Spend a sunny afternoon sipping tea in a garden restaurant with Julie Andrews chatting about her forthright and fascinating new autobiography 'Home: A Memoir of My Early Years', and it's hard not to conjure up images of the solicitous, proper Mary Poppins.
Perhaps it's because she has brought her own tea bags and is ceremoniously preparing her cup — and yours.
"I'm going to do this for you," she says graciously, adding a gentle direction: "Stir that."
Who could possibly resist Mary Poppins fixing you a cup of tea, with or without a spoonful of sugar?
(Andrews takes hers unsweetened, thank you.)
But, unlike the occasionally chiding nanny, the vibrant, youthful, 72-year-old actress is the epitome of charm and civility. Her grace belies a childhood that was difficult, even disturbing.
'Home' (Hyperion, $26.95), in stores today, details her early years growing up outside London in the village of Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. It offers new and at times harrowing revelations, including the fact that Andrews didn't learn who her real father was until she was a teenager.
Born on Oct. 1, 1935, Andrews grew up poor and was raised by an alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather. Barbara Ward Morris and Edward Wells (the man Andrews thought was her father) were divorced when she was 7. Julie's mother remarried Ted Andrews, a Canadian-born tenor.
Ted Andrews insisted on giving Julie singing lessons and legally adopted her. Julia Wells became Julie Andrews. At 9 she joined her mother and Ted in their popular vaudeville act.
Her voice was so impressive the press dubbed her "the pig-tailed prodigy." She had moments few children can claim: At 10 she performed for Queen Elizabeth (who later became the Queen Mother) and at 11 did her first radio broadcast for the BBC. She was performing nightly at the London Palladium at the tender age of 12.
Meeting the queen made a powerful impression. "After I curtsied to her, she said to me, 'You sang beautifully tonight.' At school the next day, the students were agog," Andrews recalls in Home. "It was my first taste of celebrity. The school klutz was suddenly the center of attention. Everyone became aware that my parents were in 'showbiz' and I relished being accepted at last."
A Shocking Secret
The disturbing moments in her childhood were also indelible. Her stepfather drank. Once, reeking of alcohol, he lunged after Julie, then 15, saying, "I really must teach you how to kiss properly," then kissed her full on the lips. "It was a deep, moist kiss — a horrible experience," she writes.
He tried again, and she fended him off. Later she installed a bolt on her bedroom door and did her best never to be alone with him.
There are other unsettling secrets in a life that sounds quasi-Dickensian with the young Julie helping to support her family by performing nightly.
Andrews' maternal grandfather, a coal miner, died at 43 of syphilis after infecting her grandmother. When Julie was 14, her mother took her to a party and casually introduced her to a man she later told Julie was her biological father.
"It rocked my world," says Andrews, who adored Wells, her mother's first husband, with whom she lived the first six years of her life and whom she called Dad. (Andrews doesn't reveal the name of her biological father.)