Julia Child, a chef for everyone, dies
Julia Child -- the author and television personality who endeared herself to generations of cooks, introduced her viewers to fine cuisine, and toasted them with a glass of wine and a high-pitched "Bon appetit!" -- died yesterday in her sleep. Her friends and family had gathered in Santa Barbara, Calif., to celebrate her 92d birthday, which would have been tomorrow. She had lived in Cambridge for more than 40 years before retiring to California in 2001.
Mrs. Child, called simply Julia by her many fans, began a revolution of good eating that changed the way Americans thought about food. She seemed like an ordinary woman cooking on television -- everyone's favorite loopy aunt, dropping food on the floor, looking a fish right in the eye. She gave her viewers confidence, as though she were only a few steps ahead of their knowledge of cooking. Because of the show and her best-selling "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (1961), which she wrote with two French colleagues, the world of food began changing rapidly. Young chefs worked out of these pages, while home cooks labored over her meticulous instructions.
Mrs. Child had a 35-year career on public television and wrote 10 best-selling cookbooks. In the year "Mastering" was published, American food had hit a low ebb. Postwar housewives were enthralled with frozen and packaged foods, electric appliances, and speed. The meal on many tables was meat and potatoes with brown gravy. When Boston-based Houghton Mifflin rejected the "Mastering" manuscript, Mrs. Child kept the $200 advance and found Alfred A. Knopf and a talented young editor, Judith Jones, who stayed on board for "The French Chef Cookbook" (1968), written to accompany the television shows; "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II" (1970); "From Julia's Kitchen" (1975); and other volumes.
Mrs. Child's influence on chefs, home cooks, and young people interested in food was legendary. Hundreds of cooks across the country say Mrs. Child was their mentor. "She introduced us to French cuisine in a way that changed our eating habits and made us much more inquisitive and adventuresome in our experimentation with the world's cuisines," Martha Stewart, who once made an elaborate French confection on Mrs. Child's television show, said in a statement yesterday. Added Marion Cunningham, 82, the cookbook author known as the modern "Fannie Farmer": "She's the heroine of the cooking world."
For years, she had aspirations of becoming a great novelist. But when she was 37 and living in Paris with her husband, who was stationed there with the US Information Service, she attended Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school, and found her passion. She spent a decade writing "Mastering" with Simone "Simca" Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and then returned to the United States as the cookbook was published.
"The French Chef," a PBS series that evolved from the cookbook, was one of the first cooking shows seen on television and, by any standard, the funniest. With little theatrical training but a natural affinity for drama and deadpan humor, Mrs. Child drew people to her. She turned out to be an improvisational genius with perfect timing -- a ham who mixed up expressions and invented her own words. "The very interesting thing about her theatrical talent was that it was spontaneous," Jones said.
In her breathless speech, emphasizing phrases at the end of sentences, Mrs. Child taught her audience to "whoosh" egg whites, "wallop" steaks, and ignore anything that fell off the counter. "I have a self-cleaning floor," she confided to her viewers one day. Often she would say, "If I can do it, anyone can."
Her famously imitated voice was immortalized in 1978 by Dan Aykroyd in a hilarious chicken-cutting, blood-spurting scene on "Saturday Night Live." She showed the tape to guests and laughed along with them. Mrs. Child brought to television a lifetime of party-going, merriment, and far-flung adventures.
She never stopped her slightly outrageous behavior. In her mid-80s one night, sitting outside her house in Cambridge in a mammoth caged patio, someone opened a sparkling wine that had just been brought in. Mrs. Child looked down at her own glass, which was filled with white wine. "I'd love some of that," she announced, pointing to the sparkler. Then: "Just a minute." She noticed a potted plant beside her chair and tipped her wine into it. "There," she declared, "now I'm ready."
Overcoming mediocrityJulia Carolyn McWilliams was born Aug. 15, 1912 in Pasadena, Calif., the eldest child of Julia Carolyn "Caro" Weston McWilliams and John McWilliams Jr. In 1934, she graduated from Smith College, where she, by her own admission, had done mediocre work.
