Julia Child was an American chef, author, and television personality. She brought French cooking to everyday Americans, with her groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams in 1912 in Pasadena, California. She was the daughter of John McWilliams, Jr, a Princeton graduate and early investor in California real estate and Julia Carolyn Weston, a paper-company heiress whose father served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Child’s family were wealthy and
she attended San Francisco’s elite Katherine Branson School for Girls where, at 6ft 2″ she was the tallest in ehr class. Child was athletic and showed talent in golf, tennis and small-game hunting. Child continued her education, and interest in sports at Smith College from which she graduated with a major in History in 1934. She intended to be a writer and regularly submitted manuscripts to the New Yorker but none of her writing was published.
After graduation, Child moved to New York City where she worked as a copywriter for the advertising department of upscale home-furnishing firm W. & J. Sloane. She later moved back to California to care for her mother and from 1937 she worked in advertising while volunteering with the Junior League of Pasadena.
In 1941 at the onset of World War II Child was determined to join the war effort but found she was unable to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) or in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES due to her height. She began work as a typist for the U.S information Agency in Washington D.C before being transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was the forerunner of the CIA and Child worked directly with its leader, General William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan. She began as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division before moving into a research position helping to develop shark repellent, necessary as sharks would occasionally set off the explosives intended for German U-boats. In 1944 she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where she was responsible for registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications for the OSS. While in Sri Lanka, Child met fellow OSS employee Paul Child and they began a romantic relationship. Child was later posted to China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.
After World War II ended Child returned to America where she and Paul Child were able to get to know each other better. She enrolled in a Los Angeles cooking school to prepare her for married life but her attempts were disastrous. In September 1946, Julia and Paul were married in Lumberville, Pennsylvania. The couple later moved to Washington, D.C. and Paul Child joined the United States Foreign Service. The Childs were relocated to Paris in 1948 as Paul was posted to the U.S. Information Service, attached to the American Embassy. In Paris, Child’s first meal was at La Couronne restaurant in Rouen where she enjoyed Chablis, oysters, and Sole Meunière. She claimed it was “the most exciting meal of my life.”
In 1949 Child enrolled in the famous Parisian cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. Initially, Child was entered in a “housewife” level class and denied the opportunity to take part in a six-week haute cuisine course for experts. She was then placed in a yearlong program for professional restaurateurs with eleven former GIs under the tutelage of chef Max Bugnard. Child eventually received her diploma from the school in April 1951, but it was backdated to March 15, 1951. Child was determined to make a career out of cooking, and after joining the women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes she met Simone Beck who was working on a cookbook about French cooking for Americans. Beck and her friend Louisette Bertholle were looking for an American collaborator and Child was keen to be involved in the project. Soon after they met, Child, Beck and Bertholle opened a cooking school for American women in Child’s Paris kitchen. They called the school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes and started work on their book.
In 1958 after seven years of collaboration and the help of Avis DeVoto – a former cookbook editor at Houghton Mifflin – the women submitted their 850-page manuscript only for it to be rejected due to its length and complexity. The women revised the book and reduced it to 684 pages only for it to be rejected once more. In 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published by Judith Jones, a young editor at Alfred A. Knopf. The book was considered groundbreaking, enabling everyday Americans to learn French cooking. It was the bestselling cookbook for five years after its publication and has become a standard guide for the culinary community.
After a TV appearance where Child prepared an omelette on air while promoting Mastering the Art of French Cooking viewers wrote in demanding more. She was invited back to tape her own series on cooking for the network. After three pilots the show The French Chef began airing locally in 1962 and nationally in February, 1963 – July 1966. Child won the George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished achievement in television for The French Chef in 1964, two years later in 1966 she won a Primetime Emmy® Award for “Achievement in Educational Television” for The French Chef. She become the first educational television personality ever to receive an Emmy in open competition. Child continued to make regular appearances on the ABC morning show Good Morning, America throughout the 70s and 80s.
In 1995, Child established The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, a private charitable foundation to make grants to further her life’s work. The foundation provides grants to other non-profits supporting gastronomy, the culinary arts and the further development of the professional food world. It also works to protect Child’s legacy.
Child died two days before her 92nd birthday in August 2004. She has written many cookbooks that cover every aspect of culinary knowledge and remained a go-to reference for cooking advice for many years. In 1993 she became the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame and in 2000, she received France’s highest honour: the Legion d’Honneur, the same year she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Child has also been the awarded L’Ordre du Mérite Agricole and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour.
In 2002, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unveiled an exhibit featuring the kitchen, where Child filmed three of her popular cooking shows. In 2009 the Julie & Julia was released, it chronicled several aspects of Child’s life and her influence on aspiring cook Julie Powell. The film lead to a renewed interest in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.