It was late in Julia Child’s career when I had the honor and true pleasure of working with her, marketing one of her cookbooks. A few years later and at a different publisher, I was assigned to her biography, Appetite for Life. Here, I’m honoring her with a brief bio that’s also a great inspiration for anyone who wants to write and traditionally publish any book and finding it a long road.
Julia Child (August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) is the cookbook author credited with bringing French cooking to American “servantless” households in the early 1960s. A publicity appearance for her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in the early days of television led to her becoming the first true TV food personality. Though she achieved fame as Public Television’s “French Chef”, the road to her first book publication was a long one.
Early appetite for food & adventure
By her own admission, Julia McWilliams grew up continuously ravenous. Born into a well-to-do family in Pasadena, Julia was exceptionally tall and her exuberance and zest for sports and life apparently burned calories. Her parents employed a cook, however, so Julia did not learn to cook at home.
Julia received an English degree from Smith College (Class of 1934), and after graduation lived briefly in New York City working as an advertising copywriter. In 1937, she moved back to California and worked a bit as a writer before World War II broke out. Motivated by her sense of adventure, she joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — a precursor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — where she became a research assistant.
After some time stateside, the OSS sent Julia to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), which is where she would meet the man who would be her first guide to gastronomic adventures and, eventually, her devoted husband, Paul Child.
Julia Child in France
Julia and Paul were married on September 1, 1946 and shortly thereafter moved to Paris for Paul’s assignment with the U.S. Information Agency.
While living in Paris, Julia was indoctrinated into the pleasures of French food and wine and soon desired to become an accomplished cook herself. As she seemed to do with everything in her life, Julia threw herself into the cooking effort with gusto. After deciding that its somewhat basic class for housewives wasn’t demanding enough for her, Child entered a course of professional cooking study at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, which had reopened after being closed during World War II.
Child, then well into her 30s, attended the year-long professional cooking course with a class of American men, WWII veterans studying under the auspices of the G.I. Bill. Though Julia Child valued and respected her instructor, Max Bugnard, she had a contentious relationship with the Le Cordon Bleu headmistress, Madame Brassart. Child flunked the final exam for her diploma the first time she took it—because she’d been so busy learning the most complicated recipes that she’d neglected to memorize the simple ones. Finally Julia was allowed to re-take the final exam and officially graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in 1951.
Julia Child’s interest in cooking led her to join a women’s cooking club called Cercle des Gourmettes. In the group, she met Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Child, Beck and Bertholle, “les trois gourmandes,” formed a cooking school in the Child’s Paris kitchen to teach French cooking to American women. The three called the school L’ecole des Gourmettes.
Julia takes on — and ignites — the cookbook project
Beck and Bertholle had already begun a to write a cookbook aimed at Americans and, in fact, their “food advisor” had already published a 63-page “teaser” called What’s Cooking in France before leaving the project. It was in the early 1950s when the two Frenchwomen asked Child’s help in making the manuscript appeal to American home cooks.
Child deemed that what existed of the What’s Cooking in France manuscript too imprecise and unprofessional. In her typical exuberant fashion, she would tear apart and completely refashion the recipes with more scientific precision. She took the lead on reworking the existing material. With Beck (and, to a lesser degree, Bertholle) would test and re-test, write and rewrite to break down and codify each recipe step, making them understandable — and doable — for “servantless” American home cooks. Paul Child photographed the steps of the cooking processes.
Book publishing frustrations
In early 1953, through an devoted cook/acquaintance in the United States, Avis De Voto (who became a good friend), Child was put in touch with Putnam publishers who were interested but unresponsive and then was able to secure a book publishing deal for with the publisher Houghton Mifflin for an advance of $750.
While working on French Recipes for American Cooks, as the cookbook from Les Trois Gourmandes was then titled, the U.S. Government transferred the Childs from Paris to Marseille, from Marseille to Plittersdorf, Germany, from Plittersdorf to Washington, D.C, from Washington, D.C. to Oslo, Norway. All the while, Julia continued to work on the cookbook, which morphed into French Cooking for the American Kitchen. The Childs’ many personal and government connections and social circles became important when she was promoting the book.
In early 1958, Julia Child and Beck met with Houghton Mifflin to show the publisher what had been written thus far and were greeted with criticism that the book, supposed to be French cooking in a single volume, was ponderously long and unacceptable. After much deliberation, Child agreed to cut it back, but — though highly praised by the editor — the resulting manuscript, submitted in September 1959 was ultimately deemed too “encyclopedic.” Among other objections, the book’s size, according to Houghton Mifflin, would make producing the book unprofitable (publishers provide profit and loss — P&Ls — for each book that is under publishing consideration); the manuscript was rejected.
Editor Judith Jones recognizes a bestseller
Lucky for Julia Child and Les Trois Gourmandes, through another friend, the manuscript landed on the desk of a young, Francophile editor at Knopf, Judith Jones (who also acquired and edited other literary masterpieces, and was responsible for bringing Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl to the American market).
Jones loved the manuscript and recipes and championed it at Knopf, and that publishing house gave Julia Child and her co-authors a $1500 advance. Under Jones’ editorial direction, the recipes and instructions were further developed for American audiences and acquired its now-seminal cookbook title.
Published in 1961 with illustrator Sidonie Coryn’s sketches based on Paul’s photographs, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was an immediate hit and became the magnum opus of French cooking for American audiences. The cookbook is the most credited with taking American home cooks out of the Can Opener Cookbook “instant” age. A brilliantly executed book publicity and marketing campaign also landed Julia Child on television — and the rest is culinary history.
Not even including the years with just Beck and Bertholle, the book that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking took nearly 10 years from Julia Child’s development to publication.
A publicity appearance launches Child’s television career
The cookbook’s uniqueness and quality — along with some very smart cookbook promotion on the part of the co-authors and Knopf — resulted in an immediate hit for both reviewers and cookbook buyers. The book promotion and publicity in America mostly fell to Julia Child.
Julia and Paul Child did not yet own a TV set when she was invited to do a publicity appearance on the Boston public television station WGBH to promote her new cookbook on a show called I’ve Been Reading. The appearance was so successful that the station ordered three experimental half-hours of a cooking show with the author. Child was the first cookbook author to make the successful transition to television and the rest is cookbook and food television history.
In 1966, Julia Child was featured on the cover of Time magazine for the cover story “Everyone’s in the Kitchen,” in which she is referred to as “Our Lady of the Ladle.” From there, Child’s twin careers as cookbook author and television personality snowballed, her years and years of relentless training and attention to cooking and recipe detail paying off.
Julia Child went on to author nearly 20 books and to host numerous television cooking shows both solo and with some of her dear culinary friends. In 1991, she agreed to lend her name to the IACP Award for Best First Cookbook.
Julia died in 2004 just shy of her 92nd birthday, leaving behind a legacy of passion not only for food but for life. In 2009, the brilliant (I’m biased) Nora Ephron wrote and directed the great film Julie & Julia, a film based on a fan blog-turned-memoir as well as on Child’s own memoir (written with her nephew) My Life in France…
… a life which started Julia on that long, long road to a cookbook. And the rest is publishing history.
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