Millions, if not billions of people around the world know Julie Andrews from her songs in movies such as "The Sound of Music." Less well-known is the true story of her path to stardom. Our Sandra Hughes separates fact from fiction in this Sunday Profile:
We've heard the story so many times about the discovery of Julia Andrews' voice, and now we know that was just a myth.
"Well, it was a publicity gimmick," Andrews told Hughes. "You know, 'Julie Andrews' voice was discovered in the air raid shelters of World War II.' And it's not true."
But what is true about Dame Julie Andrews is that, in a town that's seen 'em come and seen 'em go, she seems to be forever, above it all.
Generations of movie fans know her as the magical Mary Poppins, or as Maria, the sweet singing governess in "The Sound of Music."
Then there are her roles in films directed by her husband of 40 years, Blake Edwards: Dudley Moore's long-suffering girlfriend in the movie "10," or the down-and-out actress pretending to be a man impersonating a woman in "Victor/Victoria."
With so memorable a career, you might find it difficult to believe that the Oscar, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning Andrews has far fewer warm memories from her youth.
"Well, I didn't have a normal childhood, but I didn't know that I didn't," she said.
It was a childhood marked by divorce, alcoholism and poverty.
"I'm so grateful that I had my voice, my singing voice, which gave me an identity, which gave me something to do when I was a child," she said, "because otherwise I think I might have been a little bit at sea, a little lost."
She was born Julia Elizabeth in 1935 to Ted and Barbara Wells. He was a teacher. Her mother was a pianist. They separated when she was just four years old.
Soon afterward, her mother teamed up with singer Ted Andrews to form a musical act. They married and eventually made it a family affair.
"Yeah, I had a kind of freak, four-octave voice that I could sort of do all sorts of calisthenics with it."
It was the sort of voice that captivated audiences throughout England. It wasn't long before young Julie became the act's star attraction.
"Their act was Ted and Barbara Andrews with Julie, with Little Julie," Andrews recalled. "And when it became Julie Andrews and Ted and Barbara, I think it must have hurt dreadfully."
By age 15, "Little Julie" was the breadwinner of the family, supporting her mother, stepfather and two younger brothers.
"It mattered very much that we raise ourselves up from the poverty that began our lives. So, yeah, I did everything I could to help and support and be responsible as well."
"I wouldn't say that it was a particularly happy childhood," said her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, "although she convinced herself it was a happy childhood."
Hamilton helped her mother write her new autobiography, "Home" (Hyperion).
"When we were working on the book together, I think she several times said to me, 'This is pretty grim. I don't think I quite realized how, you know, dark sometimes some of these moments in my childhood were.'"
There were some difficult things that she went back and talked about: her step-father and his alcoholism, and his inappropriate behavior towards her.
Andrews recounts the story in her new book:
"I noticed that he smelled of alcohol and was breathing heavily. Suddenly he said, "I really must teach you how to kiss properly," and kissed me full on the lips. It was a deep, moist kiss - a horrible experience."
"He was inappropriate," Andrews told Hughes, "but he was a sick man. He was an alcoholic. There were days when he tried. And there were days when it was just impossible."
It was very hard on Andrews' mother, being in the middle.
"Yes. I think she felt very guilty for all of the children. But it was what it was. I mean, compared to so many other people, we were surviving."
Surviving as a family also meant keeping secrets. Andrews was 14 before her mother told her that her real father wasn't the man she thought.
Andrews recalls in the book, "She explained that she had a one-time liaison with a man by a beautiful lake not far from where we lived. She went on to say that it had been very hard to keep this secret for long."
"At first i wasn't sure it was true," Andrews said. "And I never mentioned it to anyone because if it wasn't true I didn't want to make my brothers unhappy. And many, many years later I asked my aunt if it was true, and she said, yes, it was."
Despite all this, Andrews says she considers herself "blessed."
"I call the book "Home" I hope people will say, 'Well, what was home? Was it the theater? Was it really 'home' that I am referring to?"
Moving from adolescence to adulthood, Andrews found a new home on the London stage.
And at age 18, she caught the eye of the producers of a musical comedy called "The Boy Friend," and was offered the lead in the New York production.
She opened on Broadway on the eve of her 19th birthday. That performance led to the role of a lifetime - Eliza Doolittle… in "My Fair Lady"
But there was nothing magical about what came next: When it came time to cast the film version of the play, Julie Andrews was passed over in favor of a more established star, Audrey Hepburn.
It turned out to be the biggest break of Julie Andrews' career. That same year she went on to become a movie star in her own right, winning the Oscar for Best Actress for the movie "Mary Poppins."
Does any one of the characters she's portrayed seem the most like her and her personality, Hughes asked.
"Well, I suppose to some extent they all are a slight reflection of me," Andrews said, "but I'm told by friends who know me that probably the most like me is probably something like 'Sound of Music,' that kind of energy and joy. I do occasionally get very weary and tired, and I rush into the studio and say, 'Oh, I'm absolutely exhausted,' but I say it in such an excited, happy voice that they say it's very hard to believe that I'm really that exhausted! And I mean it; I just happen to say it with enormous enthusiasm!"
That enthusiasm endures, even though the one thing that makes Julie Andrews Julie Andrews - her singing voice - was all but silenced in 1997 after she underwent surgery on her vocal cords.
"I've got about five good bass notes. So if you wanted a rendition of 'Old Man River,' I can manage it. But the amazing thing is, it was quite devastating. And I was fairly depressed for a while. And then, it was either stay that way for the rest of my life, or get on and do something."
So, just like the determined Maria von Trapp, she "did something," taking full advantage of a bad habit:
'Well, I can occasionally curse with some wonderful Anglo-Saxon four-letter words."
"I just can't see that," Hughes. laughed.
Daughter Emma says it was her mother's penchant for swearing that led Andrews to discover what's become one of the great joys of her life:
"The very first children's book she ever wrote was a result of the game she was playing with us kids. We all had a bad habit that we had to give up. And one slip of the tongue and she lost the game. And my stepsister Jennifer said, 'Well, now you have to pay a forfeit.' And she said, 'Well, what's my forfeit gonna be?' And Jennifer said, 'Write me a story.' And that started her lifelong relationship to writing children's books."
She's now up to 18 books, most co-authored with Emma.
So, what's next for Julie Andrews? A lot more books for children, she says.
Which is not to say she's given up on films: She's the voice of the queen in two "Shrek" movies, and has another royal role in Disney's "The Princess Diaries" series.
At 72, Julie Andrews continues to rise, like Mary Poppins, above adversity.
Find out more about "Home: A Memoir of My Early Years" at the Hyperion Books Web site.
For information on her children books visit The Julie Andrews Collection Web site.
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