Julie Andrews – I lost my singing voice, but found another

From the moment that Julie Andrews set foot on stage at the age of ten and performed in her parents’ vaudeville act to the first time she took New York by storm at the age of 20 in My Fair Lady, and in all her movie musical triumphs in The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and Victor/Victoria, it was her singing voice that made her the darling of Broadway and the silver screen and adored by millions of fans around the world.

Then in 1996, Julie’s angelic voice was silenced by surgery to remove noncancerous nodules. Most singers would have been devastated and defeated by such a tragedy. But Julie didn’t quit-she found another voice for her passion for life and her core beliefs.

She and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton co-authored the Julie Andrews Collection of children’s books designed to “nurture the imagination and celebrate a sense of wonder.” Julie says, “Books are just like songs-they are both all about the words. You can have a lovely melody, but if the words aren’t there to sell it, it won’t work. I really feel that these books are an extension of my singing voice.”

Julie and her daughter Emma sat down with GRAND Magazine to talk about their book collection and collaboration-but first, Julie just had to tell us all about her family.

We are the oddest mixture of family. There’s his, mine and ours. The first two children are Blake’s [Blake Edwards] children from a former marriage: Jennifer and Geoffrey. Then comes Emma [from Julie's marriage to Tony Walton]. Then comes ours.

Blake and I had both given up on having kids, so adopting was our choice. The adoption agency said we had to get permission from our three children before we could adopt a baby. They had to know if the kids were dead-set against this or had major problems with this. I think they all had issues with it but were generous enough to let us go ahead with it. So we adopted Amy Leigh and Joanna Lynn [Vietnamese orphans adopted by Julie and Blake].

And now let me tell you about the grandchildren! Jenny’s daughter, Hannah, is 13 years old and terrifically talented and terribly bright and a wonderful dancer. She wrote a poem about dancing, and it’s one of the best poems I’ve ever read. It says, ‘I cry dance, I laugh dance, I’m not myself unless I dance.’ It’s an amazing job for a 13-year-old. She’s really going to be something. She’s very sweet. Hannah is really a beautiful old soul.

Geoffrey’s daughter, Isabelle, is 12. She’s long and lanky and very beautiful. She is an original. There’s a quiet dignity about her, but she’s very huggy and a dear young girl. His son, Henry, is two and a half. They call him Hank and he’s all boy. All he says is baseball, football! And all I have to do is watch the football game with him on television and he yells, ‘Look, touchdown!’ He looks like pictures of the angel Gabriel, and he really is an angel.

Amy has a little boy, Max, who is wonderfully bright. He’s a technical wizard who can do absolutely anything with a computer. His daddy is an animator, and this little boy loves to draw. I can tell you becoming a grandparent is truly life changing. It’s all about knowing the magic and knowing the miracle you’ve felt as a young parent having your own child and giving birth, which is one miracle women are allowed to have.

I was so thrilled when Emma told me she was pregnant. I was trying so hard to be good and not be a pushy mum and all that, but when she said she was pregnant, I said, ‘Yes! That’s it!’ And then seeing your daughter go through that same miracle is amazing. The second thing is having the gift of watching your grandchildren grow up and develop. When you are so focused on your own children, you don’t see those magical moments. They’re born out of you, and suddenly they are so far ahead that you think, ‘I didn’t do anything.’

Emma’s son, Sam, is divine. He is a gentle boy, but he’s all boy. He’s only ten, but he’s the kind others go to see for his guidance and leadership. And he’s a huge baseball fan. And he gives the best hugs. I say to him, ‘I miss one of my Sam hugs, and I’ve got to have one.’ And he gives me one.

The day Sam was born-the thing is I wasn’t able to be there. I was in Victor/Victoria, and he was born on a Friday, and I had two shows the next day. The wonder of it was I was waiting, waiting, waiting. And in the wee hours of the morning the phone rang. And I heard Emma say, ‘Hi mom, it’s done.’ The fact that she called was so wonderful.

And then there’s Emma’s little girl, Hope. Little Hopey is two and a half and naked as often as possible with her heels up in the air. For her, life is so full of joy and it’s all about her. I had her on the phone today, and she said, ‘Grandmum, I’m home!’ It’s like she’s saying, ‘Here I am! Back in your life and aren’t you happy?’ She’s going to be something. She’s dynamite. Because she was two months’ premature she has very mild cerebral palsy-all in the lower body, the legs. Cognitively, she has no impairment whatsoever; she’s verbal, she’s feisty, she’s really hilarious, in fact. She has slight motor impairment that she’s getting physical therapy for, and she’s just fine.

I was there for Hope. I was in the hospital and looking after Sam. I was the one driving Emma to the hospital, and she was saying, ‘Quick, mum, quick,’ because her water had broken. It was a frightening experience. You can’t imagine what a mum goes through when her baby is going through something like this.

Julie loves talking about her grandkids as much as they love it when they discover that their grandmum is everybody’s favorite nanny, Mary Poppins.

Her daughter Emma says, “The first time my son saw Mary Poppins he was at a friend’s house. He was about three and went up to the television screen, and I could see him looking and squinting and listening; and he could tell there was something registering, but he couldn’t quite place what the familiarity was.

I was purposely not saying anything and just watching, and finally I went over to him and said, ‘Do you recognize that lady?’ And he said he did. And I said, ‘Do you think you know who that is?’ And he said he did. And you could see he was thinking and thinking. And I said, ‘You think, maybe Grandmum Julie?’ And he exclaimed, ‘Yes!’”

Isn’t that a great story? He had no idea who it was until she mentioned my name! But boy, did I rate the next day. He came in and said, ‘Hello, Grandmum! I saw your movie last night!’

