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7

Of the many magazine features devoted to star Julie Andrews during the history-making run of My Fair Lady none is possibly more remarkable than the serialised celebrity memoir, “Something To Sing About” written by Julie for Woman magazine in May 1958 (Andrews, 1958).

Timed to coincide with the London opening of My Fair Lady and Julie’s triumphant ‘homecoming’, the memoir – which was specially contracted by the magazine as an “exclusive feature” — was published in weekly installments across five consecutive issues throughout the month of May. Woman pulled out all the stops in selling the star “exclusive”, launching a major advance advertising campaign with posters, radio spots, and press promos. It also commissioned celebrity photographer Philippe Halsman to take a special glamour shot of Julie which was used as the cover for the first issue. Subsequent issues continued the publicity blitz with promotional tie-ins including a special My Fair Lady recording available to readers at a discount price.

Woman was the biggest-selling English periodical of the 1950s – a decade that has been described as the “golden age of women’s magazine publishing” (Walker) – with a domestic UK circulation of over 3 million and widespread international distribution, notably in the Commonwealth countries of Australia and New Zealand (Reed, 221; Riley, 223). It was, thus, a real PR coup and a testament to her rocketing celebrity status that the “world’s greatest weekly for women” should accord Julie such sustained, high-key exposure.

Lavishly illustrated with a combination of full-colour publicity shots and home snaps from Julie’s personal collection, the serialised memoir forwards a vivid, if highly romanticised, account of Julie’s childhood (“cosy years, and all my memories of them are cosy”, 3 May: 45) and her rise to stardom (“I am still trying to believe that it’s really me”, 31 May: 51). With a title sounding itself not unlike a Broadway musical, “So Much to Sing About” frames Julie as a real-life Eliza Doolittle cum Cinderella, “a rather plain little girl…from an English village”, “a dreamy little girl who has made her dreams come true” and found “dazzling fame and fortune” as “The Golden Girl of Broadway” (Reeder, 29).

Infused with the superlative rhetoric of celebrity discourse – “magical”, “dazzling”, “thrilling”, “glittering” – the memoir positions Julie as the latest member elect to the religio-mystical realm of international stardom  (“a girl whose name is magic all the way from London to New York”), while at the same time affirming her down-to-earth realness ("just an ordinary girl…who adores her home, her family and the neighbours”, Reeder: 29).  

This interplay between exceptionalism and authenticity is of course hardly unique to Julie or her memoir – it is a time-honoured convention of the classic star narrative (Dyer, 1991) – but it assumes an especially strong cast here and, arguably, points to what would become one of the defining dynamics of Julie’s star image in both its on and off-screen personae: the other-wordly figure with extraordinary, even supernatural, talents and powers who remains, paradoxically, familiar, accessible and homely.

Moreover, reading the memoir from the position of historical retrospection, it’s interesting to note how many of the core tropes of ‘the Julie Andrews star image’ are already well-established here. Alongside the Cinderella motif and the homely girl unspoilt by fame, there’s the prodigy with the preternatural voice (“Mummie…and Uncle Ted just stared at each other in amazement, unable to believe what they heard”, 3 May: 47); the disciplined go-getter (“the secret to anyone’s success is to try their hardest and do their best”, 31 May: 33); the old-fashioned English rose (”spring in England…and the long walks with Daddy through the Surrey woods”, 24 May: 48); and, even, the all-nurturing mother figure (“if I am blessed with lots of children, which is one of my dearest dreams, I will wish nothing more for them than that they know the same strength of family love which has been given to me”, 31 May: 51). 

The other significant thing about the serialised memoir is that it represents the first piece of sustained published writing by Julie and so it prefigures her later career as a celebrity author. While one assumes she would have received more than a little editorial assistance, the memoir reveals that, at the tender age of 22, Julie was already quite the adept writer with a genuine facility for language and evocative description:

“Mummie, very pretty, sitting at the piano, her fingers making the keys dance, and her bright chestnut head swaying to the beat of the music, and Aunty, slim, lively, and a gorgeous scatter-brain, romping with us, both enjoying the dancing every bit as much as we were” (3 May: 41).

Julie also emerges in this early memoir as a young woman with a surprisingly mature perspective on life, even before her many years of analysis. Writing apropos her ‘difficult’ step-father, Ted, she notes with sober insight:

“I couldn’t know then that if this vast man, with a personality as colourful and noisy as show business itself, had not thundered across my childhood I might never have become a singer, might never have been the Julie Andrews I am” (3 May: 43).

The star would of course revisit this material much later in her 2008 book-length autobiography, Home. Meanwhile, news that she is currently writing a second follow-up memoir due in late-2017 shows that, sixty years later, there is still “so much to sing about” in the life of Julie Andrews.

Sources:

Andrews, Julie. “So Much to Sing About, Part 1.” Woman. 3 May, 1958: 16-18, 41-48.

_____________. “So Much to Sing About, Part 2.” Woman. 10 May, 1958: 15-17, 42-45.

Andrews, Julie. “So Much to Sing About, Part 3.” Woman. 17 May, 1958: 17-18, 41-46.

_____________. “So Much to Sing About, Part 4.” Woman. 24 May, 1958: 24-25, 45-51.

_____________. “So Much to Sing About, Part 5.” Woman. 31 May, 1958: 31-35, 48-51.

_____________. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008.

Dyer,  Richard. “’A Star is Born’ and the Construction of Authenticity.’’ Stardom: Industry of Desire.  Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: Routledge, 1991: 132 – 40.

Reed, David. The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States,1880-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Reeder, Joan. “Introducing Julie Andrews’ Own Story.” Woman. 26 April 1958: 29.

Riley, Sam G., ed. Consumer Magazines of the British Isles. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993.

Walker, Esther. “Cover Girls: 300 Years of Women’s Magazines.” The Independent. <www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/cover-girls-300-years-of-womens-magazines-968443.html>

© 2016, Brett Farmer. All Rights Reserved