than a parade of nostalgic insight.
That wasn’t always easy either.
“It was like living my life all over again, except in more detail,” Andrews says. “At the time I was busy living my life, working, taking care of my kids, being a wife. It’s amazing the amount of things you shove away to get through the day-to-day.
“There was a lot of laughter writing this book,” she adds. “But there were definitely some tears.”
As with “Home,” she and Hamilton began by building a timeline, and then spent hours each day talking it through. “We had come up with a pretty good system,” Hamilton says. “And at a certain point in this book, Mom had begun keeping diaries.”
Although she had always kept copious datebooks, Andrews began writing daily journal entries around the time she began psychotherapy, an event she describes candidly as the most courageous thing she had ever done.
“It was around the time I was working on ‘Hawaii,’” says Andrews. “It was a way of sorting out each day, trying to get a tiny bit of perspective about all the things that were happening.”(Warning: That “Sound of Music” helicopter backdraft was nothing compared to the burning-skirt incident during the “Hawaii” shoot.)
The diaries, which are quoted often in “Home Work,” kept the book accurate — “More than a few times, Mom would swear something happened one place when it was another,” Hamilton says — but they also brought all those things Andrews had shoved away right back to life. Many of them were lovely and glamorous and funny: her decision, when she won her Oscar, to thank Jack Warner, who had refused to cast her in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” thereby freeing her up to do “Mary Poppins”; her children’s constant attempt to get her to curb her habit of swearing; her ability to learn from every film she worked on, even if she was being knocked flat, set on fire or dumped into freezing cold water; the joy she felt in adopting her two youngest daughters, Amy and Joanna.
And some of them were not. The most striking thing about “Home Work” may be the divide between the image of Julie Andrews and the life of Julie Andrews.
Not that it was terrible in any way, just busy and complicated, with moments of hilarity and frustration, though never despair, and always hard work.
“My mom’s coping mechanism was to be strong and resilient,” says Hamilton. “She is very compassionate and nonjudgmental.”
“I had to learn that,” Andrews interjects. “Just like I had to learn a lot of things.”
She might have been a Hollywood star, but the dysfunctions that made Andrews the family breadwinner when she was in her teens continued, and the constant worry about her mother and her brother became transatlantic. Her immediate success in Hollywood meant a lot of travel, and time apart took its toll on her first marriage. The divorce from Walton, though amicable, was difficult, particularly regarding Emma, as was Emma’s decision at 16 to live with her father.
Andrews’ relationship with and subsequent marriage to Blake Edwards was romantic, irresistible and creatively productive, but he too was divorced and had two children who were regularly traumatized by their mother’s suicide attempts. He also had a busy career, and suffered from chronic back pain, which led to an opioid addiction.
“I would read ahead in the diaries,” Hamilton says. “So I would know when we were coming to rough patches, and I would always try to start the day with the difficult things so we didn’t end with Mom in a dark place.”
“There were still some days when I couldn’t sleep after,” Andrews says.
Unlike their many children’s books, “Home Work” took mother and daughter on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Hamilton had helped her mother write “Home” but “Home Work” was, to a certain extent, the story of Hamilton’s life as well.
“Obviously, it was very painful and emotional when I left at 16,” she says, “but we had worked through that long ago so that was not really an issue. But I’m an adult now and a parent. And in the time we were writing about, I remember thinking, ‘Mom has all the answers.’ Now I see how much she was struggling.”
“One doesn’t get educated on how to raise your children,” Andrews says. “You have your own childhood to draw from but in the end you just have to learn while you’re doing it.”
While Andrews was not afraid to write about her shortcomings or the difficulties of balancing two careers with the needs of five children and an extended family, there were things, including Edwards’ struggle with addiction, that she was hesitant to discuss.
“Mom was never self-pitying,” says Hamilton. “She was ferociously focused on making sure that everyone understood that she knew how fortunate she has been. She would say, ‘I can’t write about this, it’s too difficult,’ and I’d say, ‘Let’s just write it and we’ll edit it.’”
“Blake wasn’t just an addictive personality,” Andrews says. “He was also brilliant, with a million ideas and so much energy. I didn’t want to dwell on just one part. I tried to just get it down,” she adds, “because I did think, ‘Would this in any way help other people with addiction in their household?’”
Edwards was also an early challenger of Andrews’ “practically perfect” image. “Home Work” corrects the details of one story long told about the couple. In the repeated version, Edwards, before they began seeing each other, once cracked that Andrews had violets for pubic hair, and when Andrews heard this, she sent him a bouquet of violets. In the book, it’s lilacs. Either way, she clearly delighted in his disregard for her “practically perfect” image; it was for his film “S.O.B.” that she famously did her first and only topless scene, to the outrage of millions at the time.
“It was really wicked fun to knock my own image,” she said, laughing.
“Home Work” ends on a high note, as the success of one of the couple’s collaborations, “Victor Victoria,” is beckoning Andrews back to the stage. She has yet to decide whether there will be a third memoir, which would include Andrews refusing a Tony nomination for that production (and possibly her last shot at EGOT status) because no one else connected to the show, including Edwards, received a nomination, as well as the loss of her voice, her continued success in children’s books and the many movies she has made since.
“I can’t say for sure,” says Andrews about writing a memoir about those years, “but it was another great and fascinating chapter in my life.”
If you go
The Los Angeles Times Book Club and the Ideas Exchange welcome Julie Andrews in conversation about “Home Work.”
When: 7:30 p.m., Nov. 18.
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, Los Angeles.
More info: latimes.com/bookclub