Julia Child is one of those fascinating characters that gives me hope that I may not be spinning my wheels in life. She got married late, didn’t really learn to cook until her late 30s. Did not start writing her first cookbook until her early 40s. Was first on TV when she was 50. (And she was a woman that was 6′ 3″.)
But Julia Child has had a lasting effect on food and culture and TV and even the idea of celebrity.
I did not come to this book cold. Several years ago after watching the movie Julie and Julia I read Julia Child’s memoir/biography My Life in France. My Life in France was written at the very end of her life by her nephew based on interviews and discussions with her. It was not published until after her death but it feels more like a memoir than a biography.
Dearie is a full biography written by Bob Spitz, nearly twice as long as My Life in France. I was glad for the extra details on her early and later life. Stylistically, this is a very narrative biography, similar to Laura Hillenbrand‘s Unbroken. It is not hagiography. Julia is presented as being quite amazing woman, but one that made a lot of mistakes.
Prior to her marriage, Julia was rootless. She was from a very well off family, but she was a mediocre student that was more interested in a good party than a good book. In spite of the very generous inheritance from her mother (who died when Julia was in her early 20s), she choose to work. It wasn’t until the beginning of World War II was she actually interested in her work. She eventually worked her way into intelligence world and started to realize through the interaction with her coworkers that there was a whole world of the mind that she just had not paid attention to in school.
Julia was not a spy, but she was the office manager for several different South East Asia intelligence offices during the war and had a very high level of security clearance. It was there that she met Paul Child. Both her own memoir and this book clearly say that Paul was a turning point for her life. Paul’s support and love gave her confidence and encouragement to step out of her Father’s overbearing shadow to try new things. Her father was extremely conservative, anti-intellectual, anti-European (and especially anti-French.)
Much of the details of her life after Paul are well known. But Spitz clearly insinuates that Paul was not really as wonderful as Jullia suggest in My Life in France. He was moody, and in a different way, also overbearing. And later in life, his poor health and dementia affected the jobs she was willing to take on.
At the same time, Paul’s own skills in art, production, and management was able to help Julia be prepared to start her TV career. Paul had spent nearly 30 years as an artist and cultural attache working for the Department of State and intelligence communities. Once he decided to retire, at the same time Julia was starting her TV career, his assistance was invaluable.
In someway, Julia reminded me of Judge Sandra Day O’Connor. Both women had their husbands with them nearly every day for years ‘at the office’ because the dementia/Alzheimer’s. Both retired because of the need to care for their husbands full time. O’Conner’s husband died very soon after she left the Supreme Court. But Paul lived for several years. Julia could not stay way from the spot light. So she kept going back, writing another cookbook, doing another TV show. Spitz keeps suggesting that at least part of the reason was that Julia was concerned about finances. But this seems odd because by any measure, Julia had more than enough money to live on. They owned a number of homes and the ongoing income from her books was more than enough for her to live on.
So it seems that it is more about the spotlight than the money. Julia was also not always easy to work with. She was cut throat with her book and TV contracts. Although she viewed her TV work as a means to sell books, not make money. At the same time she worked tirelessly for improving food education (helping several programs start real university programs for educating chefs), increasing the diversity of workers in the kitchen, Smith College and for Planned Parenthood.
One of the things that I was pleased to read about was her focus on encouraging new talent. Julia did not like a lot of the ideas of the new young chefs. But even if she didn’t like a lot of the food they were cooking, but she always went to the kitchen, said something nice, encouraged there to be more women in the kitchen and said positive things about them publicly. And her home was a place that young chefs could just stop by and hang out. She was around 70 when her home was an informal chef hangout and many new young chefs were regularly stopping by. She would serve food, whatever she had, whether it was enough or not and talk to them, learn from then and encourage them.
Later she would intentionally invite many chefs to her home to talk with them and learn from them and often ask them to cook for her. A random tidbit that I love is that Julia loved goldfish crackers and often served then as appetizers.
One of the themes of the book was that in spite of the clear talent that Julia had and the passion for food and teaching, her family’s money helped give her space to do what she wanted. Paul and Julia lived in France at a level far above his salary because they were living off of Julia’s inheritance from her mother. Julia spent 7 years writing the cookbook and she was able to devote the time (and she worked nearly full time on it the entire time) because they did not have to worry about the money. Julia was able to do her tv show The French Chef because she did not have to live off of the salary. She put on her own book tour for the cookbook out of her own pocket. It is Julia’s talent and personality that made her a star, but without the freedom that she had, that talent and personality would have never been developed.
Julia and Paul were always people without faith. And as they both moved toward death, that was something that concerned them both. Paul lived for five years in a nursing home after a series of strokes and other health problems. Julia lived another 10 years after Paul. In the end, she died because she refused treatment when she got an infection during treatment for kidney failure. Spitz makes it clear that she was aware that by refusing treatment she would die within days. Over the last couple years of her life, her health limited her ability to eat what she wanted and drink the wine that she wanted to enjoy with her food. Spitz has several quotes from her around this period that indicate that a life that was not able to be lived fully was not worth living. She suggested it was better to eat foods that were bad for her and drinking the wine and live a shorter period of time.
This is a fairly long biography. And in spite of the fact it is very readable (and more balanced) than Julia’s My Life in France, I am split between which I like better. My Life in France has a clear sense of her voice. Even though it was her nephew that was the final editor, he edited it to keep her voice. Spitz is writing a biography and while he knew her and traveled with her several times, he was writing a biography, not editing a memoir. After reading My Life in France, I wanted to cook (and spent weeks trying out new recipes inspired by Julia). That book created a desire for food and the things that Julia loved. Dearie did not do that for me. It told me about Julia, and while I am fascinated by her, it did not carry the same sense of wonder.
If you are only going to read one, read My Life in France. But I think Julia is an interesting enough character to justify reading both.
- Bob Spitz – Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child [Excerpt] (Englewood Review of Books)