An interview with Julie Andrews, who was in Seattle recently to promote her children's book, "The Very Fairy Princess: Here Comes the Flower Girl!"
No, there wasn’t an animated bird perched on her shoulder, or a chorus of nuns singing “Climb Every Mountain” behind her. But Julie Andrews, visiting Seattle last week to sign copies of her new children’s book, was nonetheless as radiant as ever. At 76, having transitioned from actress to author (though she still acts occasionally, mostly in movies for children), she looks back at her eventful career with a graceful humility.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she said, of a life on stage and screen that began as a child in British vaudeville and made her a Broadway star before she was out of her teens. “There was a lot of talent out there.”
Many of us grew up with Andrews’ voice in our heads, happily imitating the trills on the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack and practicing that hand-on-the-head move as she hit the final high note in “Do Re Mi” in “The Sound of Music.” (I did; didn’t you?) The University Bookstore, one of four Seattle-area locations Andrews visited last weekend, was abuzz on Saturday — “Mary Poppins is here!” I heard a woman excitedly tell a companion — and the line for her 1 p.m. book signing began to form before the store even opened for business.
It’s rather surreal to meet one of your childhood idols in a nondescript bookstore conference room, but the ever-gracious Andrews seems to have the gift of immediately putting all of those around her at ease. In a friendly and informal interview (during which she asked for current movie recommendations, as she and her staff love to “pop into a theater” while traveling), she spoke of her life as a writer — which began more than 40 years ago, on a dare.
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“Mandy,” the story of an orphan who finds a secret cottage, was published in 1971; its author, who “used to play at writing stories when I was a kid” had never thought of writing a book before. On a family vacation, Andrews said, “We were playing a game that required a forfeit of some kind. I lost, and said ‘OK, what will my forfeit be?’ My eldest daughter said, ‘Write us a story.’ “
That child, Jennifer Edwards, was part of Andrews’ new family (she had married filmmaker Blake Edwards in 1969), and Andrews thought it would help them bond if she wrote something special for her. “Once I finished writing it, I felt kind of lost. I so enjoyed being with the characters, and I wanted to write more.”
Andrews has now written 25 books for children; many co-
authored with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton (from Andrews’ first marriage, to designer Tony Walton). The latest is “The Very Fairy Princess: Here Comes the Flower Girl!,” the third in a series about a little girl who loves to dress as a princess, but knows that true sparkle is something that comes from within.
Many of the books have been published as part of The Julie Andrews Collection, an assortment of books for children that explore themes of “nature, environment, decency, things like that,” Andrews said. Books by other authors are included in the collection as well, and Andrews is proud of having brought back to print, among others, “The Little Grey Men,” a story of the last gnomes in England, written in 1941 by Denys Watkins-Pitchford. “It’s a wonderful book that my father bought for me,” she said. “I think it influenced me greatly as a youngster.”
Not all of her writing is for children: Four years ago, Andrews published “Home: A Memoir of My Early Years,” an elegantly written autobiography that traced her childhood performing career, her Broadway success in “The Boy Friend,” “Camelot,” and most of all “My Fair Lady;” her first marriage and first child; and ends with her arrival in Hollywood in 1963 to begin work on “Mary Poppins.” Writing the book was, she said, a 14-year odyssey, assisted greatly by Emma (who helped with research and “pushed me to get things done”).
An inspiration for that book was, Andrews said, Moss Hart’s autobiography “Act One.” “He was our wonderful director for ‘My Fair Lady,’ and he wrote this magnificent memoir, and I suddenly realized when I’d finished it that it was a slice of theater history about which I knew nothing,” Andrews remembered. She had considered writing a memoir just for her family’s eyes, “but I just suddenly thought — those early days in English vaudeville. Not many people know a lot about it. So that was a reason that kind of tipped me into it. Vaudeville was in decline, as it was here, so the theaters were a bit grotty and tacky, but I never realized what a learning experience, what a life experience it was. I only wondered what the heck I was doing and where it would lead. Nothing is wasted, it seems!”
Andrews reflected a bit on playing Eliza Dolittle in the 1956 Broadway premiere of “My Fair Lady,” the role that she described in her book as “one of the most difficult, most glorious, most complex adventures of my life.” It is, she says, a remarkably difficult role: “I don’t think there’s a lady who’s played Eliza who hasn’t staggered through the rigors of performing it — it’s everything from singing in a pure voice to screaming in Cockney to actually performing a very wonderful play.” Though it’s been many decades since she played the role, Andrews says she still has “anxiety dreams about it — that I’m going to have to go on with no time to put my makeup on, a costume that isn’t available, and that I’m going to have to remember the words!”
“Mary Poppins,” for which Andrews won an Oscar, was the beginning of a film career that also encompassed “The Sound of Music,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” the Hitchcock thriller “Torn Curtain,” and many movies with Edwards, including “S.O.B.,” “10,” and the 1982 musical “Victor/Victoria.” They were married for 41 years, until his death in 2010.
“It was wonderful being directed by him,” said Andrews, smiling. “Except when I was doing a heavy love scene with somebody, in front of [my] husband. And he would say ‘Cut! That was fine, darling. But I know you can do it better.’ “
Will Andrews write a second volume of her memoirs, to encompass her film career, her new family with Edwards, her return to Broadway with “Victor/Victoria” in 1995, the tragic loss of her singing voice due to botched throat surgery in 1997, her extensive charitable work, and the recent revival of her acting career in children’s movies, most notably the two “Princess Diaries” films?
“I may,” she said, noting that it’s a frequent question. “Right now, I do make notes, because since my husband passed away I’m trying to remember everything I can. But I haven’t pulled any of it together, and I haven’t thought of what form. It would probably be a slightly different kind of memoir. I haven’t quite thought about how to fall into it yet.”
In the meantime, she’s keeping busy: writing with her daughter (“it’s a great joy”); preparing to direct a musical production of one of her children’s books, “The Great American Mousical,” at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut this fall; enjoying books and movies (she loves biographies, history books, and “The Artist”) when her schedule allows; and reflecting on a life in the spotlight. In her memoir, Andrews writes of the realization, in her early 20s, that she loved to perform — “that it was worth doing something very well, because I could give some pleasure,” she said. It’s a generosity of spirit that seems to have guided her life.
“It’s the doing and the giving that’s important,” she said. “I’m a lucky girl, to be asked to do all those movies. I’ve been very blessed.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725