America's French Revolution

By Nancy McKeon
Sunday, October 26, 1997; Page X01


The Biography of Julia Child

By Noel Riley Fitch

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Doubleday. 569 pp. $25.95

IT WAS 1961, and in January a spirited young Kennedy family had moved into the White House -- lock, stock and glamour. By April, a French chef, Rene Verdon, reigned over the First Kitchen, insinuating haricots verts into a string-bean kind of world. Quite coincidentally, September of that year saw publication, after almost a decade of research and rewriting, of a three-pound tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by three women virtually unknown in the food world. And by July of the following year, one of those women -- the tall, slim, flutey-voiced American one -- was spattering herself across the airwaves of educational television, making her way into the hearts of a frankly astonished mac-and-cheese America.

The appearance of Mastering the Art triggered yearlong tournaments of competitive dinner parties, which saw young marrieds cooking their way through "Julia" to impress their friends (and themselves). But Mastering became a spectator sport as well when "The French Chef" hit the little black-and-white screen, and many of the growing number of fans contented themselves with watching Child bang into appliances and drop things and coo over precious ingredients with a voice that seemed (still does) "two parts Broderick Crawford to one part Elizabeth II" or "a combination of Andy Devine and Marjorie Main," as reviewers have described it over the years.

Any American who buys fresh leeks at his supermarket (and fresh herbs and anything fancier than white button mushrooms) owes much to Julia Child, who turned 85 in August. That's not a surprising message, nor is it the best reason to read Noel Riley Fitch's Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. We already know, or think we know, a lot about Child's public career. But that career didn't hit the big time until Child was 50 years old and her husband, the dashing Paul Cushing Child, had retired from the State Department. So exactly who Julia Carolyn McWilliams Child was before she became just plain Julia occupies a lot of real estate in this 500-page book. (Not to worry -- the 35 years since she became Our Lady of the Ladle also stake out quite a patch of turf.)

There were always intimations of stature beyond her 6' 2" height, and Fitch lays it all out -- a California girlhood of great privilege (private girls' schools, cooks, drivers, greenhouses attached to the family's Victorian-era manse) laid over the frontier spirit of her father's family (in 1849, at 16, her grandfather left his affluent Illinois family to pan for California gold) and the colonial Massachusetts heritage of her tall, lively mother (the Plymouth Colony's Gov. William Bradford is an antecedent). Smith College, her mother's alma mater, was a given for this casual student: "It would have killed my mother," she would say later, if Julia hadn't gone there and stayed to graduate.

But mostly she was a silly, giddy girl of privilege. Or as she put it, "I was a very adolescent person all the time up till I was about thirty." Never challenged by family or friends to "do" something, she seemed to ache for direction, or at least adventure. Suddenly the war, and Washington, beckoned. Child became one of the "government girls," a senior typist, and followed that with a stint in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China managing the confidential files of the OSS, precursor to the CIA. It was in Ceylon that the brave "spinster" of 32 met Paul Child, a decade older, who would become her husband of 48 years, until his death in 1994.

Paul Child's eventual job with the United States Information Service led Julia to Paris and the culture of gastronomy, which led to the Cordon Bleu cooking school, to her original collaborators, Simone Beck (Simca) and Louisette Bertholle, and to what is in some ways the most fascinating part of the biography. Because Child allowed Fitch complete access to her papers, we get a real feel for the relentless work and coordination that went into the much-massaged Mastering. The reams of onionskin carbon copies of Child's letters to her collaborators -- versions of recipes to be retested and versions of "the blah blah" (recipe head notes), her gentle reminders that the techniques should incorporate modern American appliances like the blender -- all show this 700-plus-page book to be a work of scientific perseverance even more than inspiration. This makes perfect sense: Child didn't originate the idea of this French cookbook for American cooks -- Louisette Bertholle did -- but the rangy Californian was the force de la nature that made it happen the way it did.

While smoothly written, Appetite reveals itself to have an underpinning of dozens of interviews, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished manuscripts and letters -- the price, I guess, for undertaking a life documented by years of diaries and letters to collaborators (Julia's) and almost daily letters to a twin brother (Paul's). So there are facts galore -- three paragraphs on Child's 1968 mastectomy, Child tossing her last cigarette after that surgery (Julia a smoker!), a second (benign) lump two years later, Paul's "anxiety neuroses" that at one point make him take to his bed, two face lifts (!) and weekly beauty excursions to be "Ardenized" while living in the South of France. But Julia Child seems to have perfected the art of hiding in plain sight, so there is rather less probing beneath the facts than the truly nosy (guilty!) would like.

Fitch shows us the McWilliams family in the context of the growing Los Angeles of the 1920s (their home was in Pasadena), and places the Childs among the WASPy American expatriates who claimed postwar Paris for themselves, living fat and happy and benefiting from the Marshall Plan. Then there's the clubby life of State Department Georgetown in the late 1940s and the comfortable academic surroundings of Cambridge in the early '60s. The context may be the lesser-known part of Child: We knew she fed us, but we didn't know she had also fed Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen and Walter Lippmann, the Alsop boys, Paul Nitze, Robert Penn Warren, Judge and Mrs. Learned Hand, Evangeline Bruce, Nancy and Theodore White and Avis and Bernard DeVoto. And others, many, many others.

We wind up viewing this happily ongoing life as the story of one enormous personality on a continuous search, not only for the action, but also for a target for its passion. Paul Child furnished a great part of the latter. Teaching America to cook, and all that that has come to mean, has done the rest.

Nancy McKeon is food editor of The Washington Post.

© 1997 The Washington Post Company