Tall, freckled, athletic, and spunky, she had hopes of writing for The New Yorker. She did a brief stint at Coast, a literary magazine in San Francisco in the late '30s. She rejected a marriage proposal from the Times Mirror newspaper heir, Harrison Chandler. Jobs at W.& J. Sloane furniture's advertising and marketing department in New York, then later in Beverly Hills, did not work out. She applied to serve in the Navy WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, but was rejected. "I was too long," she told biographer Noel Riley Fitch. Mrs. Child was 6 feet 2 inches tall and wore a size 12A shoe.
Mrs. Child's foreign service career began in 1942 under William "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services. She volunteered for India, where she met Paul Cushing Child, a man 10 years her senior who was worldly, artistic, and largely self-educated. She did not consider herself much of an intellectual compared to him; all she knew about food was how to eat. Paul Child had lived in Europe, spent a decade with a brainy and beautiful older woman, and considered the 32-year-old file clerk rather naive.
Both were transferred to China, where Paul Child began looking at her differently. As chronicled by her biographer, she had a staff of 10, coded information sent to agents, and took charge of a foot locker filled with opium for paying spies. She could also throw a party together in hours. They married in 1946, in Bucks County, Pa.
Paul Child did not like his father-in-law, and the feeling was mutual. The liberal son-in-law met the staunch Republican, and neither had anything to say to the other. Because of this, Mrs. Child turned away from her own family and the couple gravitated toward his twin, Charlie, and his wife. Paul and Julia Child never had children.
The Childs' first post together after marriage was Paris, where Mrs. Child fell in love with good food. She attended Le Cordon Bleu with 11 GIs. She met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle at the Cercle des Gourmettes, a French cooking club. Beck and Bertholle had published a little cookbook for Americans, and when they met Mrs. Child they saw in her the English-speaking partner they needed in order to expand their volume.
"Mastering" took 10 years to research and write. Mrs. Child carried the manuscript with her to Marseilles, where the Childs were transferred, then to Bonn, Washington, D.C., and Oslo. A Cambridge pen pal, Avis DeVoto, wife of the author Bernard DeVoto, brought the manuscript to Houghton Mifflin and then to Knopf, which gave the authors the handsome advance of $1,500. The book has since sold more than 1 million copies. Mrs. Child told an interviewer several years ago that she wrote "Mastering" because "I just wanted people to cook in the French way. It was the only fine cooking." Her food, she said, was "not haute cuisine -- just good cooking."
A great love matchAfter Paul Child retired in 1960, the couple moved to Irving Street in Cambridge. He died in a Lexington nursing home in 1994. Mrs. Child moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. close to her 90th birthday. She left the house on Irving Street to Smith College, gave her cookbook collection to Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, and let the Smithsonian Institution disassemble her kitchen and reassemble it at the National Museum of American History.
The Childs' relationship has been billed as a great love match, but he was moody, prone to melancholy and, in his senior years, bad humor. He did not love parties, but he fostered her career, prodding her, and helping her -- even washing dishes in television studios. When he did not like what he saw in a rehearsal, he could make withering comments within earshot of strangers.
"She and Paul came as a package, along with a number of volunteer ladies," said Russ Morash, 68, who was her producer-director for about 150 of "The French Chef" television programs. Morash says there had been no master plan to make a cooking show. Mrs. Child, he said, was very organized. He felt "like a baseball director. We prepared our cameras so we covered the action."
Mrs. Child earned little money for her first television shows. She had income from her mother's estate, so she donated her $200 public television fee back to WGBH-TV. The shows sold books, and earned the authors royalties from each sale.
Beck and Mrs. Child eventually bought out Bertholle. But by the second volume of "Mastering," Mrs. Child became frustrated with what she saw as Beck's stubbornness and lack of precision, she told biographer Fitch. Mrs. Child wrote her remaining eight books alone or with different collaborators.
But her personal relationship with Beck continued for many years. The Childs built a house in the south of France on the Becks' property and spent many months each year in Provence. Mrs. Child continued to go to the house, called La Pitchoune ("the little one") until her 80th birthday, when she went for the last time. The Childs also owned an apartment in Santa Barbara, Calif., near Mrs. Child's girlhood home, where she spent many winters.
