Published on July 1, 2016
Julia Carolyn Child (maiden name, McWilliams; August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) was an American chef, author, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent television programs, the most notable of which was The French Chef, which premiered in 1963.
Childhood and education
Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams in Pasadena, California, the daughter of John McWilliams, Jr., a Princeton University graduate and prominent land manager, and his wife, the former Julia Carolyn (“Caro”) Weston, a paper-company heiress whose father, Byron Curtis Weston, served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. The eldest of three children, she had a brother, John III (1914–2002), and a sister, Dorothy Dean Cousins (1917–2006).
Child attended Westridge School, Polytechnic School from fourth grade to ninth grade, then the Katherine Branson School in Ross, California, which was at the time a boarding school. At six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall, Child played tennis, golf, and basketball as a child and continued to play sports while attending Smith College, from which she graduated in 1934 with a major in English. A press release issued by Smith in 2004 states that her major was history.
Following her graduation from college, Child moved to New York City, where she worked as a copywriter for the advertising department of upscale home-furnishing firm W. & J. Sloane. Returning to California in 1937, she spent the next four years writing for local publications, working in advertising, and volunteering with the Junior League of Pasadena.
World War II
Child joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after finding that she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) or in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES. She began her OSS career as a typist at its headquarters in Washington, but because of her education and experience soon was given a more responsible position as a top secret researcher working directly for the head of OSS, General William J. Donovan.
As a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, she typed 10,000 names on white note cards to keep track of officers. For a year, she worked at the OSS Emergency Rescue Equipment Section (ERES) in Washington, D.C. as a file clerk and then as an assistant to developers of a shark repellent needed to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats. In 1944 she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where her responsibilities included “registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications” for the OSS’s clandestine stations in Asia. She was later posted to Kunming, China; where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat. When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many of OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks. “Child’s solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent,” which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks. Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent “marked Child’s first foray into the world of cooking…” For her service, Child received an award that cited her many virtues, including her “drive and inherent cheerfulness.” As with other OSS records, her file was declassified in 2008, however, unlike other files, her complete file is available online.
Post World War II
While in Kunming, she met Paul Cushing Child, also an OSS employee, and the two were married September 1, 1946, in Lumberville, Pennsylvania later moving to Washington, D.C. A New Jersey native who had lived in Paris as an artist and poet, Paul was known for his sophisticated palate, and introduced his wife to fine cuisine. He joined the United States Foreign Service, and in 1948 the couple moved to Paris when the US State Department assigned Paul there as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency. The couple had no children.Post-war France]
Child repeatedly recalled her first meal in Rouen as a culinary revelation; once, she described the meal of oysters, sole meunière, and fine wine to The New York Times as “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.” In Paris, she attended the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied privately with Max Bugnard and other master chefs.] She joined the women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes, through which she met Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans with her friend Louisette Bertholle. Beck proposed that Child work with them, to make the book appeal to Americans. In 1951, Child, Beck, and Bertholle began to teach cooking to American women in Child’s Paris kitchen, calling their informal school L’école des trois gourmandes (The School of the Three Food Lovers). For the next decade, as the Childs moved around Europe and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three researched and repeatedly tested recipes. Child translated the French into English, making the recipes detailed, interesting, and practical.
In 1963, the Childs built a home near the Provence town of Plascassier in the hills above Cannes on property belonging to co-author Simone Beck and her husband, Jean Fischbacher. The Childs named it “La Pitchoune”, a Provençal word meaning “the little one” but over time the property was often affectionately referred to simply as “La Peetch”.
The three would-be authors initially signed a contract with publisher Houghton Mifflin, which later rejected the manuscript for seeming too much like an encyclopedia. Finally, when it was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, the 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a best-seller and received critical acclaim that derived in part from the American interest in French culture in the early 1960s. Lauded for its helpful illustrations and precise attention to detail, and for making fine cuisine accessible, the book is still in print and is considered a seminal culinary work. Following this success, Child wrote magazine articles and a regular column for The Boston Globe newspaper. She would go on to publish nearly twenty titles under her name and with others. Many, though not all, were related to her television shows. Her last book was the autobiographical My Life in France, published posthumously in 2006 and written with her grand nephew, Alex Prud’homme. The book recounts Child’s life with her husband, Paul Child, in post-World War II France