When Dame Julie Andrews, the Oscar-winning star of stage and screen, set out to write her latest book, “Home Work: A Memoir of my Hollywood Years,” she knew that she wanted to collaborate with someone she trusted and with whom she could share the most personal and private details of her life.
That someone was her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton.
It was a logical choice. After all, the mother/daughter duo have written more than 30 children’s books together and Walton Hamilton also served as the co-writer on her mother’s first autobiographical book, “Home: A Memoir of My Early Years,” published in 2008.
But unlike that first memoir, which covered Andrews’s early life from childhood in England through her debut on Broadway, this new volume begins with Andrews’s initial taste of Hollywood and her first film projects and takes readers through the mid-1980s — a period during which Walton Hamilton was present, even if she didn’t personally recall every detail, such as being in Salzburg, Austria, at the age of two while Andrews filmed “Sound of Music.”
In recent weeks, Andrews has been traveling the country to promote the new book — occasionally with Walton Hamilton joining her on the road. When asked what it was like to work with her daughter on “Home Work,” Andrews responded by saying, “It was a gift. Who could have imagined when Emma was only as high as my hip that we would one day be two equal women facing each other across a table, laughing, writing, enjoying one another and our creative collaboration?”
That collaboration took place in Sag Harbor, where they both live, and on Sunday, November 10, mother and daughter will team up once again, this time for an event at Bay Street Theater to celebrate the publication of “Home Work: A Memoir of my Hollywood Years,” which was published by Hachette Books. The evening is a fundraiser for Bay Street Theater and the Sag Harbor Cinema (Walton Hamilton was a founder of Bay Street and sits on the cinema’s advisory board, while her mother is an honorary board member of the cinema) and will include a screening of “That’s Life,” the 1986 semi-autobiographical film by Andrews’s late husband, director and writer Blake Edwards. A conversation and Q&A with Andrews and Edwards follows with a VIP book signing for a limited number of guests.
“That’s Life!” was the last film Andrews and Edwards made together, and it is also the subject of the concluding chapter in “Home Work.” The movie, which deals with the fears of aging and death faced by architect Harvey Fairchild (played by Jack Lemmon) as he approaches his 60th birthday, was truly a family affair. Shot at Andrews’ and Edwards’ Malibu home, Andrews plays Harvey’s wife, a renowned singer who is awaiting the results of her throat biopsy, while Walton Hamilton is the daughter who flies in from New York for her father’s birthday celebration. Rounding out the cast was Blake Edwards’s daughter, Jennifer, and Jack Lemmon’s son, Chris, who also played children of the main character.
“It was interesting to see it again recently,” said Walton Hamilton. “I was 23 in the film, the same age that [my son] Sam is now, so it blows him away.”
For Walton Hamilton, seeing “That’s Life!” is akin to watching a home movie with a plot that mirrored her family’s reality in many ways. On a recent fall afternoon, she sat in her Sag Harbor kitchen and discussed the film, as well as the process of writing “Home Work” with her mother, a project which, she admits, was a massive and thorough undertaking. As she spoke, Walton Hamilton received a phone call in which she learned that “Home Work” had just reached number five on The New York Times Best Seller’s list.
“We spent two and a half years on this one,” said Walton Hamilton, who notes that while the first book covered Andrews’s childhood — from the discovery of her amazing singing voice and her life as a vaudevillian traveling alone at the age of 12, to being cast in her first Broadway show, “The Boyfriend,” at 18, followed by “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot” — the second book is all about Hollywood.
“At the end of the first book, she’s asked to do ‘Mary Poppins,’” said Walton Hamilton. “She told them ‘I’m pregnant,’ and Walt Disney said ‘I’ll wait.’”
“This book literally picks up with her getting off the plane in L.A.,” noted Walton Hamilton, who explains that the reason the second book is titled “Home Work” is because the concept of home has always held powerful meaning for her mother.
“Touring as a child, she always tried to reconcile her need for home with the commitment to work, the responsibilities and genuine passion, but it was a tug of war since the age of 8,” she said. “She wanted to talk in this case about the work, learning on her feet the craft of filmmaking. When she came to L.A. to do ‘Mary Poppins,’ she was 27 and had spent her whole life in theaters, but had never made a film.
“It was a totally different craft. She was flying by seat of her pants and learning something new and different from each director.”
