When Julia Child first appeared on our television screens in the early Sixties to present the cooking show that would make her famous she was already a middle-aged woman. She had already led a full life, and was an adult during World War II. So what did she do during the war? The answer to that proves to be absolutely fascinating.
For obvious reasons of national security, a lot of the details about America’s activities in World War II are kept secret. And for a long time, that included the work that Child did. It took until 2008 for the CIA records concerning her and her co-workers to be declassified and released for the public to view.
During World War II the CIA was known as the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. It employed thousands of people, and Child was among them. The OSS was involved in many wartime activities, including sabotage against the enemy, creation of propaganda, coordinating anti-Nazi efforts, training troops, and spying.
It may seem remarkable to some that a woman like Child was ever in any way involved with the inner workings of war. When presenting herself to TV audiences, Child came across as warm, friendly and funny. To some of the people who watched her show, she was almost like a member of their own family.
Child’s skill and passion for food — especially French cuisine, despite the fact she wasn’t actually French — was what made her such a beloved personality. In 1961 she helped author the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which proved a big success. Such a success, in fact, that she was asked to host her own television show.
The show, The French Chef, didn’t get off to a very promising start when it debuted in 1963. There wasn’t even a live audience. When Child was interviewed by CNN’s Larry King in 2002, she remembered, “We were in the gas company of Boston. And we clanked down in the cellar with all of our stuff. We had to set it up ourselves and do it ourselves.”
Yet when it aired, the show made Child iconic. It presented a raw, unrefined look at the inner workings of a kitchen. Famously, Child would drop utensils and even occasionally food. In one episode, a potato pancake fell on the table instead of a skillet. Julia announced to the camera, “You just scoop it back into the pan. Remember, you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you.”
But of course, people could see Child’s kitchen. Not everyone liked her style. “You are quite a revolting chef, the way you snap bones and play with raw meats,” wrote one, obviously aggrieved viewer. Regular television audiences, however, absolutely loved The French Chef and they definitely adored its host.
Child was very down-to-earth. She considered herself a teacher, not a TV star, and the audience members were her students. In 1974 the New Yorker magazine quoted one of Child’s many fans as saying, “I know what it is about her. She’s just like a child playing. Anybody who has that much fun just has to be irresistible.”
However, Child’s lack of pretension might have been surprising to some considering her upbringing. She was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams to very wealthy parents. Her mother was part of the Weston family, the makers of the successful Weston Paper Company of Massachusetts. While her father was a successful banker and landowner.
Like many children of wealthy parents, the young Julia was sent to boarding school. There, she began to love food. While a pupil at the school, she recalled to Interview magazine in 1989, she discovered a “very nice restaurant in an alley, where nice young ladies went, and we would have cinnamon toast with lots and lots of butter on it and beautiful California artichokes with hollandaise sauce.”
Yet despite being born into a life of privilege, Child didn’t feel that many doors were open to her. She told Interview magazine, “In my generation, except for a few people who’d gone into banking or nursing or something like that, middle-class women didn’t have careers. You were to marry and have children and be a nice mother. You didn’t go out and do anything.”
Child continued, “I must have always been independent, because that kind of life, I just couldn’t do. It didn’t fulfill anything. So I moved to New York and lived with two roommates on East Fifty-Ninth Street near the bridge. Our rent was 80 dollars a month. I took a secretarial course, hoping to get a job at The New Yorker, and ended up at W and J Sloan furniture store, working publicity.”
However, as it turned out, Child did marry. She married Paul Child, a worker for the US Foreign Service. It was in fact Paul’s work which led Child to become interested in French cooking. When he was sent to Paris, Child went with him and she fell in love with French food. She began studying at the Le Cordon Bleu school for chefs.
“When I got to France I realized I didn’t know very much about food at all,” Child told Interview magazine. “I’d never had a real cake. I’d had those cakes from cake mixes or the ones that have a lot of baking powder in them. A really good French cake doesn’t have anything like that in it — it’s all egg power.”
The marriage of Julia and Paul was by all accounts a strong one, although it had less than auspicious beginnings. When they met in 1944, Paul wasn’t impressed by her. He wrote to his twin brother that the young Child was “an extremely sloppy thinker” and “wildly emotional.” Yet a few years later he had fallen in love.
Cooking featured heavily in their marriage right from the beginning. But in those early days, Child was actually not a very good cook at all. Though she had plenty of cookbooks to hand, she struggled. The first meal Child made for her new husband was the rather unappetising-sounding meal of calves’ brains in red wine.
However, after the success of The French Chef, Paul was happy and proud that his wife had found fame with her cooking and didn’t mind surrendering the spotlight to her. In fact, he preferred it that way. The couple didn’t have children — reportedly, Child thought that if they had, it would have stymied her career.
The couple weathered a serious health scare in the late Sixties. Child was diagnosed with breast cancer, and decisive action was required. Child wrote the simple, stark words, “Left breast off,” in her diary on February 18, 1968. Ultimately, she had to have a full mastectomy. It was a terrifying situation for them both.
Child always credited Paul with helping her achieve so much. Also in 1968, she published a new book, The French Chef Cookbook, and dedicated it to her spouse: “Paul Child, the man who is always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, fish illustrator, manager, taster, idea man, resident poet, and husband.”
