Edelweiss, Edelweiss? Julie Andrews Loves Reading About 18th-Century Plant Hunters
“I’m fascinated by stories of how the various plant specimens we take for granted today were originally discovered,” says the actor, whose latest book is “Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years.”
What books are on your nightstand?
“One Giant Leap,” by Charles Fishman, about the Apollo 11 mission; “Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling,” by Philip Pullman, who is one of my favorite authors; “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari; “The Undoing Project,” by Michael Lewis, about two brilliant Israeli psychologists; Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”; and “The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession,” by Andrea Wulf. I confess that all of these are in various stages of reading, since while engaged in writing my second memoir, my time and energy for reading has been scarce.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Leonard Bernstein Letters,” edited by Nigel Simeone. I met the brilliant, charismatic maestro once or twice, and admired him so much. I was simply fascinated to learn more about him.
Describe your ideal reading experience.
I fantasize that one day I will take a reading holiday — some place with a quiet beach, shade, a gentle breeze, and endless cups of tea while I indulge in the many books I’ve been dying to catch up on.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The Little Grey Men,” by B.B. (a.k.a. Denys Watkins-Pitchford). It’s a book that my father gave me when I was about 9 years old — a classic pastoral adventure about the last four gnomes in Britain, who go on a yearlong search to their find their long-lost brother. It was originally published in 1942, and I was fortunate to be able to acquire the rights for America and republish it in 2004 under my own imprint at HarperCollins. It included the original woodcut illustrations, also designed by Watkins-Pitchford. I wrote a preface for the American reissue in which I said, among other things, that “the book enhanced my awareness of the natural world from that point forward and cemented forever my love of reading.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
So many! Philip Pullman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, Aaron Sorkin, A. O. Scott, Nicholas Kristof, Billy Collins … the list goes on and on. I’m also a great admirer of lyricists, especially Stephen Sondheim. His insight into the human condition takes my breath away.
You wrote this memoir with your daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, who has also been your co-author on a number of children’s books. Do the two of you have similar taste as readers?
We do indeed, despite the fact that we have very different strengths as writers. To our amazement, we’ve now written over 30 books together, and we often swap reading recommendations of all kinds. We also share a passion for the arts, and their importance in our lives, as well as humanitarian concerns.
Who are your favorite actor-writers? Your favorite memoir by an actor?
My all-time favorite theatrical memoir is “Act One,” by Moss Hart. Though not an actor, Moss was a true man of the theater and one of my greatest mentors, having directed me in both “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot” on Broadway. While we were on the road with “Camelot,” Moss read us excerpts from that memoir-in-progress, which I have since reread often. It is a perfect time capsule of an era and art form, told with his exquisite humor, charm and candor.
What’s the best book that’s been made into a great movie?
I may be biased, but I think Dalton Trumbo did a terrific job adapting James Michener’s “Hawaii,” a film which I was fortunate enough to be part of. I think it’s impossible to pinpoint the best book that’s been made into a movie, as there have been so many, but some of my favorites are “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Remains of the Day,” and “Schindler’s List,” among many others.
What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
“Henderson the Rain King,” by Saul Bellow. My husband, the film director Blake Edwards, tried hard to acquire the rights for many years, but alas, was never successful.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’m an avid gardener, and have a vast collection of books about the plant hunters of the 18th century. I’m fascinated by stories of how the various plant specimens we take for granted today were originally discovered, survived oceanic travel in treacherous conditions and have subsequently been cultivated and crossbred around the world. I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction these days, especially memoirs, and books that teach me something about history, the psyche or humanity in general. When I do read fiction, I tend to shy away from horror or light romance.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was an avid reader as a child, since I traveled so much for my work touring in vaudeville. Once, I was so absorbed in a book that I missed my cue and thus my entrance onstage. I loved anything by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling, A. A. Milne or Enid Blyton, any story about a horse, poetry by Robert Frost, John Masefield, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and A. E. Housman. I adored a nature study series of picture books by Père Castor, which are sadly now out of print. I collected them all, and still have them to this day. I also remember the thrill of hiding in my room as a teenager with a secretly acquired copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”!
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Ugh! Only three? T. H. White, the great British author of the Arthurian legends, “The Once and Future King,” for sure. He was a close friend and extraordinary conversationalist. He really was Merlin, in a sense — he knew everything about everything. I think Philip Pullman and Tom Stoppard would be ideal table companions with him. I doubt I’d be able to contribute a thing, but what fun it would be to just sit back and listen!
What do you plan to read next?
All the books on my nightstand!
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