The nun with a switchblade: How Julie Andrews' bleak childhood made her ruthless... and the truth about her 'lesbian' clinch?


Last updated at 00:37 24 March 2008

In The Sound Of Music and Mary Poppins, she epitomised innocence. Now, in her startling new memoirs, Julie Andrews reveals the bleak childhood that made her so ruthless in real life. But is her greatest secret - about a possible lesbian affair - still hidden?

She is adored the world over for her roles as Mary Poppins and Maria in The Sound Of Music.

The pure voice, the angelic looks and the prim, efficient Englishness of her performances have beguiled generations of children over the years.

Yet how many of them could have guessed how different was her own upbringing from those of the happy young charges in the films?

An upbringing so appalling that it instilled in her a ruthless determination for success and led to her being respected and loathed in Hollywood in equal measure.

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Julie Andrews

Elegant: Julie Andrews's onscreen poise belied her tough childhood

Not for nothing was Julie Andrews termed the "nun with a switchblade".

The publication this month of her memoirs shows that her family background was one of grinding hardship and poverty.

Her grandmother, Julia, after whom Andrews was named, was in service.

Her grandfather, Arthur Morris, who was illegitimate, an Army deserter and an alcoholic, wrote poetry while working at a colliery and became known as "The Pitman's Poet".

From his womanising, he contracted syphilis and died insane at the age of 43. His wife, whom he had infected, died two years later.

Their daughters, Barbara and Joan, Andrews's mother and aunt, orphaned in their teens, scraped a precarious living playing the piano and drums at women's institutes, clubs and pubs.

Julie's father, Ted Wells, who became a schoolteacher, was also poor and had a mentally ill sister, Betty.

Julie saw her only once, being dragged screaming and struggling to her bedroom, where she was locked in.

Andrews writes: "I dwelled on the incident for many years."

Her father was, for Julie, the "'one I loved with all my being".

Her mother "was terribly important to me - but I don't think I truly trusted her".

She had reason not to do so, for when Julie was only four, her mother left her and her father to live with a Canadian tenor, Ted Andrews, whom she accompanied on stage, billed as "The Canadian Troubador with Barbara at the Piano".

Julie's parents divorced when she was eight, and eventually she went to live with her mother and her hated stepfather in a series of squalid digs, sleeping in a room where rats crept along the pipes, and having her scalp scrubbed and rinsed with vinegar to remove lice.

Rigorous training by one of the great vocal coaches, Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen, revealed that Julie possessed a soprano voice of astonishing range and purity, and she began to join her mother and stepfather on stage in their act.

At the age of nine, she checked into digs alone with her stepfather, who said: "Come into bed with me and I'll keep you warm."

Reluctantly she climbed into his bed and he said: "I'll show you how I cuddle with Mummy."

"I felt trapped and claustrophobic," she writes. "Something about it didn't feel right to me at all and I was very grateful when my mother arrived the following day."

At the age of ten, she sang for the Queen (later the Queen Mother) at the Stage Door Canteen and was presented to her afterwards, recalling that Her Majesty wore "an exquisite beaded dress and sparkling tiara".

After her first big break at 12 in the West End revue Starlight Roof, her ascent was rapid.

She was chosen to appear in the Royal Command Variety Performance with Danny Kaye, and in the radio series, Educating Archie.

Soon her earnings were helping to support the entire family, for Ted Andrews was descending into alcoholism and so was her mother.

When her stepfather, very drunk, entered Julie's bedroom and kissed her full on the lips, then came back and tried to do it a second time, she complained to her aunt, and a bolt was fitted on her bedroom door.

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Julie Andrews

As a child, Dame Julie suffered hardship and poverty which later helped turn her into a ruthless adult

Then came the real bombshell. When Julie was 14, her mother took her to a party and introduced her to a "tall and fleshily handsome" man who had visited their family home once or twice.

"He came and sat on the couch beside me," says Andrews. "I remember feeling an electricity between us that I couldn't explain."

Her mother proceeded to get extremely drunk, and when the time came to leave, she was clearly unfit to drive.

Julie, who had not yet taken her test and had no licence, was forced to drive her mother home on a dark and foggy night.

During the journey, Barbara Andrews revealed to her daughter that the man who had sat beside her on the couch was her real father.

Julie learned she had been conceived in a passionate liaison with this man "by a beautiful lake near Walton-on-Thames".

Her mother explained later that "Daddy and I weren't being very romantic in those days" so she had sought passion elsewhere.

The teenage girl's reaction was stubborn. "The important thing is that my love for the man I thought of as my father - Ted Wells - did not change in any way," she says.

"I was fierce about it and after that I wanted nothing to do with the other man. I wasn't curious. I had no desire to start a relationship. I disliked the spectre that he was. I didn't see him again until some nine years later."

But there was a psychological reaction. "I began to hear voices in my head at night, a crazy chatter, and I worried that I might go mad, like Betty, my father's sister."

At 18, while she was playing the title role in Cinderella at the London Palladium, she was chosen for the lead in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend.

The people who had chosen her, Vida Hope, the director of the London production, and Sandy Wilson, the author and composer of the show, came into conflict with the American management.

Hope was fired and Wilson was frogmarched out of the theatre and forbidden to return.

Andrews's steely instinct for survival caused her to side with the American producers.

Although the musical was an established hit in London, Andrews doubted if Hope or Wilson "had grasped the standard expected for a Broadway show".

