Julie Andrews’ ‘Home’ an engaging autobiography

SUNDAY, APRIL 20, 2008

“Home: A Memoir of My Early Years”

by Julie Andrews (St. Martin’s Press, 384 pages, $26.95)

At the end of her new memoir, Julie Andrews recalls a February 1963 plane trip to Los Angeles. Walt Disney had seen the freckled actress in “Camelot” on Broadway and hired her to star in a lavish musical fantasy he was planning, “Mary Poppins.”

Andrews, then-husband Tony Walton and baby daughter Emma hurtled across the country, Emma tucked into a bassinet.

“As it turned out,” Andrews writes, “I was going home.”

“Home: A Memoir of My Early Years” is a lucidly told and engaging autobiography by the Oscar-winning actress, who has confined her literary career thus far to a series of successful children’s books.

It chronicles the childhood of Julia Elizabeth Wells, born in Britain in 1935 to an aspiring vaudevillian mother and teacher father and named for two grandmothers, one of whom would die of “paralysis of the Insane,” or syphilis – which “was certainly not ‘genteel.’ “

As a World War II-era latchkey kid, young Julia shuttled between the nature-loving father she adored (“Dad”) and her mother, a less-trusted figure who caused a rift in the family by taking up with Canadian tenor Ted Andrews (“Pop”). Her tenuous relationship with “Pop” was further strained when he made a disorienting sexual overture.

A few years later, Julia learned that “Dad” was not her real father. She would eventually take her stepfather’s more mellifluous name, as her stature on the British theater circuit evolved, but it’s clear that “Dad” was the emotional anchor in her complex world.

Andrews is at her most engrossing when telling backstage anecdotes. After moving to New York and making her Broadway debut in “The Boy Friend,” she was called on by director Moss Hart to create Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

Andrews recalls that Rex Harrison, in his first musical role, was a “basket case” whose nerves spurred him to try and back out of the New Haven premiere hours before the curtain was to rise.

Equally intriguing are the encounters with backstage visitors, such as Helen Keller, who could neither see nor hear “My Fair Lady” but conveyed to Andrews that she identified with Eliza because of her own problems with language.

Andrews goes easy on theater colleagues, even her hard-drinking “Camelot” co-star, Richard Burton. She reserves the vinegar for outsiders, such as Time magazine reporter Joyce Haber, who was invited by the cast of “Camelot” to attend two weeks of rehearsals in Toronto, then published a negative piece about the show.

“Many years later,” Andrews writes, “she did several hatchet jobs on me and my husband, Blake, prompting my remark, which Blake loves to quote: ‘That woman should have open-heart surgery – and they should go in through her feet!’ “


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