When Julie Andrews received her damehood from the queen in 2000, it felt incredibly apt. Prim, posh perfection is the pervasive image of the British-born star of stage and screen. Of course, she must be a dame!
And yet behind the polish and the innocent magic of her most famous roles — Mary Poppins and novice nun turned incomparable stepmom Maria von Trapp — is a personal life filled with struggle and fortitude, failure, and passion — and plenty of heartache.
Julie was raised “on the other side of the tracks” by an alcoholic and abusive stepfather and a mom who also descended into alcoholism. Her childhood was poor and troubled, and it was young Julie’s unique talent that became the much-needed meal ticket for the whole family.
After her exceptional singing voice was discovered — literally an adult’s vocal range in a child’s chords — she was thrust into vaudeville from the age of 10, performing on stage with her parents and touring England through World War II.
At the same time, thanks to the shortcomings of her addled parents, Julie was caring for her half-brothers and by the age of 15. The whole family was relying on her pay check.
On the eve of her 19th birthday, Julie made her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend — “the audience danced the Charleston down the aisles as they exited the theater,” recalls Julie.
And so began a pattern in Julie’s career — with every new venture another door opened.
Julie was noticed by musical theater geniuses Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who asked her to audition for the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. The work was grueling, and committing to a life in New York for a two-year contract away from her family, who she felt needed her, was tough.
“I was deeply anxious about leaving my family for such an extended time. I spent the better part of the flight back to the States weeping copiously,” Julie said.
But it was worth it. Even though she was passed over for the film — Audrey Hepburn landed it — Eliza proved to be Julie’s entry pass to Hollywood.
After the New York run, the show played in London’s West End for a year and Julie subsequently starred opposite Richard Burton in the musical Camelot.
Towards the end of its Broadway run, Julie received a backstage visit from Walt Disney, who cast her as the nanny with a carpetbag full of tricks and a musical score that showcased her intoxicating range.
Mary Poppins was box office gold, sparking stardom on a scale Julie still wonders at. To the rest of us marveling at her nightingale four-octave range, it seems completely appropriate.
By this time Julie had married her first love, set and costume designer Tony Walton, and together they had daughter, Emma. It was Tony who designed her costumes for Mary Poppins.
These early years from rags to if not riches, certainly success, were charted in Julie’s first memoir Home, published 11 years ago. What came next is the subject of her new work, Home Work.
Both books were co-written with her eldest daughter Emma, now 56 and a mom of two herself. And when I ask Emma to sum up her 84-year-old mother in one word, she immediately offers “resilience” — which is interesting because it’s the term Julie used earlier when I asked her to describe her own mother, Barbara Ward Wells.
Despite her shortcomings, Julie adored her mom and confesses she learned a great deal from her.
“She had a love and respect for music. She was a wonderful pianist, a very funny lady, and much more full of life than I think I ever could be … I think I’m much, much paler compared with her. In my eyes, anyway,” Julie said.
“She wasn’t a stage mom as such. She was very strict: ‘Don’t you dare get swollen heads, don’t you dare complain, you’re lucky to have what you have, and blah blah blah’ — which I thought was rather good. I still do.”
Emma describes her grandma Barbara as “a hedonist, who loved good food, music, handsome men … and booze.”
Mother and daughter are chatting — and to me — at Julie’s house in Los Angeles. They are known for finishing each other’s sentences (which must have been handy writing together) and as we start to talk, I realize there is a solid backbone of unquestioning love and unshakeable mutual support binding Julie and Emma, which I suspect has sustained them through some very choppy waters.
In Home Work they chart the ups and significant downs of Julie’s Hollywood years.
“Emma participated in some of what I was writing about so it was a very moving experience. We laughed and cried,” confesses Julie. “It’s like reviewing a life all over again.”
In the book Julie talks in depth about her roles, how the extra sparkle of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music was created against a backdrop of punishing hard graft. Julie was young and determined to succeed. But there was a price.
Constant separation, and the pressures of both of them building their careers pulled Julie and Tony physically and emotionally apart. At one point, Julie hit a wall and simply couldn’t stop crying. She was falling apart. Her friend, theater director Mike Nichols, mentioned he was in psychoanalysis and suggested Julie try it.
“I began to understand that the stress of trying to keep my family together all those years — supporting them at such a young age, my mother’s depression, my stepfather’s alcoholism, striving to hold on to the house that meant so much to us all — combined with the pressure of the war and touring all over England year after year, followed by the steep learning curve and rigorous demands of Broadway, a marriage and a child and now Hollywood … all of this had generated powerful emotions inside me, which I had buried in order to survive,” she said.
But Julie couldn’t save her marriage and Emma was almost five when her parents divorced.
“Tony and I had known each other since I was 12 or 13 and it was a great friendship, and it still is,” says Julie.
“That has never wavered and so even though it was very painful, the worst of it was, you feel [like] such a failure, because it’s certainly nothing that one anticipates going into a marriage.”
Two years later Julie married Breakfast at Tiffany’s film director Blake Edwards.
“I felt he was the most charismatic and interesting fellow I’d ever met, and there’s no doubt that to this day I don’t think I’ll ever find anybody quite like him. He was unbelievably terrific.”
Blake had two children and I wonder if Emma recalls feeling left out when her family suddenly burgeoned.
“I was three or four when they met, so I actually don’t have too much memory of a life without siblings, because both my parents remarried when I was quite young and then I gained a sibling on my dad’s side and the two on my mother’s side,” she says.
“I always felt like we were an extended family and then, of course, my younger sisters came along when I was 10.”
Emma is talking about the two Vietnamese refugees Julie and Blake adopted — Amy and Joanna.
“When we hoped to adopt, the first and foremost thing we did, of course, was to get permission from the kids,” says Julie.
“Emma especially was very, very generous about it. Then when the second one – Joanna – came along, I remember Emma said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you really want, but don’t expect me to babysit,'” says Julie with a giggle.
Much of the book is about Blake — the good times and the bad. Blake suffered from mental health issues including hypochondria and depression, which at times led to suicidal thoughts.
“He had a very addictive personality but he fought it for a long time … I think eventually it did get hold of him,” Julie tells me.
Writing Home Work has allowed her to stand back.
“One was so busy getting on with life and coping, being a mother, working and holding us all together. I guess I have reviewed it again and in re-reviewing, it was painful.
“I don’t know if I learned anything more but I certainly had great compassion for all of it. Blake was tortured and tormented by it, as a lot of us were — it’s not easy when you’re dealing with depression.”
The book ends in the late ’80s, with Blake and Julie heading back to Broadway to prepare their hit film Victor/Victoria for the stage.
Not in the book is probably the most cataclysmic moment of Julie’s life when in 1997, following surgery to remove noncancerous nodules on her vocal chords, she awoke to discover her voice, that glorious soprano that had delighted so many, was gone.
“It changed my life. What can I tell you?” says Julie with a deep sigh.
“I know it required on my part a period of mourning and then literally a change. I knew I had to get on with life or just fall down completely, and so I did embrace happily all the new aspects of life that life had to offer, and l began writing with Emma at that point and it was a savior.”
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Now to Love.