HOME: A MEMOIR OF MY EARLY YEARS
By Julie Andrews
Hyperion, 352 pages, $26.95
My favorite moment in Julie Andrews’ memoir comes after the first New Haven preview of My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison had a pre-performance panic attack, the show ran to an endless three and a half hours, but Julie Andrews was feeling pretty good. Her vaudeville training had helped her rise to the occasion, and the show had gone on.
She was sitting in her dressing room bathing in self-approbation when the door flew open and designer Cecil Beaton stalked in. Beaton picked up a little yellow hat Ms. Andrews wore in the show, and slammed it onto her head.
“Not that way, you silly bitch,” he hissed, like some road company Roger DeBris, “This way!”
Home carries little earthy charges of delight like that, interspersed with the smoothly narrated story of a life devoted to work and regulated by a somewhat oppressive sense of hyper-responsibility.
In almost all respects, it was an unconventional upbringing: On her mother’s side, Ms. Andrews’ family is something out of an Augusten Burroughs memoir. Both grandfather and grandmother died of syphilis, the former infecting the latter. Ms. Andrews herself is technically illegitimate, the result of a one-afternoon stand. (At the time her mother was engaged to the man Ms. Andrews calls her father—the man who stood by her after she was born and gave her unconditional love.)
Her mother later dumped the family and took up with a disreputable piece of goods named Ted Andrews, and they formed a duo (and later, with Julie, a trio) in the dying days of English vaudeville, during and after World War II. Both mother and stepfather became alcoholic.
Ms. Andrews description of London during the blitz plays like a stirring home-front scene from Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve. After the war, her astonishing mountain-spring soprano and sense of serene calm helped her climb the professional ladder. Things change slowly in England: Her descriptions of English vaudeville circa 1950 match Charlie Chaplin’s descriptions of English vaudeville circa 1900—except the names are more obscure and the acts seedier. John Osborne apparently got it right in The Entertainer.
The crucial moment of realization comes when Julie is 14, on a dreary train trip with her mother staring vacantly out the window. “I remember trying to infuse her with my energy. I hugged her, tried to comfort her, and told her we were going to have a great week of peace and quiet. ‘And I will help make it right and continue working,’ I said. ‘We will get through this.’”
There it is, the ceding of girlhood for the sake of holding things together, not because she particularly wanted to, but because no one else was capable. (Ms. Andrews quotes a vocal teacher who once told her, “The amateur works until he can get it right. The professional works until he cannot go wrong.”)
She craves normality, or at least its appearance. Her foundationally strong but emotionally recessive English character leads her always to put a positive spin on grim events. Her boozy stepfather snuggles up with her in bed, asking for a kiss, but she dodges the dangerous moment and moves on. Anybody else would claim molestation, emotional scarring and victim status—not Julie Andrews.
Likewise, working with Rex Harrison—an enormously difficult, peevish personality (“If you don’t get rid of that c—, you won’t have a show,” he snapped to Alan Jay Lerner during rehearsals)—is summed up this way: “I don’t remember who said this, but someone made a cogent remark: ‘No matter how big a shit Rex was, the truth is he cut the mustard—and for that, one forgave him everything.’” Talent is the only shelter, the only true absolution. About Harrison she writes, “His technique was outstanding, and he moved like a unique dancer, sometimes on his toes or drawing his entire body up much like a human exclamation mark, his arms flung above his head for emphasis.”
She knows that her relentless chin-up cheeriness tends to cast a blinding light. Once, when she was rehearsing the TV production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and was idly whistling “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” Oscar Hammerstein came up behind her and said, “I really meant that when I wrote it, you know. I was so devastated when Paris fell to the Germans during the war, and remembering the city as I once knew it, I felt compelled to write that lyric.”
She now realizes she was working with giants: Lerner and Lowe, Moss Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. At the time, however, she didn’t really learn much about them. “Why didn’t I think to ask the hundreds of questions that haunt me today whenever I think about them? I suppose I was so busy finding out who I was, and I took for granted so much of my good fortune.”
So we get a lot of superficial description—which makes sense once we realize that Julie Andrews was always too worried about making money and caring for the lame, the halt and the blind (i.e., her family) to take much pleasure in her own company, let alone her own gift.
Her memoir ends as she’s leaving for California to make Mary Poppins, appropriately cast as a quintessentially English, immensely kind and decent woman.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.