Through her ruthlessness, she survived in the role and because she had stubbornly insisted on not signing a contract for two years, but only for one, she was free to accept the most coveted Broadway lead of all, that of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Her co-star, Rex Harrison, was profoundly unimpressed by her.

"I got the feeling from Rex's cold and ungenerous attitude that I wasn't making inroads with him," she writes, "and that he was, quite rightly, making a stink about this silly little English girl who couldn't manage the role."

Harrison told the management: "If you don't get rid of that c***, you won't have a show." And the designer Cecil Beaton, who called her a "silly bitch", told her: "You are the most hopelessly unphotogenic person I have ever met."

But once more, against all expectations, she survived. When, after two years on Broadway, Andrews came to London in My Fair Lady, her biological father turned up again at a reception.

"I didn't like his attitude," she says, "and certainly didn't like him homing in on something that should have been my dad's province.

"So, though polite and, I hope, decent, I was a little distant with him. It was the last time I ever saw him."

On May 10, 1959, Andrews married her childhood sweetheart, the designer Tony Walton, of whom she had once said: "We were as much like brother and sister as anything else."

Of their wedding, she writes: "To know that I was marrying my dearest friend was a great comfort - a safe, sure feeling."

But on their honeymoon in Hollywood, Andrews had her first sighting of the man who was to supplant Walton in her life.

"I remember seeing Jack Lemmon talking to the director Blake Edwards, the latter seeming handsome and charismatic, if perhaps a trifle arrogant."

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Julie Andrews

Dame Julie portrayed a picture of innocence in Mary Poppins (above) and the Sound of Music (below)

Julie Andrews

Her next Broadway musical, in 1960, was Camelot opposite Richard Burton, whom she clearly found attractive - "his voice a magnificent instrument, mellifluous enough to make any woman swoon. It was a major part of his unique appeal. That, and his piercing grey-green eyes and full, beautiful mouth".

Although his wife, Sybil, was in New York, Burton's eyes began to wander to the ladies of the company, causing the opening number, I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight, to be sung by the chorus as "I wonder who the King is screwing tonight".

His first conquest was M'el Dowd, who played Morgan le Fey. Others followed.

And outside the theatre, Burton was pursuing a torrid liaison with British-born blonde sex symbol Christine Norden, who was appearing in another Broadway musical, Tenderloin - a relationship that has been overlooked by all his biographers.

Perhaps the least credible part of Andrews's book is her suggestion that Burton tried to make advances to her during the run.

For Andrews was the complete opposite of Burton's type, and in an interview he warned: "Don't muck about with her - you'll see nature red in eye and tongue."

If Burton did show Andrews any attention, it seems likely he was teasing her.

Andrews thinks otherwise. "I suddenly guessed that he had been trying to manipulate me into a state of despair concerning his behaviour. I think I was the only woman in the company who hadn't succumbed to his overwhelming allure - and maybe this was supposed to be my moment."

Just before she left the Broadway cast of Camelot, Andrews filmed a TV special with the American actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, her closest friend. It was titled Julie And Carol At Carnegie Hall.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, Andrews discovered that she was pregnant. When her daughter, Emma Walton, was born on November 27, 1962, Carol Burnett became her godmother. But was she also a lover?

This is the extraordinary suggestion which has found its way onto the internet, a rumour that in fact goes back as far as 1965, the year in which Andrews made The Sound Of Music.

On January 18 of that year, prior to their appearance on stage at President Lyndon B. Johnson's Inaugural Gala, Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett were observed kissing passionately in public in a Washington hotel.

The clinch, which both women later claimed was a stunt staged to amuse their friend, actor and movie director Mike Nichols, was witnessed by the President's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who unexpectedly stepped out of the hotel elevator at that moment.

This incident, sadly, is missing from Dame Julie's new book, in which she says of her chum Carol, "'I loved all that she was, all that she exuded - we bonded instantly," adding: "I lost my own inhibitions and felt free beside her."

Dame Julie's book ends in February 1963, as she, Tony Walton and their baby daughter Emma fly to Hollywood for the filming of Mary Poppins, which would win Andrews a Best Actress Oscar and make her an international star, soon to become the world's number one box-office money-maker.

But within five years of her arrival in Hollywood, her marriage was on the rocks, and Walton, who once wrote of her as "my heavenly Julie", was complaining bitterly: "I'm trying to make an appointment to meet my wife."

After their divorce, Andrews married a man 13 years her senior, the director Blake Edwards, whom she finally got to know while they were both in treatment with the same Hollywood analyst.

Edwards suffered from clinical depression and Epstein-Barr Syndrome, a form of chronic fatigue.

"I became seriously suicidal," he admitted in 2001. "I went through a process of trying to be practical about how to commit suicide. I didn't want to leave too much of a mess around for Julie and the people that I love."

Andrews's book is not devoid of fascination. How could it be? It is the story of a gawky suburban girl, "exceedingly plain" in her own description, "boss-eyed, bucktoothed and bandy", with a large nose, a prominent jaw and size eight feet, who, in spite of limited acting ability, metamorphosed into the screen's most glamorous princess.

But Andrews seems at pains to be perceived as a victim, and as one of life's innocents.

The evidence is otherwise. Yes, her upbringing was awful. But she also comes across as a cool, shrewd, ruthlessly ambitious cookie who invariably had her eye to the main chance.

Home: A Memoir Of My Early Years by Julie Andrews is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99.