April 1, 2008 -- 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.)
"I think I met him (her biological father) twice, and I corresponded maybe twice in my whole life with him," she says. "I didn't know if my dad knew that he was my father, so I never could talk about it with him. What if he didn't know? Why would I hurt him? What if it wasn't true?"
Andrews' memoir was 10 years in the making, and the emotionally fraught revelations were not easy to put into print. She vetted a lot of things first with family members.
"A couple of moments were very hard," she says between sips of tea. "But it seemed that if I was going to write it, I'd better do it as truthfully as I could."
The memoir ends in 1963 with Andrews signing on, at 28, to make 'Mary Poppins', her first screen role, which resulted in an Oscar for best actress. (She was nominated for best actress two more times, for 'The Sound of Music' in 1966 and for 'Victor, Victoria' in 1983.)
She self-deprecatingly describes her voice, which could trill over four octaves, as "freakishly high."
She writes of her stage experience during her 20s: rehearsing with Rex Harrison for their London and Broadway runs of 'My Fair Lady'; the physical allure and mercurial moods of Richard Burton; and visiting Disneyland with Walt Disney, who then cast her as Mary Poppins.
As she contemplated what to put in and what to leave out, some unexpected forces interceded.
"The day that I officially said, 'Right, everything's out on the table, and I'm going to start correlating, writing and so on,' this book arrived on my doorstep, a book about my (coal miner) grandfather called 'The Pitman's Poet'. It just felt like an omen."
Her daughter, Emma Walton, 44, also pushed her to write the memoir. (Emma's father is set designer Tony Walton, Andrews' first husband, whom she wed in 1959 and divorced in 1968.)
"Emma set me a task," says Andrews, who has co-written 16 children's books with her daughter. "She really conveyed to me her interest, and she nudged and cajoled. She said you're just going to talk, and she took out her tape recorder, then she sort of assembled the talk and handed it to me. And from that I began to write. She really pushed, prodded, questioned and made me go a little further."
Andrews also wanted to shine a light on a sliver of England's history.
"I thought, 'Ah, I could explain what it was like to be in the dying days of vaudeville in England,' " she says. "That's a piece of history that not many know much about. It was the end of the war, and vaudeville was fading fast. The theaters were old and tacky, and the quality of everything was awful, and yet it is a slice of history, and it did happen at a very interesting time."
Even now, as the book hits stores, she wonders whether she accurately portrayed some of the people to whom she was closest.
"I adored my mother. I always loved her to pieces. I felt that in some way I didn't do her enough justice in the book, that I was more angry than I realized."
Her mother, who died in 1984, fought bitterly with her stepfather and descended into alcoholism. Her mother "was shortchanged in life, too. She had a very tough life. Her father was an alcoholic and abusive to her, so no wonder she chose an abusive guy" like Ted Andrews.
"What I wanted to show," she says, "was the quantum leap I made from my parents."
As dark as her childhood was, Andrews found solace and support from her strong lifelong relationship with the man she called Dad (Wells) and her beloved Aunt Joan, her mother's sister.
Family ties are something Andrews always has treasured. She has a number of half-siblings with whom she is close. She has five children, including four from her 38-year marriage to director Blake Edwards. Two are Edwards' children, and two are children the couple adopted. And she has seven grandchildren.
"We are such an assorted bunch," she says with a serene smile.
She picks up a copy of her book and begins to point out who's who in photos. She's an open and chatty guide. There's her grandmother and her mother, who "looks so much like Emma's little girl."
There are pictures of youthful Julie, a little blond girl, performing as part of a family act. "That's me there with the bandy legs; I looked eager to please," she muses.
She points to a favorite picture: the one of 10-year-old Julie with Queen Elizabeth, the current queen's mother. She rifles through the pages of photographs and reminisces. "Thanks for indulging me," she says.
'A Whole New World'
Will there be a sequel since the book ends before she became a movie star?
Andrews says she decided to concentrate on her youth because she believes fans are familiar with her life after her role in 'Poppins', but they know little about her early years.
And because writing 'Home' was a long and arduous process, she has not committed to a second memoir.
But she loves to write. Her publishing career began in 1971 with her first children's book, Mandy, which she wrote under the name Julie Edwards.
"It's been a whole new world," she says of writing her memoir, which is getting good early reviews. 'Entertainment Weekly' praised her "lovely new autobiography" for its "intelligence, gentle humor and … clear, sweet, surprisingly powerful voice."
Andrews, whose recent movie credits include voicing the queen in 'Shrek 2' and '3', somewhat surprisingly calls herself "a late bloomer."
She credits Edward Wells with her gift for reinvention and staying vigorous.
"I write in my book that at 74 he took himself off to college and learned German," she says. "He said to me, 'I think it's everybody's responsibility to keep their brains as active as they possibly can for as long as they possibly can.' Obviously it resonated. I am curious, and I love meeting people, and I love finding new things out."
Andrews increasingly has relied on writing as a form of creative expression since 1998, when her vocal cords were damaged during botched throat surgery. She can no longer sing. (She sued for malpractice and won an undisclosed sum.)
"The reason you're seeing the emergence of these books is that I've properly and oh so gratefully found a sort of second part of my life," she says.
"I just found another way of using my voice — not a better way, but another way.
"Sure, I miss singing. I have huge regret. But it's nothing I can do anything about. So in the great tradition of vaudeville, we forge on."