She hasn't sung in public for years. But on a recent afternoon in New York City, Julie Andrews gives a rare solo performance. "Maria, Maria, they call the wind Maria," she gently croons to her 9-year-old granddaughter Hope. It's a tune from the '50s musical Paint Your Wagon
by Lerner and Loewe, whose next show, My Fair Lady
, made Andrews an icon. "Away out here they got a name for rain and wind and fire," rings out a voice that is fainter but indelibly hers after more than 60 years of fame. "They call the wind Maria ..."
For Hope, seven other grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Andrews isn't a four-octave, pitch-perfect Broadway legend, an Oscar winner or even Maria von Trapp. She's just Granny Jools: babysitter-in-a-pinch, maker of the killer pancake breakfast her five kids grew up on. But if her Disney days are behind her, she's lost none of her spunk. "I'm not the making-cookies kind of grandma," says Andrews, 77, her cornflower blue eyes as bright as ever, elocution still Mary Poppins-crisp. Instead, she has focused on passing down a love of books that began when she was a child in Walton-on-Thames, England, and her father read to her at bedtime. A new poetry anthology, Julie Andrews' Treasury for All Seasons
, is the 22nd children's book from Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, 49, whose dad is Andrews's first husband, set and costume designer Tony Walton. "The fact that Emma used to be Hopey's age, clinging to the side of my hip, and now we're meeting as two equals who love what we're doing-I'm so thrilled," says Andrews, who credits writing with helping her heal after a botched 1997 throat surgery ended her singing career. "I was mourning [the loss] one day, and Emma said, 'Mummy, you must find a different way of using your voice.' And everything fell into place."
Far harder has been coping with the loss of her husband of 41 years, director Blake Edwards, who died in 2010. "I never thought about age, but since my husband passed away I've become much more aware of my mortality because of his," she says. Splitting her time between her homes in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Los Angeles, she treasures her connections with her large brood. "Being a mum," she says, "always seemed to me like putting in pieces of the puzzle that you never quite knew."
As smooth as their partnership is today, both Andrews and Hamilton say their relationship wasn't always a spoonful of sugar. "We certainly had our moments when I was growing up," says Hamilton. "But the great thing was, if Mom was working on a night shoot, she'd be up making breakfast before school." As for her grandkids, Emma recalls a moment when her son Sam, now 16, was a toddler and Mary Poppins
came on television. "I spotted him standing very close to the screen, staring at it, and I said, 'Sam, do you recognize Granny Jools?' And he said, 'Yes!'"
Beyond her writing career-she and Emma have five more books in the pipeline-Andrews is directing The Great American Mousical
, based on her 2006 book with Emma, at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. The production is a family affair, with Andrews's ex Walton providing the set design. "He's one of my best friends," she says. "My lovely Blake understood it. He used to say, 'This arrangement is so Noel Coward.'"
Looking ahead, the political junkie hopes to become an American citizen and to take a cruise with her kids and grandkids. "I love watching my grandchildren develop," she says, noting that Hope shares the "fiery wild flower" quality of Andrews's vaudevillian mother, Barbara, who died in 1984. Because of that, "she is never gone, ever," the star says of her mum. "And that helps so much with the passing of great loves."