Hope hasn’t seen Mary Poppins yet, but she has seen an occasional picture of me in the costume, and when we say, ‘Look, Hope, that’s Grandmum Julie,’ she says, ‘That’s Grandmum Julie when she was a baby.’ And Shrek also does wonders for my standing with the grandkids. That impressed Sam more than any other work I’ve done. The fact that I could do the voice of the queen was remarkable to him.

As inspired as her grandchildren are by her, Julie has sometimes taken her literary inspiration from them.

When we started writing together for the first time, I went to Emma and said, ‘Talk to me about books for very young kids. If you had to go to the library and look for a book for Sam, what would you choose?’

And she said, ‘Oh, mum, there is no question it would be about trucks, except I can’t seem to find any. I can find plenty of practical books and videos, but no family-based stories,’ and I said, ‘Aha! Maybe we should write one together.’ And it was Sam who inspired it.

Writing about trucks wasn’t Julie and Emma’s first literary collaboration, explains Emma. “We actually started this partnership with the books when I was five or six.

“My parents were divorced, living on separate coasts, and my dad and mom had this idea that one way to make me feel that there was still a union between us was that if my mom and I would write a story, then I would go to visit my father and he would illustrate it.

“So we wrote this little story called ‘Charlie the Englishman.’ My mom thought at the time that it was very special-so she had it bound and preserved it for me because she thought it would have great meaning later in my life, which of course it does.

“And we kept it forever, and it’s in beautiful leather binding.

“My parents went out of their way to make sure I had a solid foundation of love and support even though they were divorced.”

Julie is self-effacing and modest in assessing her own role as mother and nurturer.

I think if you are a working mother you always feel guilty, because your antenna is constantly popping up. If they’re okay, you’re okay. The book concept did come from her father’s and my desire to make sure Emma knew she was loved and supported. She used to come home very sad from vacations in those bad days, and we wanted to reassure her.

A few years later, Julie would begin writing books for children, with Jenny being her first audience for this new venture.

There’s a story to how I got started writing books 35 years ago, but I’m not sure it’s suitable for a grandparents magazine.

It was in 1969, and Blake and I were filming throughout Europe with the kids. We didn’t have the babies [Amy Leigh and Joanna Lynn] at the time. We shot in many locations, but primarily on a huge estate sitting on a thousand acres. It was absolutely glorious. We not only shot on this estate, we lived on it as well. We were with my husband’s assistant, a tutor, a nanny and secretaries and wives and on and on and on.

So by the time we were done, there were quite a number of people there, and the kids somehow slipped through the cracks and had the most fun summer but also the most chaotic one. They never picked up laundry, they never brushed their teeth, and they never helped with the bed, all the usual things.

Meanwhile, I was getting up early and working and coming home to everything all over the place. I finally said, ‘OKAY, kiddies, we have to have some rules around here.Let’s play a game. You brush your teeth, pick up your clothes and just help make the bed, or you pay a forfeit.’ Jenny, who was 11 at the time going on 32, said, ‘Okay, you play the game too.’ I said, ‘Well, what do I have to do?’

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I think you have to stop swearing.’ So naturally, I was the very first to lose the game. I swear this is true.

And I said, ‘Okay, what shall my forfeit be?’ And Jenny said she wanted me to write a story. And I thought I’d write these two or three pages or something like that. Blake said just keep writing.

He said the story was charming and I should just keep the pages going. He was so encouraging that it’s why I chose to use my name Edwards on all my books-because if it hadn’t been for Blake, I never would have started writing children’s books. The first book was called Mandy. It was an idea that was motivated by working on that estate. And two years later it was published, and I handed it to Jenny and I dedicated it to her.

Reading is a tradition that Julie is happy to pass on to her children and grandchildren because it was so important in her own life.

When I was a little girl I was always reading. Maybe because I was a child of divorce, but reading was a lovely excuse to get away and go to another world. I may not have had a traditional childhood, but it was the only one I knew. I think I had a tremendous saving grace from being scarred by my childhood because I knew I was loved. I had my mum and I had my dad. Everything was rooted and strong, and I knew I was loved.

My dad was a most honorable man, full of integrity. As a teacher and as a parent, he believed in treating all young children as beloved people. My mother was all creativity-passion and romance and all that-but my dad was absolutely solid and rooted and a very bright man. He didn’t think he was.

This is the best example of my dad: At 76, he took himself back to college to study German, and when I asked him why, he said, ‘Chick, if you don’t have a ready talent, which I don’t, it’s your job, it’s your duty, to keep your brain alive and learning for as long as you possibly can.’

Julie’s lifelong learning has included psychoanalysis. She credits that and Blake with helping her separate the “wheat from the chaff” in her life.

Blake and psychoanalysis got rid of a great deal of garbage. And it enabled me to focus on the essentials and not all the trivia. Two things were key, and one was that I worked from the age of ten. So the work ethic was always in my life.

Since I only knew a work ethic growing up, it didn’t allow much time for introspection. I did not have a phenomenal education. It was a very rough one-more the school of life rather than go to university. I felt that the actual foundation that I was on was rather wobbly.

Then I learned there was something that I wasn’t particularly good at, and that was connecting with the audience. It may have seemed that I could, but in the early days I was slightly hostile to the audience. I attributed to them my own sense of judgment about myself. I thought they were judging me and that they didn’t particularly get it. Once I sorted that out, I set out to work on it. Now I have a fabulous time with audiences. And I love connecting with them.

Originally Published in GRAND Magazine Issue 13 Nov/Dec 2006

MARY ANN COOPER

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