Known for their plodding prose, staggering self-absorption, and tawdry between-the-sheets revelations, celebrity memoirs are seldom read for their wit and charm. But Julie Andrews was never a typical celebrity. Her lovely new autobiography, Home, reflects the very qualities that first made the working-class English singer a star 45 years ago: intelligence, gentle humor, and a clear, sweet, surprisingly powerful voice.
Best remembered for two wholesome governess roles, Andrews barely survived her own decidedly unwholesome girlhood in a London suburb. Born in 1935, she was 4 when her mother, Barbara, left her beloved father for Ted Andrews, a minor vaudevillian and major boozer. Though she never whines about them, Ted and Barbara were disastrous parents. Impecunious and hard-drinking, Barbara fancied herself a ''lusty wench'' (''she always claimed that she loved a good backside...and teapots, things with spouts''), while Ted was a raging alcoholic who occasionally tried to climb into his stepdaughter's bed. (Happily, he never succeeded; she put a lock on the door.)
Did Andrews foster a virginal image in reaction to her upbringing? It's a question she doesn't address. But while she presents her youthful self as alternately wimpy, bossy, and ''exceedingly plain,'' she obviously had both grit and talent. At 7, her stepfather discovered she had an astonishing soprano voice; by 9 she was touring the music halls of Great Britain in a trailer with her parents. At 20, she took on the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady opposite Rex Harrison on Broadway. And in these warmly nostalgic later chapters, the book begins to glow.
In the theater, Andrews had found the home to which she refers in her title: ''The dust that has a smell so thick and evocative, one feels one could almost eat it; makeup and sweat, perfume and paint; the vast animal that is an audience, warm and pulsing, felt but unseen.'' She remembers those early days fondly, from the night she heated up a can of Dinty Moore stew for a dinner party, to her struggles learning to act, to the evening Ingrid Bergman came backstage and asked to use the ''john'' (''For days afterward I didn't want to sit on the hallowed seat!''). And yes, Andrews can be bawdy, whether describing Richard Burton's sex appeal or Harrison's onstage flatulence.
The book takes Andrews through her marriage to set designer Tony Walton and the birth of their daughter, Emma, and leaves us hanging in midair as she flies to L.A. in 1963 to star in the Walt Disney production of Mary Poppins. No word yet on a sequel; with any luck, we face but a brief intermission before the glittering second act. B+