Julia Child (1912 - 2004)
Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born in Pasadena, California. An athletic child, Julia played tennis, golf, and basketball through out her school years. She graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a degree in English. She moved to New York where she worked as an advertising copywriter. She moved home to California in 1937 and wrote for various publications.
When WWII broke out, she tried to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps but was turned down for being too tall (She was 6’2”). She joined the Office of Strategic Services as a typist and was soon assigned to General William J. Donovan, the head of the agency, where she worked as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division. In 1944 she transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where she kept records on the OSS’s clandestine stations in Asia. She was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.
While in Ceylon she met Paul Child, a fellow OSS employee who swept her off her feet with his worldly sophistication. The two were married and in 1948, moved to Paris where Paul was assigned as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency.
Julia’s first dinner as a resident of France was oysters, sole meunière, and fine wine. She later described the meal as a “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.” She became fascinated by French cooking and soon enrolled at the Cordon Bleu cooking academy. She met two Parisian women who were writing a French cookbook and they invited Julia to join them in hopes of making the book accessible to American housewives.
The resulting book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” was rejected by its publisher for “seeming more like an encyclopedia than a cook book.” It was eventually published by Knopf in 1961, just as America became fascinated by French culture and cuisine. The book became a best-seller despite its 764 page length. By this time, the Childs were living in Cambridge Massachusetts and Julia was writing food articles for the Boston Globe. She was invited to appear on a book review show on public television station WGBH and enlivened the proceedings by cooking an omelet on the air. The switchboard lit up and the station offered Julia her own show.
The French Chef debuted in 1963 and was an immediate hit. It was awarded the first Emmy ever for an educational program and was a ratings sensation. Julia was lauded for her breezy conversational style, her unpretentious manner and distinctive warbling voice. The show ran for ten years. Julia was not the first TV Chef but was the most successful and the first to “cross over” from a small, educational television audience to the mainstream. Her style as a teacher and a cookbook author was detail oriented and very thorough- Julia would brag that a total novice could execute her most elaborate recipe as long as he or she followed the directions. She continued to write cookbooks, (including a second volume of “Mastering the Art”) and host television shows. In 1981 she teamed up with winemakers Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff to found The American Institute of Wine & Food.
She starred in several more cooking shows, often filmed in her very own kitchen, which she & Paul redesigned with TV lighting, special higher counter tops to accommodate Julia’s height and a massive center island with two cooktops. The kitchen was featured in an episode of “This Old House” and is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.
From the very start of her career, Julia was more than a chef, a cookbook author or TV star. She was an instant pop culture icon, appearing on the cover of Time Magazine with the caption “Our Lady of the Ladle.” By 1978 she was so well-known as the host of her PBS cooking show that Saturday Night Live featured Dan Aykroyd in drag as Julia, bleeding to death on-air from the result of a kitchen mishap. Julia loved the sketch so much she showed it to friends over and over again. Characters based on Julia showed up on TV’s the Cosby Show and Electric Company, on radio’s Prairie Home Companion and in countless movies.
In 2001, Julia retired to an assisted living center in Santa Barbara, California. She donated her home, office and papers to Smith College and her kitchen to the National Museum of American History. She died two days before her 92nd birthday in 2004. As she never failed to point our, she lived a very long life eating butter, cream and red meat every single day.
She was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2000 for doing so much to spread French culture in America. Ironically, she was presented the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, during a period of Anti-French backlash in the US. Child also received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, and the university President summed up her accomplishments by saying she “filled the air with common sense and uncommon scent…Long may her soufflés rise. Bon appétit!”
Julia lived a most extraordinary life- athlete, secretary, spy, chef, author, television star, and mentor to generations of cooks, chefs and authors. She wrote or co-wrote 20 cookbooks, starred in 13 television series, numerous specials and made hundreds of television appearances across 5 decades. But perhaps her life is best summed up by the last line of her final book, a memoir called “My Life in France”: “Thinking back on it now reminds that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite - toujours bon appétit!”
March 02 2011 04:39 pm | Extraordinary Women