When Julie Andrews was 14, her mother took her to a party at the home of a man in a nearby town. At her mother’s bidding, the girl sang a song for the guests and sat down for a talk with the host, who was “tall and fleshily handsome.”
Andrews drove home because her mother was too drunk to drive. On the way, her mother blurted out the news: “That man was your father.”
The girl was shocked. All her life she had thought her mother’s husband was her father, a schoolteacher named Ted Wells, and she loved him as a natural parent. The fact that Wells was not her father was one of the many travails of Andrews’ life, which included dealing with alcoholism in the family and spending nights in bomb shelters while the Germans bombed London.
“I thought about it for years — that my dad was not my dad,” Andrews said in an interview with The Associated Press at her eighth-floor office in a Brentwood high-rise. “Was my mother sure? Was it a flight of fancy on her part? I finally asked my aunt, and she answered that my father did know that he was not my (biological) father.”
Julie Andrews at 72 seems little changed from when she was starring in Hollywood extravaganzas. She talked excitedly about plans for appearances, including two at the Hollywood Bowl, in dramatizations of children’s stories that she and her daughter Emma wrote.
She didn’t even seem dismayed by the loss of her singing voice, the result of an operation when she was in “Victor Victoria” on Broadway.
“It’s over,” she said with a note of finality.
Andrews talked with zest about the success of her new autobiography, “Home,” which hit No. 1 in its second week on The New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction. The origin of the book’s title came from when young Julie and her parents arrived at a new residence and the child uttered her first word: “Home.”
“About 15 years ago, I was asked by a publisher at Hyperion, Bob Miller, if I could write my autobiography,” Andrews recounted. “I didn’t know if I could or would write an autobiography or if my day job would get in the way.”
Miller kept after Andrews until she signed a contract in 1999 and received an advance. She began jotting down memories about her family and her early years in vaudeville during its dying days, and interviewed her brothers and sisters; her parents and her older relatives were all dead. She began writing three and a half years ago.
“Emma came on board two years ago, and that’s when proper writing started,” she said. “She and I have done 16 books together, and I had done four books before that.”
‘I had such characters to write about’
Born Julia Elizabeth Wells, Andrews got her start in show business at 9, when she joined her pianist mother in her vaudeville act. Andrews was soon winning audiences on her own with what she called her “freakish voice,” which spanned three octaves.
Meanwhile, her mother was often on the road, especially when she hooked up with a handsome singer-guitarist from Canada, Ted Andrews. Eventually, she married him, and at 17, Julie Wells became Julie Andrews.
In “Home,” she writes that she didn’t really trust her mother.
“I think that the best way to explain that is that my mother gave me all the color and character and flare and liveliness, and my father gave me all the sanity and nature and all the things that helped me be a more rounded human being,” Andrews said.
“My dad (Wells), being as decent a man as he was, if he said he was going to be somewhere, he was. My mum could be unpredictable. I didn’t doubt that she didn’t love me — I know she did, and I her.
“But being in show business, dealing with alcoholics (Ted Andrews) and becoming an alcoholic herself, she was not as reliable as was my dad.”
When she was writing “Home,” Andrews had the advantage of an in-house critic: her husband of 38 years, writer-director Blake Edwards (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Pink Panther” comedies and other movies).
“One of the few comments that Blake made about the book was that ‘characters make your story.’ I had such characters to write about — my aunts and uncles, the people I worked with, Tim White,” she recalled.
T.H. White, the eccentric author of the classic Arthurian tale “The Once and Future King,” lived in solitude on the tiny English Channel island of Alderney. Andrews and her husband at the time, set and costume designer Tony Walton, visited him and ended up buying a small place on the island. White was delighted that she would play Guinevere in a Broadway musical, “Camelot,” an adaptation of his work.
Although White could be cordial, he could also become quarrelsome. One night in an island cafe, he behaved so abominably that Tony and Julie, who was pregnant with Emma, called him on it. He stalked out.
‘To be that lucky is phenomenal’
Andrews writes of another encounter with an author. It happened the day after she had given birth to Emma Katherine Walton, on Nov. 27, 1962. The phone rang and a voice said, “Hello, this is P.L. Travers.”
After her Broadway triumphs in “The Boy Friend,” “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot,” Andrews had been signed by Walt Disney to star in her first American movie, “Mary Poppins.”
Travers, who had written the books about the high-flying nanny, commented, “Well, you’re much too pretty, of course (to play Poppins). But you’ve got the nose for it.”
Andrews considers herself fortunate to have walked with the “giants” of theater. “That great golden era of Broadway — I hit it just as it was peaking. It was wonderful.”
She cited the three great steppingstones in her life: at 12, when a flower lady on the street gave her violets as she was walking to a theater to perform and she ended up stopping the show; going to Broadway; going to Hollywood.
“To be that lucky is phenomenal,” she said.
The full title of her tome is “Home: A Memoir of My Early Years.” So is she planning on “Home: A Memoir of My Later Years”?
“I don’t think so,” she replied defensively. “I’m just so amazed at the success of this book. It was easier to write because I didn’t have to tiptoe around anything; I was just able to write it. That’s not true; I did tiptoe. But I didn’t have to worry because everybody has passed on.
“The later years would be harder to write because there’s just so much: the wonder of people I’ve met, the movies I’ve made. I can wait.”