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'Home' by Julie Andrews

JULIE ANDREWS' early life wasn't exactly Dickensian.

It was, however, filled with trauma, drama and colorful -- often tragic -- characters.

In her immensely readable "Home: A Memoir of My Early Years," the Oscar-winning actress, star of such classics as "Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music" and "Victor/Victoria," candidly discusses her parents' divorce, surviving the London Blitz during World War II, her mother's turbulent second marriage to a Canadian tenor with a drinking problem and her early musical career, which began at age 12.

But the memoir is not all angst as she recounts setting sail at age 19 to appear on Broadway in "The Boy Friend," which led to her immense success on Broadway in "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot."

Andrews, who has been writing children's books for the last three decades (including the popular "Dumpy" series), chose the title "Home" first because it was the first comprehensible word she'd said as child.

"My father was driving his secondhand Austin 7; my mother was in the passenger seat beside him holding me on her lap. As we approached our modest house, Dad braked the car to turn onto the pocket-handkerchief square of concrete by the gate and apparently I quietly, tentatively, said the word 'Home.' . . . The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since."

Andrews was born Julia Elizabeth Wells on Oct. 1, 1935, at Rodney House, the maternity hospital at Walton-on-Thames, a small town in Surrey in southeastern England.

Her father, Ted Wells, made a meager salary as a "practical handicrafts teacher." Her pianist mother, Barbara, supplemented their income by giving lessons and performing. Andrews doesn't remember a lot about her mother during her formative years because she was often away performing. That wasn't the case with her father. "He treated me and my siblings as his beloved companions, never dismissing or talking down to us."

Andrews confesses that she was once asked which parent she hated the most. "It was a provocative question and an interesting one," she writes, adding that it was quickly apparent to her it was her father she loved with all her heart. "My mother was terribly important to me and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth, but I don't think I truly trusted her."

In the summer of 1939, her mother met a Canadian tenor named Ted Andrews while doing a series of concert parties at the seaside town. War broke out that fall and in early 1940, he and her mother went off to entertain British troops in France. "There were two children at home who needed her, but I think the compulsion to go with Ted was overwhelming. . . . I think she felt guilty about her decision for the rest of her life."

Before her mother's divorce was final, she gave birth to a son, Donald. In 1943, her mother married Ted Andrews, and that's when Julia Wells officially became Julie Andrews. She recalls that she didn't have a say in the matter and adds, "I don't think my father did either. He must have been hurt."

Andrews, who was blessed with a mature larynx, first sang in public at age 9 when she performed "Come to the Fair" with her mother and Pop, as she called Ted Andrews. Three years later, she did her first radio broadcast and debuted in vaudeville musical reviews at London's Hippodrome. Critics dubbed her the "Prodigy With Pigtails!"

She was 14 when her mother asked her to sing at a party at an upper-middle-class house. After it was over, the owner of the house approached her. Andrews had recognized him from a few earlier visits he had made to their home. He seemed intently interested in Andrews, "asking questions almost piercingly." Afterward, her mother revealed that the man was Andrews' biological father, that she'd an affair with him when she was married to Wells.

Years later, Andrews' aunt told her that Wells was so in love with her mother, it didn't matter that she wasn't his legitimate child. "I believe he loved me dearly. And because I did not know then that he knew, I didn't have the heart to ask him about it before he died."

Meanwhile, life at home was increasingly strained. Ted Andrews was having a hard time finding work and began drinking heavily. They were strapped. At age 15, Andrews had to stop her schooling; by 17, she was contributing to the family finances, ultimately taking over payments on the family home. "I justified working so hard by knowing that I was helping to maintain the roof over our heads."

After appearing at the London Palladium in the title role of "Cinderella," the 18-year-old Andrews was offered a starring role in the Broadway company of "The Boy Friend," a popular British musical set in the 1920s.

Ironically, Andrews' memoir isn't quite as engrossing once she writes of hitting New York in 1954 because it's just less dramatic. Andrews is happy. She's the toast of Broadway and she marries her longtime beau, production designer Tony Walton.

There are, though, some great stories about working with Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady" (he loved to break wind on stage) and appearing in "Camelot" with Robert Goulet ("I found myself thinking, 'My God! His legs are divine.' ") and the charismatic Richard Burton. ("In all honesty, had he turned his considerable charms on me early in rehearsals, I do not know what my reaction would have been. He was that attractive.")

"Home" ends at exactly the right time -- in 1963 as she sets out from England with her infant daughter, Emma Kate, and Walton, for Hollywood to make "Mary Poppins" for Walt Disney. Let's hope Andrews doesn't keep her fans waiting long for the second installment in her colorful, turbulent and melodious life.

susan.king@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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