- - Friday, August 24, 2012

By Bob Spitz
Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95, 560 pages illustrated

Bob Spitz, a journalist and celebrity biographer (think the Beatles), met and developed a self-described crush on Julia Child on a trip with her across Sicily in 1992. He was writing about her for several magazines, and nothing was off the record. “She was exactly like her TV persona: warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible, and most of all real.” He immediately decided that he would write her biography, but he didn’t get around to it until after she had died, two days before her 92nd birthday in August 2004.

This engaging warts-and-all account, written in a rather breathless magazine style, is the result of four years of sifting through the 85 boxes of Julia and Paul Childs’ papers at Harvard and many related resources. Both the detailed ancestry in the beginning and the long goodbyes at the end might well have been trimmed, but for the most part the story is gripping. And Mr. Spitz does make the case for his subject’s importance: “She not only brought fun headfirst into the modern American kitchen, a place that housewives equated with lifelong drudgery, but used it to launch public television into the spotlight, big time.”

Julia McWilliams had a thoroughly unremarkable childhood in a privileged household in Pasadena, Calif., followed by a notably unremarkable education at Smith College and a career as a government clerk in various Asian posts during World War II. But once she had married Paul Child, another former Asia hand who took a while to recognize her uniquely appealing character, Julia came into her own. (Julia was 34 and Paul a decade older when they married, and at 6 feet 3 inches, she towered over her husband.)

What Mr. Spitz does best in his book is explain how the Julia Child persona took shape, when her husband was posted to Paris as cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy. The author begins with Julia’s triumph over Le Cordon Bleu culinary school’s bureaucracy, which grudgingly allowed her to join rigorous cooking classes rather than the “housewives’ class,” but then denied her a diploma. The author details the ups and downs of her longtime collaboration with the two Frenchwomen who became her co-authors of the landmark “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” And most of all, he demonstrates how tirelessly she worked to perfect every recipe in every book she wrote and every television program she presented. “She went about everything scientifically, subjecting each recipe to what she called the ‘operational’ proof — that is, not relying on the published recipes or family traditions so much as concrete results from her very own stove.”

This book might almost be characterized as a dual biography because Paul Child, a very complex, artistic man, played such a major role in expanding Julia’s horizons. He introduced her first to his fellow sophisticates in Washington, where they started married life, and then to interesting people and superb food in France. Julia was an apt and diligent pupil in every respect. She plunged into learning French, entertaining Paul’s friends and cooking, cooking, cooking. Nonetheless, it must not have always been easy to live with Paul, whom the author describes as “strong-willed, opinionated, prickly, and aloof.” Because he was “a lone wolf in an agency that valued team players above all,” his career was a constant confrontation with authority.

Meanwhile, Julia, with his encouragement, went from strength to strength, refusing to despair when Paul’s reassignments took them to Marseilles and Oslo, when two would-be publishers of her mammoth cookbook backed out or when she was directed to reduce the size of the book by half. She reworked the text and sold it to Knopf after some enthusiastic editors there tried the recipes at home and pronounced the book “revolutionary.” One reported that every recipe she attempted turned out to be a masterpiece.

Julia Child’s career really blossomed when, in 1963, she accepted an invitation to appear on a (formerly) staid book review program sponsored by Boston’s public television station WGBH. She chose to demonstrate, warbley voice and all, how to make an omelet the French way, using a burner she brought onto the set. She was a hit, and her book took off, as did sales of all her many subsequent books and broadcasts of all those television shows that followed. She loved the limelight, and never wanted to step out of it even after Paul fell victim to dementia. Julia — who called everybody, strangers and friends alike, “Dearie” — just kept adapting her books and TV shows to keep pace with the changing times and markets.

It’s easy to see why Mr. Spitz fell for the remarkable Julia Child, and he has done her justice in this mammoth, inspiring biography.

• Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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