The book also deals with the break-up of Andrews’s first marriage to Walton Hamilton’s father, set and costume designer Tony Walton, and her subsequent marriage to Edwards in 1969. In assembling the details of Andrews’s life for the book, Walton Hamilton had some key tools to rely on that she did not have for her mother’s first memoir — specifically date books, diaries and correspondence.
“I went through the date books and made a week to week timeline of a 25-year period and we worked from that,” said Walton Hamilton. “Once we established the timeline, which took months, we worked our way through it until we got to where the diaries began in the mid-1960s.”
“It was the same as for the first book, with me interviewing her and recording it. I’d say tell me about ‘Feed the Birds,’” said Walton Hamilton, referring to one of the songs in “Mary Poppins,” “and she told me what she remembered.”
Walton Hamilton commends her mother for being willing to hand over her diaries and though she knew it wasn’t easy, she told Andrews not to be uncomfortable or embarrassed about anything revealed in the telling of her life story.
“I’m now an adult and a parent of an adult and a teen myself, I told her there’s nothing you can say that would insult or shock me,” said Walton Hamilton. “She let me read the diaries cover to cover. I crammed them with post-it notes, things to talk about, excerpt or re-purpose. It was enormously brave of her to say, ‘Here, read it.’”
Needless to say, there were still some very difficult and emotional days during the writing of the book. Andrews admits that it was helpful to work through the material with someone who knows her so well.
“We’ve worked together for so long, there’s very little that she doesn’t know,” Andrews said of her daughter. “But I must admit, there were moments where we both felt the pain of reliving certain incidents, or wept at a memory … so as much as there was shared laughter, there were also some emotional days.
“I was aware that Emma very thoughtfully tried to front-load our workdays with the more difficult questions or material if there was any, so that we could try to end the day on a happy note,” Andrews added. “Nevertheless, I think we both had more dreams than usual during the process.”
Some of the most difficult topics to revisit had to do with Blake Edwards’s mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as the death of Andrews’s mother.
“That was hard and emotional,” Walton Hamilton conceded. “I had to be one step ahead of her, knowing where we going … Memories are a funny thing and there were times she remembered it differently than she wrote about it. She’d recall something coming up as hilarious, but it was kind of sad or didn’t take place where she thought.
“At times, she’d be startled, and sometimes it was painful to revisit stuff she had written.”
When asked if there were any revelations or new memories that arose for her during the writing of “Home Work,” Andrews noted that she was surprised to be reminded of how very hard she worked during those years.
“At the time, I was so busy just doing, but in retrospect, it really was monumental,” Andrews said. “I kept saying to Emma, ‘No wonder I was so tired!’ Because I had kept copious diaries over the years, we had very specific accounts of certain events to draw from — and thank God for those diaries, because relying on memory would have made the job twice as hard.”
Though Hamilton says that nothing that she read in her mother’s diaries shocked her, she adds that what she found most interesting are her mother’s personal recollections of the events they both remember.
“I was there and have my own memories of these situations, particularly my childhood,” Walton Hamilton said. “I strongly remember thinking at any given time, ‘She’s a mom. She’s in charge and must have all the answers.’
“Now I’m an adult and a parent and I know you don’t feel that way, because no one feels that way,” she added. “My memory is of her in full control, but to read her diaries and words of confusion or fear or anxiety in a situation where I thought she was totally on top of it was really revealing.”
When asked how the book might have been different if it had not been co-written with her daughter, Andrews said, “I don’t think it would have been written at all. Emma managed the schedule, and created the timeline from which we worked, and so much more — she saved me so much hard work and gave me the structure and support that allowed me to really focus.”
In the end, she adds that the process has brought the two of them even closer.
“I think I can safely say we both love writing together, and frankly I can’t imagine writing without Emma these days,” Andrews said. “There’s a quote from author Patricia Hampl we came across recently, which really resonates for us both. Hampl says, ‘To write a memoir is to live your life twice.
“I think we definitely discovered the truth in that, and in the reliving were able to experience a great deal of closure together, and a real feeling of enrichment in our relationship,” Andrews added.
The screening of “That’s Life!” is Sunday, November 10, at 3 p.m., at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and will be followed by a conversation and Q&A with Andrews and Walton Hamilton, moderated by Sag Harbor Cinema’s Artistic Director, Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan. Tickets to the event are $85 and include a pre-signed copy of “Home Work.” A limited number of VIP seats will be available for $150, which include an exclusive live book signing immediately following the film and Q&A. Visit baystreet.org to purchase or call 631-725-9500.