Sunday, July 11, 2010
Julia Child's Big Life
We were on our way back to DC after a sweltering day in New York City. Even the cool marble tiles on the floor of Penn Station were hot (the trains were backed up and it was the only spot we could find to perch while we waited for the board to tell us our ride had pulled in was on the floor against a pillar) but in the dingy bookshop I'd found a biography of Julia Child that already had me absorbed. Even as a mom sitting with my own children, I felt for a few minutes like a student waiting to go home for summer break.
The first years of Julia's life were idyllic, spent in Pasadena in financial comfort, as her father, John McWilliams, was a talented and even visionary businessman, and other than the mention of cheaper rent in New York during the early forties, there is no mention of the Great Depression. This life of privilege doesn't detract, however, from young Julia coming across as the sort of person we'd all like to know. Even if Child hadn't become famous, Noel Riley Fitch's sketch of the young Julia reveals to the reader an enormously likable character. And everyone, it seems, did like her very much. But though she was pretty, she was also very tall at six feet two, and had cultivated a larger-than-life personality to compensate for her lack of traditional attractiveness, which after all was what mattered in those days. Not an easy romantic match, to be sure, and when she graduated from Smith College in 1934, she was not, like so many of her classmates, betrothed.
She would be thirty-four before she married Paul Child, the man she would love with all of her big and passionate heart. After unsatisfying stints as a party girl in Pasadena and then as an advertising manager in New York, she'd gone off in search of adventure and wound up posted with the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in India and then China. She was smitten soon after meeting Paul, ten years her elder, but Paul had strong ideas about the sort of woman who interested him. Like the first love of his life (Edith Kennedy, who had been fifteen years his senior and his mistress for ten years, had died several years before he met Julia) he believed she should be petite, dark, sophisticated and intellectually disciplined. Julia was tall, fair, exuberant and, though very intelligent, intellectually unruly, especially by her own admission.
Julia persisted in her pursuit of Paul, becoming as she had been to other men, an understanding friend and enthusiastic travel companion. Her patience would pay off, demonstrating that in the throes of war in a third-world country, the rules from He's Just Not That Into You don't necessarily apply. Paul, we learn, is much like the rest of us: he hasn't a hot clue what's best for him romantically. Julia's joie de vivre brought him out of himself, everyone who knew him saw immediately. It took him awhile, but eventually he kicked himself for not recognizing the wonderful woman who had been right in front of him for so long. Many years later in an interview, he said that if he hadn't married her, he'd have lived on an island and been a "miserable old bastard."
Julia's love life prior to Paul wasn't entirely barren, of course, since she was certainly charming company. She'd had a marriage proposal from Harrison Chandler of the Los Angeles Times family. She could have easily married money and gone off to be a matron of the California social scene, but after rejecting the proposal, she was characteristically adamant in an entry in her diary, asserting "...it is a SIN to marry without LOVE...I know what I want, and it is 'sympatico'--companionship, interests, great respect, and fun. Otherwise and always--NO."
How strong she was in the face of what surely was strong social pressure to conform to the notions of womanhood of her day, and to know her own mind. I wonder if she didn't despair at times, but her family wealth and natural optimism made living on her own more practical than it would have been for another young woman.
In the end, she held out and found her true partner, the man who helped uncover her real passions of cooking, teaching and writing. Once he was hooked, Paul was her best friend, her passionate lover, and her unwavering supporter. They had tremendous fun and took good care of each other. The reproduction of her kitchen at the Smithsonian (photograph above, by my daughter) famously shown in the film Julie & Julia, shows the outlines of the pots the meticulous Paul drew on the pegboard so she would always know where to find her tools. It's a touching gesture of love, and I envy Julia more for that even than for her culinary expertise. More than anything, I admire her resolve to hold out for what she really wanted.