Well into my early adulthood, I used to imagine I would one day meet Julie Andrews; it would be like a reunion with my childhood nanny, called away to pursue a theatrical career after spending only a short time with our family. But, that short time left a profound and tender impression on me. She had helped me discover my hidden talents, gain greater confidence in myself and become better able to relate to those around me.
I don’t know when I first became aware that others had similar feelings for this great singer and actress. She has touched so many of us such that we feel she was actually part of our lives.
Maybe it’s that I saw Mary Poppins when I was very young, remembering later in life only a few specific scenes while retaining an image of the eponymous eccentric, but empathetic governess she portrayed. And The Sound of Music has been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it at a special screening at the Carousel Theater on Reading Road in Cincinnati.
Yes, I can still remember the theater where I first saw that movie. I can even tell you that I was sitting in the back of the center section on the right side, near an aisle.
So much do I love Julie Andrews that when I bought her book, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, last week, I moved it to the top of a large pile of books to read. I started it right away. Not only did it keep me up all night, but it was something I looked forward to reading every night of the week for as long as I needed to finish it.
I couldn’t put it down, felt as connected to it — and as part of her shows — as I once felt she was a part of my life. And this despite the fact that it’s not very well written.
That is perhaps the book’s only flaw. Julie Andrews tends to write in simple declarative sentences, using the verb “to be” a little too much. But, she succeeds in telling her story such that I will be first in line to buy her sequel (she leaves off as she’s about to start filming Mary Poppins). And I recommend this book, very highly, especially to those who have been touched by this great lady and/or are eager to learn more about Broadway toward the end of its Golden Age.
She once sang (in a song which I understood was written especially for her) that somewhere in her youth or childhood, she must have done something good. And it seems she did very much good in her childhood, even under very difficult circumstances. Her mother was not faithful to her father, engaging in at least two extramarital affairs. Those affairs prevented her from devoting her primary attention to her family.
While Julie only hints at the pain this caused her, she doesn’t really say so explicitly. It’s clear she suffered from an absence of maternal affection. Â No wonder she shows a preference for her father whom she describes in glowing terms:
He seemed to know a lot about a lot of things. He loved language and grammar and math. He loved to study, and would sit at his desk, one hand to his brow, as he pored over the pages. Study, for him, was essential. . . .
Dad was never demonstrative. He rarely pulled me to him or hugged me or sat me on his knee. Yet I never doubted his love for me. He expressed his affection in many small ways, like sharing the poems, or reading to me, or giving the gift of his companionship, going for walks together.
When her parents divorced and her mother remarried, a young Julie went to live with them, taking her stepfather’s name.Â She cherished the time she spent with her Dad, looking forward to their visits.
Perhaps she was so believable as a governess on screen because Julie Andrews in her own life felt a special connection to children in need of the maternal attention she so longed for in her own childhood. She wanted to ensure they had the childhood she lacked.
After she moved away from her father, she describes her “awakening” in the London home she shared with her aloof mother and stepfather as suddenly growing from “child to adult-child in a matter of days.” She was five years old.
She was taking care of her younger brothers and looking after the household before she was in her teens.
What she lacked in maternal affection, she found in her mentors and was blessed with a series of musical and theatrical tutors, instructors and other guides (some legends in their own right) who helped her develop her natural talent into theatrical and cinematic success. Her mother may have been aloof and her stepfather alcoholic, but they did recognize her gifts and made sure young Julie had the instruction she needed to use them.
There was her colorful voice teacher, Lilian Stiles-Allen, who seems like a character out of Dickens. Wearing ankle-length skirts, a velvet cloak and beret and walking with a cane, “Madame” (as Julie called her), “was imposing, yet gentle and kind [with] the loveliest, most mellifluous voice.”
While “Madame” — and so many others — helped her get to Broadway, it was the play’s directorÂ Moss Hart who, while rehearsing My Fair Lady, helped her complete the transition from shy, English girl to charismatic, international star. She wasn’t getting Eliza right and at one point, costar Rex Harrison wanted her fired. But, Hart intervened, dismissing the company for forty-eight hours to work solely with Julie.
“Did he know how much I yearned for guidance?” she asks, recalling his humanity:
I do have a sense that he recognized and empathized with a lost soul. He came from a background of poverty and difficult circumstances. He knew what it was like to yearn for a way out, and he had received help from mentors who cared. I suspect that his instincts were so attuned, so generous, that he understood and reached out to give me one big chance, in hopes that I had the equipment to cut it.
And cut it she did. And more. Much more. Much, much, much more.
Together, they went through every scene. “Moss bullied, cajoled, scolded, and encouraged:”
By the end of the forty-eight hours, that good man had stripped my feelings bare, and disposed of my girlish inadequacy; he had molded, kneaded, and helped me become the character of Eliza. He made her part of my soul.
The world owes a debt of gratitude to Moss Hart for helping Julie Andrews realize Eliza.Â Had she not, she would likely not have become the star of stage and screen who has touched so many of us.
It wasn’t just her mentors who shaped her, it was also her friends. Throughout her life, she has been blessed with so many. Ever since learning how close she was to another one-time Broadway star whom I also adored in my childhood, I have delighted in her friendship with Carol Burnett, getting goosebumps last night when I read of their first meeting. (Kind of that Beaches thing–how some gay men are drawn to stories of strong friendships between women.)
Going to diner with Carol after seeing her star in Once Upon a Mattress, Julie and she
chatted on and on. It was as if we suddenly discovered we were living on the same block. We bonded instantly . . . . We also seem to have an instinct, one for the other, as to how our brains work, our thoughts, feelings. It’s always been understood that we are chums: we probably were in a past life as well . . . . [W]hen we do get together, we always pick up where we left off and never stop talking.
There is so much in this book, anecdotes about working with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, her friendship with T.H. White (she thought he was a repressed homosexual), her impression of Walt Disney, even her crushes for various stars of stage and screen whose fame she would later eclipse. Not just that, there are the stories from her difficult childhood, her stepfather’s sexual advances and his drunken binges.
She details troubles she had with her own voice and the many people who furthered her career by their kindness. There is a certain innocence to her voice, the way she relates certain anecdotes, particularly her attraction to men and the various sexual advances to which she was subject.
Through it all, she constantly shows her gratitude to those who helped her, implying that without them she would not have succeeded. She doesn’t take her success for granted as do so many others with considerably less talent than she.
When she’s on stage and everything goes right:
Then I think there is no more magical feeling, no one luckier than I. It is to do with the joy of being a vessel, being used, using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder.
As I read her book, I could feel that wonder. Last night, as I realized I had only a few pages left I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to keep reading, wanting to keep Julie Andrews in my life. So, as I began this piece, I went over to my CD cabinet and picked out a few albums to listen to as I write — and while I drive.
For Julie Andrews really has brought such wonder to so many of us. And is grateful that God gave her the gifts to do so and the mentors to realize those gifts. That is perhaps why so many of us believe we have a personal relationship with this great lady.
And why I recommend you read her book, listen to her recordings and watch her movies.