Sadly though, the two had less time together than they would have liked. As they got older, Paul began to suffer increasingly from dementia. Eventually, and heartbreakingly, he had to enter a nursing home in 1989 while his wife remained for a time in the house they once shared. He died in 1994.
Child was, of course, devastated. Even years later, she continued to refer to “us.” In a 2012 article Smithsonian Magazine recalled that when her famous kitchen was moved to the museum in 2001, “She spoke as if her husband were still alive, although by then he had been gone for more than seven years.”
Child continued to work right up until the twilight of her life. Speaking to Larry King in 2002, she said she would never retire because, “I love it… I’m in a very nice profession, because everybody you know who’s in it loves to be in it. And it’s so nice to be with people who love their work, don’t you think?”
Child died of kidney failure in August 2004, just a couple of days before she would have turned 92. Her niece released a statement saying, “She passed away in her sleep. She was with family and friends and her kitten, Minou. She had cookbooks and many paintings by her husband Paul around the house.” Her death was mourned by many.
People who loved Child grieved for a great and funny TV host. However, when the CIA documents about her were released in 2008, fans of The French Chef came to know the details of Child’s life which had previously been kept a secret. In addition to her career as a chef, she had also served her country as a spy.
Child had mentioned before, in vague terms, her wartime work. In her 1989 conversation with Interview magazine she said, “When the war broke out I decided I would be very patriotic. Standing my full height. I presented myself to the WACs [Women’s Army Corps] and then to the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service]. And I was rejected — I was an inch too tall.”
So, having been turned down for those jobs, Child then presented herself to the OSS. Her handwritten note attached to her application form still exists, and it detailed a time she argued with her bosses at a furniture store. Child wrote that during the clash, “I made a tactical error and was out.” Later, she wrote of her stint at an advertising agency, she was “fired, and I don’t wonder.”
However, Child obviously made a good impression on the OSS interviewers. One of the documents includes a note of their thoughts: “Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall.” Child was indeed often noted for her great height. She was six feet two inches, and she had actually been a basketball player in her school years.
Initially, Child worked for General William J. Donovan at the OSS Headquarters. In her 2002 interview with Larry King she said of Donovan, “He was a wonderful fellow – rather small, kind of rumpled, piercing blue eyes. Definitely, if you gave him a book or a paper, he could just read it like that, you know. I don’t know whether that’s actually possible.”
King asked Child more about her work for the OSS. “Almost everyone I knew who could, rushed to Washington during the war to be into help to save our country,” she recalled. “And I had some friends who were in the organization, so I applied. And they just wanted bodies… so I ended up in [Donovan’s] private files, which was wonderful.”
King went on to remark, “Well, of course, they did a lot of wild things, the OSS,” but Child kept mum about what exactly those wild things were. “Presumably,” was her cagey answer. She did say, however, that the organization was involved with “secret weapons” and “collecting natives of the other side and training them to be spies and so forth.”
In 1942, Child was assigned to work on something quite different. She was sent to the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section and joined a project researching shark repellent. Sharks were becoming a particular problem since so much of the war was obviously fought on — and in — the ocean. It was not unusual for hungry sharks to accidentally set off naval explosives.
The OSS hired some pretty distinguished people to help them beat back the problematic tide of sharks. Leading the project was Dr. Henry Field, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and Harvard Museum scientist Captain Harold J. Coolidge. Child served as the executive assistant to Coolidge.
For the next year Child helped as a team of researchers tested substance after substance. Part of the reason for the frantic work wasn’t just the explosive problems the sharks presented — rumors of shark attacks were enough to lower morale. This needed to be combatted fast.
Child’s team tried many different things, experimenting with acids, copper salts, poisons and even extracts of decayed shark. Eventually, they came up with a solution of copper acetate mixed with black dye. It tended to repel sharks —although not other dangerous fish. Sailors could strap it onto their life jackets — a small disk-like “cake” that smelled of dead shark when it hit the water.
The Navy weren’t terribly impressed, though. A memo from the Bureau of Aeronautics sent in 1943 reads, “it is illogical to expect that such effect as was shown in normal feeding behavior would give any promise of affecting the voracious behavior of the few species known to have attacked man.” The military decided to pursue other methods such as producing cartoons that sought to undermine the lethality of shark attacks.
Yet Child remained proud of the work she’d done. In the 1998 book Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS she said, “I must say we had lots of fun. We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment — strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
Subsequently, Child was sent to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. She told Interview, “It was a beautiful country, full of ruined temples, caves with paintings, and water buffalo and grasses. And then, when the OSS opened an attachment in China — Kunming and Chungking — I volunteered to go with them in the files section.”
During her time in Ceylon, Child handled classified documents, including ones about the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula. By this point her job title was Chief of the OSS Registry, and she was vital to the work of the various intelligence agencies. She was so good, in fact, that while in China she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service.
Despite having lived a tremendous life, Child was always humble about her achievements. In 1989 she told Interview magazine, “My fame is based on one of life’s necessities. And you know that as soon as you’re off the tube people will forget all about you.” She was, of course, quite wrong about that.