When I learned I’d be interviewing stage and screen icon Julie Andrews, I asked my 6-year-old daughter if she had any questions for Mary Poppins.
Yes, she said. Ask her what it felt like to fly.
Good one, I thought. Because you could phrase that same general question any number of ways — How did they pull off that effect? Were you really in the air, or did they just make it look that way? — to anyone involved with Mary Poppins. But only Mary herself could tell you what it felt like.
“Tell her I had to practice very hard,” Andrews said with a hearty laugh, calling from New York the day after turning 84. “And not to try it. I did it once from the top of the stairs, and it wasn’t exactly a very happy experience.”
It’s hard to imagine that any moment of Andrews’ illustrious career could be less than practically perfect in every way. But as the actor writes in her new memoir, Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years — which she will discuss Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall alongside her daughter and co-author, Emma Walton Hamilton — quite a lot in her life didn’t go as planned.
The book follows Andrews’ 2008 memoir Home, an account of her difficult childhood and first steps toward fame, including her rise from British vaudeville to originating the role of Eliza Doolittle in Broadway’s My Fair Lady. Home Work picks up where the first book left off, with Walt Disney himself recruiting Andrews for the title role in Mary Poppins, and runs through 1986′s That’s Life!, directed by her husband and frequent collaborator Blake Edwards.
A spoonful of sugar, it ain’t. There are stories about filming The Sound of Music, Victor/Victoria and Mary Poppins (yes, she covers the flying), and working with Carol Burnett and Alfred Hitchcock. But Andrews digs into nothing more fully than the draining stress of her home life. Raising five children, including two adopted, in a blended Hollywood family. Coordinating travel between continents to maintain citizenships and, almost as an afterthought, some semblance of family stability. And balancing her own happiness and sanity with that of her husband, an occasionally obsessive workaholic who suffered from debilitating anxiety and an addiction to painkillers.
“Thank god for having a father that, I never saw him panic,” Andrews said. “He was a rock in my life, and I think he set a good example for me. Something about that British stiff upper lip. I don’t know what it is, but it was what it was. One got on with it, dealt with it. Life comes at us all in very different forms, and that happened to be mine.”
Readers of Home may recall that Andrews’ father isn’t actually Andrews’ father. Her mother became pregnant during a brief affair with a man Andrews didn’t learn about until years later, and chose never to get to know.
It wasn’t without consideration that Andrews decided to write so frankly about her family in both Home and Home Work.
“I wasn’t sure with the first book whether I should even attempt a memoir,” she said. “Yes, it’s one thing to write it for your grandchildren, but why publish?”
There are a couple of answers to that. For one thing, “it was an opportunity to pull together so much, really, to gain perspective and have an overview of one’s life, which I do now appreciate. Writing a memoir is like living your life all over again.”
The other reason, she said, is that Hollywood memoirs can be historically meaningful. Andrews points to Act One by legendary playwright and theater director Moss Hart, a mentor who directed her in My Fair Lady.
“That book he wrote was about a slice of life that I knew nothing about,” she said. “It so impressed me that I learned something by reading his book, and I certainly thought, Well, that’s a very good reason to write and publish a memoir. Because my early days in vaudeville, they were sort of the dying days of British vaudeville. It was on its last legs, so to speak. But those days, not many people know a great deal about, particularly here in America. So it seemed like it was okay to publish and talk about a time they might be interested in knowing about.”
Edwards, to whom Andrews was married for 41 years, was barely mentioned in the first book; they didn’t meet until 1966. But the director, whose credits include Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Pink Panther series, did read Home, and was encouraging — although “he was probably not happy that he wasn’t featured more,” she said.
Edwards died in 2010, two years after Home was released, which might be part of the reason it took 11 years for Andrews to ready the sequel. Andrews portrays her husband as brilliant, charismatic, adventurous and spontaneous, but also, in his weaker moments, cripplingly insecure. It may have been a great romance, but it also, quite frankly, sounds exhausting.
Edwards "was such a huge influence on my life that somewhere in the back of my head, what I learned from him over the years, what perspectives I gained from him” came through in Home Work, she said. But reliving some of the most stressful periods of their marriage, diary entries and all, wasn’t easy. Andrews said she couldn’t have done it without her daughter, "an anchor for me.”
If Andrews has a third memoir in her, it’ll have a lot of ground to cover — her return to Broadway in Victor/Victoria, the loss of her singing voice after vocal cord surgery in 1997, roles in films ranging from The Princess Diaries to Aquaman.
But that’s if there is a third memoir. Andrews, a grandmother of 10 about to head out on a book tour, isn’t ready to think about it.
“Ask me in about a year,” she laughed, “when I’ve recovered from this one.”
After the first few chapters of Home Work, Andrews doesn’t reflect that much on Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music. (One perhaps telling anecdote: For a while, she kept her Mary Poppins Best Actress Oscar stashed in the attic.)
Despite a resume filled with some of the most iconic roles of the 20th century — Mary Poppins, Maria von Trapp, Eliza Doolittle, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Thoroughly Modern Millie’s Millie — one senses Andrews prefers to live in the present rather than the past. She agrees, to a point.
“I do look backwards,” she said. "I seem to have a huge need for continuity in my life, which in my early, early years, I didn’t have at all. I’m very interested in history. In three generations, my family changed enormously, made quantum leaps, and I find that miraculous. And it makes me full of wonder. All of that is very interesting. But I do think that I’m more forward-looking than nostalgic. I need the continuity, but I really love whatever does come at me.”
That includes questions from 6-year-old girls about how it feels to fly like Mary Poppins. That was Andrews’ very first film, and 55 years and one so-so sequel later, her creation has lost little of its capacity to delight, even for a generation of kids raised by black mirrors. This week’s launch of Disney’s streaming service, Disney Plus, means Andrews’ timeless performance will fly on for the foreseeable.
“How lucky can a girl get, truthfully?” Andrews said. “When you think about the karma that I’ve had in my life, and the incredible opportunities that fell my way.
"When I’m asked, ‘Is there anything you can give us advice about, in terms of being in this business?’ I do say that things will come at you when you least expect it. If you’re passionate about what you do, do your homework, be ready, because you never know when that phenomenal opportunity’s going to come your way.”
You’ve just got to catch it and hold on. And watch out for the top of those stairs.
She’ll appear in conversation with her daughter and co-author, Emma Walton Hamilton, at two local events. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. $72.50 and up. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com. And 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $78.55 and up. (941) 953-3368. vanwezel.org.
By Julie Andrews
Hachette Books, 340 pages, $30