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Separating Julia Child fact from fiction in HBO Max’s ‘Julia’

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child. (Seacia Pavao/HBO Max)

The creators of “Julia,” the sweet and sincere eight-episode series that debuts today on HBO Max, had plenty of source material to work with. Extensive documentation exists chronicling the life of its title character, Julia Child, the woman credited with bringing French cooking — and the idea that cooking her beloved buttery cuisine could be a pleasure — to America.

Child herself penned more than a dozen cookbooks and an autobiography covering her time in France, and multiple biographies, a volume of letters, hundreds of interviews, and personal papers further illuminate her — not to mention the nearly four decades of her television appearances.

But to create the series, which focuses on the unlikely creation and early stumbles of Child’s first television show, “The French Chef,” which first aired in 1963 on Boston’s public-television station, showrunner Chris Keyser and creator Daniel Goldfarb had to take certain liberties with the recipe provided.

Though Child spent plenty of time on-camera, “her life took place behind closed doors,” Keyser says.

‘Julia’ documentary offers an admiring portrait of Julia Child and her impact on food culture

One of the challenges that entailed, Goldfarb says, was making sure that they didn’t use their creative license to wander too far afield. “We follow all the facts of the biography as people know it from Wikipedia,” he says. “And as long as our reading between the lines doesn’t alter the course of the biography, we’re okay.”

Which meant adding dashes of this and pinches of that — fudging timelines, creating a new character, or inventing interactions among people known to be in Child’s circle — all while staying true to the emotional core of Child’s well-known life and beloved public persona.

So what’s real and what’s invention?

Did Betty Friedan dress down Julia Child?

In the penultimate episode, Julia, played admirably by British actress Sarah Lancashire, encounters feminist author Betty Friedan at a dinner in New York, and what starts with a meet-cute moment — Julia backs her chair into Friedan’s and then invites her to join her table — soon sours. Friedan is one of the few characters who aren’t charmed by the nascent TV star, and she launches into a critique that’s as sharp as Child’s kitchen knives. “I’ve seen your program, and it’s not helping things,” Friedan informs her. “You think you’re opening doors for women, expanding their horizons. They may be dreaming of France, but they’re stuck in front of a hot stove.” Friedan lambastes Child’s recipes for creating hours of work for women, cooking and doing dishes. “How can these women, who you have locked in the kitchen, possibly find time for anything else, let alone a career?” she demands.

Child is shaken, and Friedan’s stinging words are part of the reason that she decides not to renew her show for a second season. (Of course, she eventually changes her mind, and the rest is, literally, history.)

Friedan did publish “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, the same year that Child’s cooking show debuted, and their chance meeting in a hotel ballroom where literary and media types mingled is conceivable, though not documented in prominent accounts of Child’s life. And although Child is now heralded in pop culture as a feminist hero for her success in a male-dominated field and for her modern marriage, Child never claimed such a title for herself.

But the imagined encounter allows the writers to address how Child’s brand of feminism might be reconciled with Friedan’s. The hindsight offered by the past 50 years would prove that Child’s biggest impact wasn’t what Friedan feared, Keyser says, but it was hardly a settled matter then. “The question in 1963 about whether Julia Child is good for feminism or disadvantageous is an interesting conversation to have,” he says.

In the show, that dance between Child’s celebration of the creation of food and Friedan’s view that domestic duties were a drag on women was summarized in the reassurance her husband Paul (“Frasier’s” David Hyde Pierce) offers his wife: “Maybe she’s even right, in a way. For some people. But this show is not for them. This show is for us, and the people who make it, and the people who watch it.”

Did “The French Chef” have a black producer?

The character of Alice Naman, played by Brittany Bradford, is a young Black producer assigned to the show and plays an important role in “Julia’s” narrative. Naman sees potential in Child that her male colleagues at Boston’s public-television station WGBH don’t, showing higher-ups the record amount of fan mail that followed Child’s appearance on a program featuring authors to promote her cookbook (Child surprised the host and charmed the audience by preparing an omelet on-air). And it is Naman who later secures “The French Chef’s” finances by clandestinely syndicating it — an idea that seemed novel to her boss — to other public-broadcasting stations.

Naman seems to be based at least in part on Ruth Lockwood, the assistant producer at WGBH who came to be an integral part of Child’s team. (One hint about the inspiration: In one scene, Naman’s mother lectures her using her full name, Alice Ruth Naman.) Lockwood, however, was White.

