Wednesday, August 15, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

Pity the writer of a biography of a person with whom most North Americans feel they are on a first name basis. One criticizes a cultural icon at one’s own peril.  On the other hand, the writer cannot wear his or her heart too boldly on the shirtsleeve.  Where other biographies have gone before, there is always the temptation to quote what has already been said. These were all challenges faced by Bob Spitz, author of the new biography of Julia Child.

Earlier books on Julia Child have placed primary emphasis on her role as a writer, with her television career following as a consequence.  In this biography, published to coincide with the August 15, 2012 centenary of her birth, the author moves quickly to establish her importance as a television phenomenon. The book’s end papers feature boeuf bourguignon—but not the recipe as printed in Mastering the Art of French Cooking—it is the script for the boeuf bourguignon episode on The French Chef.  In the dedication, Spitz refers to his mother as one of the earliest French Chef groupies. 

The prologue chronicles Julia Child’s first encounter with the Boston public television station, WGBH-TV where she first appeared as a guest, demonstrating omelet making on one Professor Duhamel’s program. Initially, the strangely trilling voice, the long, off-balance body, the demand for a hot plate did not scream “Television star!” to the powers that were at the station.  The audience saw something else: themselves—or at least an elongated version of same, someone who was funny, someone who made mistakes but carried on.  Thus was an icon born.

The long fight to publish what became Mastering the Art of French Cooking is well documented in Julia’s own memories and words collected in My Life in France and in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Anyone who has read these books will not find a lot new here but those who have not will get a full picture not only of the problems with prospective publishers but with the drawn out process of testing recipes and the tensions amongst the authors.

Where this book really shines is in putting flesh on the bones of Julia Child’s life.  Although earlier works have touched on her life before France, Dearie certainly gives a much more detailed portrait of her parents, John and Caro Weston McWilliams and of her as a youth. The portrait of the young Julia in some ways is not always flattering.  Growing up in a wealthy Pasadena family, she was jolly but aimless, sort of the original Valley Girl.  The educational opportunities offered up at Smith College were pretty much wasted on the gangly and vivacious girl. After graduation, she headed back to California after an abortive attempt at a career on the east coast.  War brought rescue from an increasingly unsatisfying life.

It is well known that Julia spent part of World War II in Asia with the Central Intelligence Agency forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Previously, it was thought that her roll was quite insignificant. Spitz points to a rather different interpretation.  But in the general scheme of her life, it was not the work that had real impact on her life; it was the after hours slow-burn relationship with Paul Child that began here, that was of lasting importance. For Julia, this relationship provided not just the true love of her life, it also provided her true education.

Spitz shows the other Julia fought early on for her fair share of royalties and certainly controlled the use of her name very carefully. Her liberal sympathies are well known. Her attitude to homosexuality was somewhat confounding. She simply refused to believe that any of her many gay friends were anything but the manliest of straight men.

Spitz provides a better rounded view of Paul Child than any previous work.  Personally, this reader still finds Stanley Tucci a more appealing version of Paul Child than the actual man who by all reports was extremely difficult on all fronts.  A twin, Paul Child was both bound by love and jealousy to his brother Charlie.  Like Paul, Charlie was an artist.  Unlike Paul, he was the twin who received a college education followed by commercial success and a fulfilling family life.  An auto didact, Paul found early love and world travel with an older mistress.  Alas, she died.

Yet that man, whose own needs were so often thwarted also gave all the education, support, encouragement, and love that Julia McWilliams Child needed to become an icon. That is the true miracle of Julia Child’s life story.

This review by Jennifer Grange
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
by Bob Spitz
Autographed copies avaiable

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