Throughout her life, Mrs. Child loved a crowd, and though assistants tried to keep her fans from her, she was drawn to them, and they to her. From the many restaurateurs she had inspired to the home cooks she taught on television, a reverential group always surrounded her. She called everyone "dearie," and her large frame, severely bent in later years, steadied by a walker, still towered over most everyone.
When she was 87, she and Jacques Pepin held a seminar to promote "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home," a companion to the television series. When someone asked about using less fat in recipes, she sent the audience into fits of laughter when she pounded the table with her fist. "I hate health foods. If it says 'healthy,' I won't buy it. And I won't buy the 'other' spread." She never gained weight, she insisted, because she ate everything in moderation. "I don't snack. Otherwise, I'd be Mrs. Six-by-Six." Her favorite foods included McDonald's french fries and Pepperidge Farm goldfish, which she served at parties.
Her local stomping groundsAround Boston, Mrs. Child was both famous and familiar.
She did her own grocery shopping, chatted up the butcher whose shop was near her house, met friends at restaurants several nights a week, filled her big kitchen with guests, and stopped to sign autographs. She was often seen at Hamersley's Bistro in the South End. "She would march in, say hello to the person at the desk, and then go into the kitchen and introduce herself to the kitchen staff," said chef Gordon Hamersley.
She loved the limelight and only occasionally would tell a stranger who approached and asked if she were Julia Child: "No, but many people say I look just like her."
For years, she drove a little red car with a wooden spoon on the antenna, so she could find it in parking lots. "She had a VW Beetle, and she folded her 6-foot frame into it," said Barbara Wheaton, a Concord-based French food historian who met Mrs. Child in the 1960s and became a friend.
The car, Wheaton said, "had a sunroof and her head was coming out of the top." Once, Mrs. Child gave Wheaton the keys to the Cambridge house so Wheaton could use her impressive library, and extending the hospitality further, added, "You might enjoy looking at my files of correspondence."
Her office, on the second floor of the Irving Street house, where she lived for four decades, was overrun with books and letters.
Her husband's paintings, on the walls of the downstairs common rooms, together with memorabilia from their many years overseas, made the house old-shoe comfortable.
She hosted television crews for her shows for months at a time, allowing them to turn her dining room into a control booth and her kitchen into a studio. She offered the house to her favorite food and wine organizations for fund-raising receptions.
Cook's Illustrated founder Christopher Kimball would visit with Mrs. Child, "and the first question out of her mouth for everyone was, 'Where did you train?' " (Kimball trained in his own kitchen.) Kimball said guests at the Irving Street house had to prove their culinary mettle. He found himself shucking oysters, carving lamb, and making soup.
In the famous Cambridge kitchen, Mrs. Child's old Garland range anchored one corner and a wallful of French copper pots hung in their outlined places. Mrs. Child never made home improvements, except for installing an elevator in the back pantry for her husband when he was failing ("great for chilling wine," she announced after his death) and adding a microwave oven to a pastry pantry on whose walls hung hundreds of baking implements.
Guests were often surprised to find themselves eating in the kitchen, shoulder to shoulder at the table. Mrs. Child shuffled around, her knees having bothered her since her teens. The real reason she did not like the dining room, she once said, was that she did not want to miss any conversation.
She liked to reminisce about all the fun she had during her life, and she never lost her zest for a great party.
One chilly night after a large crowd had left a reception she hosted in the big Cambridge house, Mrs. Child wandered into the kitchen and slumped down into a deep arm chair. She had seemed disoriented all night.
The guests were mostly strangers, and she had clung uncharacteristically to those she knew well. One of the stragglers ventured timidly toward her. Looking up, she perked up. "Good night, dearie," she said in that unmistakable voice. "Wasn't that fun?"
In 2003, Mrs. Child was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Her niece, Dr. Philadelphia Cousins, who was with her when she passed away, said in a statement that there will be no funeral, according to Mrs. Childs' wishes.
"In recent weeks," Cousins wrote, "she had been suffering from kidney failure, and on Thursday in her characteristically decisive way, she removed her oxygen mask, declined to go to the hospital, and closed her eyes."
Alison Arnett of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.