Julie Andrews Autobiography
#1 on the New York Times Best Seller List
as of 27 April 2008

16 April 2008
By John Simon

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years

Having finished reading Julie Andrews' Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, I feel there is no one in the world I'd rather meet than its author. Rarely have I read a memoir so charming, so wittily self-critical, so magnanimous to others, so full of funny but unmalicious anecdotes, so exquisitely balancing confession with discretion—so British at its best. Whether you are interested in show business or not, I recommend—no, I implore—that you read it.

It is called Home because, as Andrews writes, it was, apparently, the first word she uttered, and it became the thing most precious to her: home, and what goes with it, family. Home, it seems, is as much an Englishwoman's castle as an Englishman's—precarious, beleaguered, riven with animosities, but home nevertheless, preferably with a garden.

The English have been called a nation of shopkeepers, but I'd rather say gardeners or, absent a garden, nature lovers. Many an Andrews page is redolent with recondite love of nature and gardens. After gardening, Uncle Hadge's specialty, comes workshop-keeping: handicrafts, which Julie's loving father, Ted Wells, taught.

Julia Elizabeth Wells, born on October 1, 1935, was descended on both sides from poor working people. There was, to be sure, maternal grandfather and ne'er-do-well Arthur Morris, who turned from coal miner to poet and "entertainer." And father Ted (though, much later, a shocked Julie was to learn that beloved Dad was not her birth father), who was very fond of church music. Mum Barbara was by way of becoming a fine concert pianist, but poverty scotched that. She ran off with another Ted, Andrews, a Canadian popular singer, whose pianist, mistress and eventually wife she became. Ted II and Barbara evolved into a successful vaudeville duo until teen-aged Julia, renamed Julie, made it a trio.

Whereas Julie continued to love Dad, she justifiably detested her stepfather whom she called Pop, and who, among other bad things, made foiled stabs at seducing her. At age nine, Julia started singing, and, to everyone's astonishment, had an abnormally grown-up voice, and a very good one, too. Gradually she, too, became a successful vaudevillian, which led to…but I won't try to summarize an early-life story so rich in ups and downs and so extraordinarily fascinating. There's no way around it: You have to read it. Yes, read it and marvel. For it is written in a remarkable style, both simple and strong. Simple, of course, can easily turn bland; strong easily becomes elaborate. But the Andrews style is both simple and good, straightforward and cannily observant, remaining undimmed by celebrity, undazzled by limelight. Herewith some samples.

First, about poverty. "Once or twice a week, [younger brother] Johnny and I would share a boiled egg for breakfast. I would have the yolk and he would have the white. The next day he would have the yolk and I the white. Why no one thought to make a scrambled egg, I don't know." Next, growing pains, at one of her several schools, this one "run by two genteel ladies . . . probably partners in every sense." Here sports became "most mortifying" for Julie. "Everyone was so 'jolly hockey sticks' and hearty; I was reed thin, with bandy legs. During net ball, I was always placed as guard to some huge, strong opponent, and when I attempted to block these astonishingly healthy girls, they would leap in front of me, knock me sideways, steal the ball, and leave me staring after them, agape with wonder."

How vivid this writing is, how apt and original the adverb in "astonishingly healthy"! In a later passage, about gardener uncle Hadge working at one of her homes, Julie fluently names the various plants and trees, familiar with everything that grows. "The garden became my joy, my realm, my fantasyland."

The book follows Julie from her birth in tiny Walton-on-Thames to her marriage to a friend from early youth, the splendid set and costume designer Tony Walton, and their departure for Hollywood in the early 1960s, where she was to star as Mary Poppins. From one Walton to another—that gives the book a certain circularity and closure.

Even so—despite a glorious profusion of show-biz adventures and misadventures, riveting stories about famous and obscure people, penetrant observations about life inside and outside the theater—one is left a wee bit hungry. Why stop here? There are some titillating flashforwards—perhaps learned from her movie director second husband, Blake Edwards—but we long to know more, say, why her storybook first marriage ended, and how film stardom differs from triumph on Broadway and other stages.

But we forgive her, even as she forgives Rex Harrison, who, we know mostly from elsewhere, was pretty beastly to her. So, even when she leaves us hanging in the end, we cannot but love Julie: Didn't, or doesn't, everyone?

Let's go outside the book for some appraisals (only the third of which also appears in Home). Thus the eccentric, closeted novelist T. H. White, on whose writings Camelot is based, boasted in a letter of "flirting with Julie—who is a honey." Even the tough, abrasive P. T. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, was, as her biographer relates, "charmed at first sight." Moss Hart, who directed her in her two biggest theatrical hits, affectionately noted, "She has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India."

The acerbic film scholar David Thomson concedes, "Julie Andrews is a miracle, an English rose that never withers or pales." And the critics? The redoubtable Kenneth Tynan writes of "a first-rate Eliza, with a voice as limpid as outer space," and, concerning the film version of The Sound of Music, "It is Julie Andrews of the soaring voice and thrice-scrubbed innocence who makes me…catch my breath." I myself described her as "a look, a voice, and personality that live in perfect harmony with one another, whether she is singing, dancing, acting or just being."

Home contains a fair amount of previously published, but widely scattered, material; it also had substantial, gratefully acknowledged help from Julie and Tony's gifted daughter, Emma, together with whom Julie wrote a number of delightful children's books. Yet that nowise detracts from this gladsome, ebullient, sassy, generous book (British fair play even for the bad eggs), a pulsating page-turner. I can hardly wait for Home Again: The Later Years.

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