Julia McWilliams was born in 1912 in California to conservative parents who didn’t entirely know how to relate to a headstrong girl who’d grow to be 6 foot 2 inches.
Her father, she said, hoped she would “settle in Pasadena to live a conventional life.”
After graduating from Smith College and moving back to Pasadena for a few years to take care of her ailing mother, World War II broke out.
Julia learned she was too tall to enlist in the Army or Navy corps for women, so instead she joined the Office of Strategic Services. She was a typist, then a researcher in the Secret Intelligence division.
One of her projects involved cooking, in a way: She helped develop a repellant to keep sharks from approaching (and setting off) underwater explosives. It’s still in use today.
She was posted to Sri Lanka and later China, where she met Paul Cushing Child. She was 31 and he was 41.
Paul’s first impression of her, written to his twin brother Charlie: “A classy dame, brave about being an old maid!” He told Charlie he was reluctant to pursue her because she was a virgin when they met.
She won him over.
Julia and Paul got into a minor car accident the day before their wedding in Lumberville, Pennsylvania in 1946. They smiled through the ceremony with stitches and bandages.
Paul could “do just about anything,” Julia said. “Carpenter, cabinet-builder, intellectual, wine-bibber, wrestler. A most interesting man and a lovely husband.”
A diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service, Paul was posted to Paris in 1948. Over the next six years, Julia and Paul would move to Marseilles, Germany, and Norway.
Paul, an enthusiastic gourmand, is the one to introduce Julia to fine food.
On her own, Julia “made do” with frozen food and didn’t really know how to cook anything.
It wasn’t what women of her class did, she explained. “Middle-class women did not have careers,” Julia said. “You were to marry and have children and be a nice mother. You didn’t go out and do anything.”
Her first meal in France was a life-changing experience: oysters, sole meuniere, and wine at a little restaurant in Rouen. She said years later that it was “the most exciting meal of my life.”
Julia decided to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu, the famous Parisian cooking school, in 1949. She was 37.
She ended up being the only woman in a year-long course with eleven former GIs.
She threw herself into school and called Paul a “Cordon Bleu widower,” but they did make time for each other. “I would go to school in the morning,” she once said, “then for lunch time, I would go home and make love to my husband.”
Of these years, she said, “I felt myself opening like a flower.”
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Julia met two French women who asked her to help write a cookbook they were putting together. It’s intended to teach Americans about French cooking.
Finding the original recipes too confusing and prone to error, Julia ended up entirely rewriting the book, meticulously testing and re-testing recipes to make sure everything is foolproof.
She was thrilled to have something she loved to work on. “I have finally found a real and satisfying profession which will keep me busy well into the year 2,000,” she said in 1952.
The goal for the book was “a collection of good French dishes of the simpler sort, directed quite frankly to those who enjoy cooking and have a feeling for food.”
After seven years of work, the women turned in an 850-page manuscript to their publisher, Houghton Mifflin.
Houghton rejected the manuscript as too long and encyclopedia-like.
“Hell and damnation,” Julia wrote to one of her co-authors.
They revised the manuscript down to 684 pages. Houghton Mifflin rejected it again.
Meanwhile, Paul retired from the diplomatic service and the Childs bought a house in Cambridge, MA.
In order to save money, Paul designed Julia’s kitchen himself. He makes the counters extra tall to accommodate for her height.
Because she loves to have everything in its place, Paul outlines every pot and pan on a pegboard so it’s clear what goes where.
Julia and her co-authors’ manuscript finally gets passed to Judith Jones, a young editor at Knopf who believes in it and convinces the publisher to take a chance on it. They call it Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
From there, Julia got famous. Then Julia got a cooking show, and even more famous.
Paul was her partner throughout, working on photographs and illustrations for books and helping to manage her career.
“How fortunate we are at this moment in our lives!” He wrote Charlie. “Each doing what he most wants, in a marvelously adapted place, close to each other, superbly fed and housed, with excellent health, and few interruptions.”
During the late ’60s, Julia had a full mastectomy. “Left breast off,” she wrote in her diary for February 18, 1968.
She threw herself into her work. “Doing television,” she said, “you want amusing things, something fun and unusual. I think also on the television you want to do things loud. People love the whamming noises.”
She used a huge sabre to carve chicken, wore a helmet and fired a popgun to bring down small birds to roast.
She was credited for helping to change the American culture of food from frozen dinners and pre-packaged mixes to something to be savored and enjoyed.
She was immortalized in many ways. She loved a 1970s SNL skit in which Dan Aykroyd portrayed her as proceeding with a taping of her show despite cutting off her own finger and suffering massive blood loss. She kept a videotape of it under the television in her kitchen.
Julia worked through her sixties and seventies, traveling the world. When Paul got too frail to come with her on trips, she’d set an alarm so that no matter where she was in the world, he’d get a call from her at the same time of day.
Paul Child died in 1994 at the age of 92. Julia died 10 years later, two days from her own 92nd birthday. Her last meal was French onion soup.
Previously: Dolly Parton Facts.