Dame Julie at 80

Dame Julie at 80

Julie Andrews can look back on an amazing career. Child radio phenomenon, broadway musical star, Hollywood heroine and Oscar winner and most recently, successful children’s author. She’s certainly multi-talented – but she has had to be. This very English star, with her beautiful manners and steely sweetness has coped with very personal shock and drama. And it started at a very young age...

Andrews isn’t Julie’s birth name. Her mother Barbara left her beloved teacher father, Edward Wells, when she met a Canadian tenor, Ted Andrews. Although it was Ted who first gave her singing lessons and discovered her astonishing voice, Julie missed her real father terribly. Nevertheless, called up one night to sing on stage with Ted, their duet proved such a hit that Julie’s singing career was launched. She became a radio star aged 11 and the youngest ever performer at a Royal Command performance – singing to George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the young Princesses.  But behind the glamour lay a darker reality...

Ted Andrews was an alcoholic who could be violent. Looking back, she has described him as,
“A very sad man... who had a tough life himself.” Her compassion for him is all the more remarkable as she recently shockingly revealed that, when drunk, he had also tried to get into bed with her, which forced her to have a lock put on the door.

Sadly, she couldn’t turn to her mother Barbara – a charismatic classical pianist – for protection, as she also succumbed to alcoholism. It was young Julie, as she herself admits, who was the glue holding this dysfunctional family together. The calmness she is so famous for, was learnt early as a harsh necessity for survival. While Julie loved her mother she could never, as she later explained, entirely trust her.

And with good reason. When Julie was just 14 her mother took her to perform at a house and introduced her to its owner afterwards. At the time, Julie remembers feeling a strange sense of connection. On the way home, her mother revealed that Edward Wells – the man Julie loved and thought of as her father – in fact wasn’t. The man she had just been singing for was. Barbara had had a passionate affair with him. It was another shock that, in order to survive, Julie, “Pushed into a dark corner of my mind.

The man, who she has never named, did try to rekindle a relationship with her, but she remained loyal for the rest of her life to the man who gave her real unconditional love, Edward Wells, “The one who instilled in me
any true reality
in my life.”

Julie never spoke of her mother’s revelation to him, but she movingly discovered from an aunt after his death that he had always known the truth of her parentage.

Julie’s other great prop was her amazing voice. She not only had a soaring four-octave range at a young age, but great strength and perfect pitch. Aged 19 she went alone to America to star on Broadway in The Boyfriend.

But while her voice may have been amazing, others were less enthusiastic about her acting skills. In fact, Rex Harrison refused to work with her on My Fair Lady, forcing director Moss Hart to spend 48 hours coaching her exclusively. He reported afterwards, “She has that British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India”!

Rex was proved wrong and Julie was a huge hit as Eliza. While Julie famously lost out to Audrey Hepburn for the screen version, she soon triumphed as Mary Poppins and went on to star in The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Victor Victoria, among others. But disaster struck in 1997. A problem with her singing voice led to a diagnosis of non-cancerous nodules – a condition treatable by surgery. But this time, the surgeons didn’t just treat the nodules, they stole her voice. Until then, whatever was going on in her life, Julie had had her remarkable vocal gift to take her away from it. As she said in an interview in 2000, “To not be able to communicate through my voice, which I’ve done all my life... and give people that kind of joy, I think I would be totally devastated.” 

Sadly, her voice has never come back. And Julie has candidly admitted that she had grief counselling to help her get over its loss. But also, just as she had done as a child, she eventually picked herself up, dusted herself off – and looked for a new way to give meaning to her life. She would also need it when her beloved second husband, Blake Edwards, died in 2010 after a long illness.

With her daughter from her first marriage, Emma Walton Hamilton, Julie wrote a book for children. (She also has two step-children and two adopted children.) Twenty-seven books later, she has a bestselling series on her hands. And her unmistakeable speaking voice has also brought her a new generation of young fans in family films from Shrek to The Princess Diaries.

Like her most iconic screen role, Maria Von Trapp, who stated in the film, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window” she has refused to be beaten by life. Dame Julie Andrews we wish you every happiness on your birthday. It couldn’t be more deserved.

  • Pics: Getty Images
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