Julia is a blessing. She is wonderfully sensuous. She is and was beautiful. I’m an esthetic being, and I love to look at her. We discovered that we were both sensuous, that we both liked to eat. It’s unfortunate that some people don’t enjoy eating, drinking and lovemaking.”
The words are rapturous, understandably so since Paul Child has lived with the woman for 30 years, written Rabelaisian poems to her “gracious face” and “sweetly-rounded bottom,” admired her “ordered mind”—and, to the envy of millions of his countrymen, feasted on the haute cuisine served up by the doyenne of America’s kitchens. For ten seasons, his wife Julia Child reigned on TV’s French Chef, and a vast audience laughed at her uproarious manner and plummy voice. It rejoiced over her culinary triumphs and slavered over the succulent results.
Yet the galling truth is that the French Chef was once the Fumbling Chef—and Paul had to swallow the results. During their courtship, Julia cooked as if the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach pump. Her hollandaise curdled; her crêpes charred; her soufflés sagged. But Paul manfully shoveled it in because, he groans, “I was willing to put up with all that awful cooking to get Julia.”
Once he landed her, they decided together that she should take cooking lessons. Ever since, Paul has enthusiastically encouraged her career as her collaborator and sous-chef. He designed each of the 11 home kitchens Julia has presided over, chopped and minced vegetables for her early TV shows, helped write the scripts, and mopped up after she sloshed potato pancakes on the floor in moments of exuberance. Their most recent joint effort is From Julia Child’s Kitchen (Alfred Knopf), her new popularized cookbook containing recipes for everything from pâtés en croute to lasagna, to which he contributed drawings and photographs.
“We never do anything separately,” says Julia, who at 63 is 10 years younger than her husband. Home is a gray Victorian clapboard in Cambridge, Mass., where Julia and Paul, who have no children, ebulliently carry on—she writes and cooks, he paints. The Childs were only temporarily slowed a year ago when Paul underwent open-heart surgery and Julia canceled her heavy schedule of lectures and demonstrations to be with him full time. About that time she also revealed that she’d undergone a radical mastectomy six years earlier, explaining with customary directness, “It didn’t bother me. I wasn’t flapping my breasts around anyway.”
She was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, the daughter of a robustious, well-to-do family of six-footers. (Julia stands 6’1″.) She went East to Smith College (’34) and entertained notions of becoming “a great woman novelist.” But after two years of writing ad copy for a Manhattan furniture store, she returned home “to have a good time doing virtually nothing.” And in Pasadena, but for World War II, she might still remain.
Instead, she joined the OSS and was sent as a chief cables clerk to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). There she met Paul, an elegant boulevardier, connoisseur of fine food and wine and confirmed bachelor, also working for the OSS setting up a war room for Lord Mountbatten. (He later used the same techniques to design Julia’s TV kitchen.)
Paul, whose father was director of the Smithsonian Institution’s astrophysical laboratory, was raised in Boston. Early on he succumbed to wanderlust, working variously as a waiter, lumberman, artist, teacher, stained-glass cutter and cabinetmaker. In prewar Paris he’d met Hemingway and visited Gertrude Stein’s salon. “When I met him I thought, ‘He’s too sophisticated for me,’ ” Julia recalls. “Did I dare aim that high? He was worldly and older, I was sort of a hayseed.”
But the hayseed and the sophisticate blended like sauce béarnaise. He says of Julia, “She was a marvelous combination of brains and niceness.” In Kunming, China, where they were transferred later in the war, their courtship was nourished by sampling regional cuisines. They married after the war but, as Paul explains it, there was no honeymoon and almost no wedding. “We were on our way up to the wedding in Bucks County, Pa. A truck which lost its brakes smashed into us. I was able to shoot the car onto a shoulder, but Julia was thrown out. I came to. There was my wife-to-be lying on the ground, stunned, and covered with blood, dust and glass. It was a most un-pretty sight.” It took 23 stitches to sew up Julia’s scalp, but she gamely went on with the ceremony.
After Paul was posted to the U.S. embassy in Paris, Julia took courses at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, and her natural talent quickly blossomed. Paul wrote homemade sonnets to his live-in chef on her birthdays. In 1961 it went, “Julia, Julia, cook and nifty wench/ whose unsurpassed quenelles and hot soufflés/ whose English, Norse and German, and whose French/ are all beyond my piteous powers to praise/ Whose sweetly rounded bottom and whose legs/ whose gracious face, whose nature temperate/ are only equalled by her scrambled eggs.”
In Paris Julia met two Frenchwomen, Simone (“Simca”) Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who were collaborating on a cookbook for Americans, and joined them in the enterprise. Over the next decade, while the Childs moved to other posts in Marseilles, Oslo, Bonn and Washington, she and Simca Beck kept up a furious correspondence and in 1961 brought forth the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which has since sold 1,250,000 copies. The next spring, Julia turned a book-talk TV program into a cooking demonstration with a copper bowl, a whisk and some egg whites she had brought along, and—voilà!—The French Chef was born.
In Cambridge, Paul and Julia greet the day with a Spartan breakfast of tea and fruit and the morning newspapers, then get to work promptly at 9, he painting in his studio, she writing in an adjoining study. Lunch is meager too. Their working day ends with the 7 o’clock news and their only big meal of the day—but limited to just one helping each. Paul is the sommelier, selecting the wine from his well-stocked cellar. Both help clean up afterwards. “It used to be that everything was for Paul,” he says of his wife’s sacrifices during his 15-year diplomatic career. “But now,” he adds, raising a glass to his wife, “everything is for Julia.”
Her plans include a proposed television series on American cooking with James Beard and doing battle against the new minceur (slimming) French cuisine. Julia is staunchly loyal to the rich sauces and gastronomic extravagances of the old French cookery, and its master chef, Auguste Escoffier, of whom she says stoutly, “He’s codified everything in cooking.” (Her plans do not include endorsement of products or restaurants; she has always refused such offers.)
After Thanksgiving and their current round of cooking demonstrations, the Childs will set off to their villa in southern France, where Julia samples local cuisines and is an adviser for a new cooking school in Paris. As always, though, the Childs’ favored preoccupation is amusing one another. “I have never been bored by Paul,” sighs Julia, the acknowledged “impulsive” partner in their marriage. The more precise Paul describes it another way. “With Julie and me, love is a complex tapestry,” he says. “All our discoveries have been good ones. Some people go sour and move to other persons. We’ve not had to.”