In “Julia,” Alice gets a character arc of her own, which mostly involves navigating the “Mad Men”-era workplace and fending off her mother’s matchmaking attempts and entreaties for her to make time amid her consuming work schedule to date. She attempts to learn to cook using Child’s “Mastering” as a guide. But another role is to help viewers see Child in a broader context. Certainly, the TV host encountered sexism, ageism and snobbery in her unlikely career path. She was mocked for her voice and her looks. But Child came from wealth and privilege, and many of her problems were solved with a check from Child’s own account or from her father’s.

As a young Black woman, Alice’s position is far more fraught. At the station, Alice’s authority is undermined and her work taken credit for by her White male bosses. And in one scene, she and Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), Julia’s best friend and a volunteer on the show’s set, go to the butcher for ingredients, where the man behind the counter looks past her to wait on White customers. Avis, who is also White, flags him down by name, then offers some blithe, cringe-y advice to her shopping companion: “It pays to be pushy,” she stage whispers. The look on Alice’s face says so much about the cruelty of racism, and also of those oblivious to it.

Keyser and Goldfarb say that their research showed that there were young, Black employees at WGBH in the early ’60s. And the racism Alice faced, they say, was a part of the world they tried to display. “For our purposes in 2022, talking about changes in the workplace and in society, we felt embodying those ideas in that character was beneficial,” Keyser says.

They were careful to give her a meaningful storyline (spoiler: she eventually makes a connection with one of the young men her mother sets her up with). “Racism is a part of her life, but it’s not her story,” he says.

Did Julia Child swear?

In the first episode of “Julia,” viewers who know Child only as a buttoned up, grandmotherly figure might have been surprised to hear her drop an f-bomb. Over a breakfast with Paul of freshly prepared omelets, Child considers what she might say on her first TV appearance, wondering whether she should tell the now-stuff-of-legend story she often shared about how she was overcome by a plate of sole Meunier at a restaurant he had taken her to in Rouen, France. “It was almost like you took my virginity twice,” she mused. “Once by f---ing me and then by feeding me.”

Child certainly wasn’t so salty in public. In fact, she was said to have disapproved of Julie Powell’s blue writing in her blog — which became the basis of “Julie & Julia” — in which she attempted to cook each recipe from “Mastering” in a year. “Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia,” Child’s longtime editor, Judith Jones, once told Publisher’s Weekly.

In private, Child could be quite ribald. In her authorized biography of Child, writer Noël Riley Fitch quoted Paul recalling her plucking hot cannelloni out of a pot, exclaiming, “Wow, these damn things are hot as a stiff c---!”

“In conversations, she could swear and speak frankly about private matters to the point that one of her lawyers would blush,” Fitch wrote. “She loved, gossip, talking dirty, and a good belly laugh.”

Did her show pioneer what are now well-known food TV tropes?

Like many fictionalized accounts of TV, movies and theater, “Julia” plays out like a show within a show. Viewers get to see both the final product and the messy bits that go into making it. And with “The French Chef,” they are witness to the very early days of the now-ubiquitous genre of food TV. “The French Chef” wasn’t the very first cooking show: It had some precedents, including “I Love Cooking” with host James Beard, the first of its kind to appear on network TV, in 1946. (Beard makes an appearance in “Julia” where he sweetly congratulates her on her on-air success and laments that “America can’t love a fat, old fairy like me.”)

But “Julia” shows viewers the alleged invention — around Paul and Julia’s kitchen table, as the team cooked up the show’s pilot — of some of the now-most recognized markers of food shows. Jones, freshly arrived from New York, says she had come up with the idea on the train to give the show a three-act structure of preparation, cooking, then serving. And Alice contributes the trick that would allow Child to prepare a dish that usually takes three hours in the 28 minutes of airtime allotted: they could swap out pots and pans of food for already-cooked versions. Voila!

Obviously, the character of Alice was invented, so it didn’t go down exactly like that. And Goldfarb notes that Child actually taped three different pilot episodes, all of which were taped over (a fact that shows how little people suspected the show would eventually be considered so groundbreaking), so it’s impossible to know exactly how they played out. But a more essential truth, he says, is that Child pioneered food TV as we still know it.

“She created the template,” he says.

Which includes something that, about a half-century later, viewers of food programs still expect: the pleasure of watching the host take a bite of the dish he or she has spent the program preparing and proclaiming it to be delicious. Child’s set included a backdrop for this very purpose, where she would perch at the end of each episode to dig in — and it was where she memorialized her famous closing line, which was, in fact, ad-libbed, just as portrayed in “Julia”: “Bon appétit!”


An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name for the actor who portrays Julia Child in the show. It has been corrected.