Julia Child A Life
by Laura Shapiro
2007 Penguin Lives
185 pages $14
Many remember Julia Child from her PBS television shows. Others may know her as an older woman given great deference when appearing as a guest on more recent television programs. Still, the woman has been dead since August of 2004, so many food buffs and home cooks may not have heard about her at all, but for the recent Julia and Julie movie.
For readers in all these categories, Laura Shapiro's fond, but not fawning, biography, Julia Child A Life, is a treat. It traces the food maven's early life of privilege (reared in a prosperous family in Pasadena, California, Julia McWilliams attended the Katherine Branson School in Marin County, then went east to Smith College), her wartime travels and marriage to Paul Child and subsequent evolution to the French Chef persona recognized by American foodies.
Times were very different in the mid-1930's, even for educated young women. She found employment—at first in New York City and later in Southern California—but her pay was modest and the work apparently unsatisfying. With a world war pending, she applied for military services only to be turned down as her six feet two inch stature was deemed too tall by all branches. She was accepted by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to today's CIA. Apparently her duties were essentially clerical, but the assignments in exotic locales were a good deal more interesting than life as a department store advertising copywriter. In 1944 she was posted to Ceylon where she met a specialist in the office's visual presentation unit. Paul Child was sophisticated, experienced and soon smitten with Julia. Shapiro gives an intimate and sensitive recounting of the unfolding of their budding romance and subsequent married life.
After living for a time in post-war Washington, Paul and Julia Child moved to France in 1948 when he was transferred to Paris. Her interest in cooking blossomed and she learned—at first just by living in France and later with a somewhat contentious culinary education begun at the Cordon Bleu school. On her return to the United States, she realized how different was the life of the typical American homemaker in the 1950s. Her early attempts to write for these housewives were awkward and not immediately accepted by editors and publishers. She pushed on in an unusual combination of dedication to perfection and somewhat casual good nature. Eventually her perseverance led to a show on WGBH, Boston's public television station. Perhaps because her early shows were unpolished, her appearances were an immediate hit with viewers. She was real and her attitude seemed to say to them, “Come on. If I can do this, so can you.”
Did she ever drop a chicken on the television studio floor, retrieve it and continue prepping it for her audience? Apparently not, though some will swear they saw the show on which it happened. It's like that with larger-than-life personalities. I was fortunate to meet Julia after she had given a cooking demonstration at a winery. Even late in the afternoon of a long day it was obvious this older woman had a great zest for life. I wished I had known her years earlier. Laura Shapiro's biography fills in some of the blanks for such a fan.