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Julie Andrews Autobiography Released March 2008 in the UK -- April 2008 in the US


New York TImes
30 March 2008
By Emma Brockes

Climb Every Mountain

Julie  Andrews’s memoir is full of crisp locutions like “poor unfortunate” and   “banished to the scullery” and “trivet,” a 
characteristically precise term that the dictionary defines as “an iron tripod placed over a fire for a cooking pot or kettle to stand
on.” It opens with a soppy poem she wrote about England, but what follows is a decisively unsoppy account of a typically dismal
English childhood, complete with cramped lodgings and brutish relatives, which Andrews tells briskly and without self-pity.

Trivets come into it because, as is so often the case with the theatrically well-to-do, Andrews has refashioned herself out of
trivet-level origins. The story starts in Walton-on-Thames, a village in the south of England, where she grew up. Her great-grandmother was a servant, her great-grandfather a gardener, and both grandparents on her mother’s side died of syphilis, the only response to which is: blimey, they didn’t put that in the press release for “Mary Poppins.” (The book’s tone addresses precisely this kind of joke and seems to implore, with weary finality, Enough already.)

Many celebrity memoirs overegg the rotten aspects of a childhood in order to flatter the achievements that follow it, but Andrews
resists this. Her approach is restrained, and the quality of her prose such that you are reminded she is already an established children’s author. Her maternal grandfather was a rogue who served time for going AWOL from the army and whose philandering effectively killed his wife, who died shortly after he did, when Andrews’s mother was still a young woman. The portrait of Barbara
Morris by her daughter is touching; she was a talented classical pianist who, despite her best efforts, eventually sank, like her father, into alcoholism.“My mother was terribly important to me, and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth,” Andrews writes, “but I don’t think I truly trusted her.” Her father, Ted Wells, was a teacher, a kind, gentle man whom Andrews draws in loving contrast to
her stepfather, Ted Andrews, a vaudevillian whose name she was made to adopt when her parents divorced and her mother
married him.

There are two major revelations in “Home.” The first is that Ted Andrews’s well-documented alcoholism and violence extended to
creepier transgressions, which necessitated his stepdaughter putting a lock on her door after he twice, drunkenly, tried to get into
bed with her. The second is something that before she came to write the book she hadn’t even told her siblings: one evening when she was 14 and driving her inebriated mother back from a party, Barbara told her that her father was not, in fact, Ted Wells, but the man whose party they had just attended, with whom Julie remembered “feeling an electricity ... that I couldn’t explain.”

Andrews’s bluff delivery forestalls introspection; she lets these events speak for themselves. In light of them, her famous circumspection looks less like a stylistic than a moral choice. Tellingly, her strategy with Ted Andrews was to pretend he didn’t exist. (She treated him like a “temporary guest” in the house.) After giving the matter a great deal of thought, she turned down her
biological father’s offer to get to know him and was offended when, during the height of her fame in “My Fair Lady,” he turned up at
an after-party:“I didn’t like his attitude, and certainly didn’t like him horning in on something that should have been my dad’s
province.” To his credit, she says, he didn’t persist beyond an annual Christmas card, and she later heard he had died. We never learn his name.

The rest of the book is a jolly romp through an England that no longer exists, full of stout aunts and alcoholic uncles with nicknames
like Hadge, the backdrop to Andrews’s burgeoning fame in radio and music hall. After taking singing lessons, she joined her mother
and stepfather’s vaudeville act and by the age of 15 was so successful she was paying the mortgage on the family home. Her party
piece was the polonaise from “Mignon,” with its impossible top F, which she had been hitting since the age of 12 — she had a “youthful
‘freak’ voice.” She was, she writes, “sensitive, scared, foolish” and “a complete wimp.” She was also shy and terribly lonely. She did
an early screen test for MGM, and the word came back: “She’s not photogenic enough for film.”

There are occasional flashes of the piety that some later found so annoying. Andrews   writes of how, as a teenager, she wished that 
her mother would buck up and try harder: “I longed for her to be as disciplined as I was trying to be. I felt the act could have been so
much better if only she had cared to try.” And when she gets going on how marvelous the royal family is, she sounds like an
emissary for the English Tourist Board. But most of the book is painfully shrewd and written with real delicacy and pathos.

Celebrity memoirs often get dramatically less interesting once their subjects become famous. After her breakthroughs on Broadway
in “The Boy Friend” and “My Fair Lady,” Andrews deftly ends things as she leaves Britain for Los Angeles to make “Mary Poppins,”
accompanied by her first husband, the set and costume designer Tony Walton, and their baby, Emma.

To continue with the story you can skip to Page 118 of Richard Stirling’s “Julie Andrews: An Intimate Biography,” an extensive
cut-and-paste job that suspends its reverential tone only with the author’s panicked discovery that his subject may be close to
finishing a rival book: “I pondered why she should be writing it at all if, as I surmised, she were to be so selective. She certainly did
not need the money.” Poor Richard!

Except for a few unrevealing interviews, Stirling, an actor as well as a writer, is reliant on pre-existing material. There is a rehash of
some entertaining run-ins on the set of “Hawaii” between Andrews and Richard Harris, who called her “condescending and mean,” and
there is the novelist Penelope Mortimer’s damning summation: “Miss Andrews depresses me. ... If her vowel sounds weren’t quite
so pure, and her expression was less totally confident, I might be able to feel a twinge of sympathy for her.” It is interesting to reread the critics’ original responses to her films. Pauline Kael thought “The Sound of Music” would probably be “the single most repressive
influence on artistic freedom in movies for the next few years.”

The rest is a slog through press coverage, mainly of her second marriage, to Blake Edwards, and her five children. Bizarre emphasis
is put on the importance of her zodiac sign, and there are lots of breathy lines like “Julie Andrews, the singing nun, would sing no more.” There are also unintentionally funny observations like “The retroussé nose still surprises,” which raises the question: when were you last surprised by Julie Andrews’s nose? Neither book tells the whole story, but Andrews’s, at least, is as revealing for what
it doesn’t say as for what it does.


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