Julie Andrews, immaculate and crisp, is walking through a dusty construction zone in the upper reaches of Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre. Everyone stops working and stares—at 72, she still looks wonderfully like, well, Julie Andrews. A guy in a hard hat rushes over with his cell phone to ask for a photo. Downstairs, in the main theater, Disney's "Mary Poppins" is playing, based on the 1964 film that made her a star and won her an Oscar. But up here, in 1956, the place was home to rehearsals for "My Fair Lady." It was here that the 20-year-old English ingénue with an astonishing vocal range realized she had no idea how to become Eliza Doolittle, let alone create a Cockney accent. "I was inexperienced and painfully aware of it," writes Andrews in her lovely new memoir, "Home." Director Moss Hart put her through a sort of theatrical boot camp during which he "bullied, cajoled, scolded, and encouraged," she writes. "By the end, that good man had stripped my feelings bare, and disposed of my girlish inadequacy." And the musical's Eliza Doolittle was born.
Andrews has always loved the musty atmosphere of old theaters—"the smells," she writes, "of paint and makeup, and grease and sweat, and most of all, of warm dust from the great drapes and the painted drops and the grubby, pockmarked stage." Her mother and stepfather toured Britain in the dying days of vaudeville, and not long after the freakishly gifted Julie began voice lessons at the age of 9, she joined her parents in their act. At 12, she sang in a glamorous London revue called "Starlight Roof"—and when she hit the F above the top C, she practically caused a riot. In the book's photos, the "Prodigy in Pigtails," as the press dubbed her, looks eager and happy as she performs, or curtsies to the queen after a show. But life behind the scenes could be as grungy and dark as a theater's backstage. Her mum had taken her from her adored dad when she was 4, and her alcoholic stepfather tried more than once to molest her. They were often poor, and at 14, Andrews was supporting her family. It was around that time that her mother got drunk at a party and told Julie she wasn't the daughter of the beloved dad she occasionally saw but the result of an extramarital tryst. Andrews handled this news with a single-mindedness that keeps emerging in her story—and pushed the idea down. "Once I'd made up my mind that my dad was my dad, it wasn't so difficult," she says now. "He was a sweet, decent man, a rock-solid foundation." You can see what inspired Hart to say, "She has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India."
We are sitting in the midst of the vast empty main theater of the New Amsterdam—"Isn't it lovely here?" she says—talking about the reaction to her book. "I'm surprised that reviewers are finding my childhood so appalling," she says. "It was fairly modest, but it was what it was. I never felt sorry for myself. There is that show-business thing—get on with it and do it." If you must know, Julie Andrews is the very Queen of Genovia—not a bit chilly, but all elegant deportment and perfect posture, as if those lessons she gave Anne Hathaway in "The Princess Diaries" were absorbed long ago.
Andrews ends "Home" on a happy note, as she's winging first class to Hollywood to start filming "Mary Poppins," with her husband, the scenic designer Tony Walton, and their new baby, Emma. Andrews has no plans to write the rest of her story—"Everybody knows it," she says. After "Poppins" came the even-bigger film of "The Sound of Music," the end of her first marriage—and her now 38-year marriage to Blake Edwards, who directed her in such films as "Victor/Victoria." But then disaster struck, when surgery on her vocal cords destroyed her singing voice. "At first, I thought, oh, it's just going to take its time to come back," she says. "Then, when it didn't, I had to deal with it. And I miss it dreadfully."
But she's busy with her writing—particularly the children's books she does with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton (many illustrated by her ex, Tony Walton, who remains a close friend). She's an avid reader—working her way through Churchill's writings, among other things—and of course, she'd love to make another film. "I mean, life for me is, and has always been, quite miraculous," she insists. "I feel I've been truly blessed—and I don't mean that in a Mary Poppins-ish way." Yet surely, Miss Andrews, you have some vices? "Oh, God!" she whoops. "I'm great at Anglo-Saxon four-letter words." And she launches into a story about the last day on the "Mary Poppins" shoot, when she was hanging about, high up in the soundstage on a wire, when all of a sudden, she felt herself drop. "I hit the stage, like you don't believe—I could have broken my leg!—and I did let fly with some Anglo-Saxon words that I don't think the Disney studio had heard before or since." The F word, for one. And this reporter actually heard her utter the S word. Mary Poppins would wash her mouth out with soap.