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Good Julia, Bad Julia,
This review is from: Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (Hardcover)
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It's amazing that there are so many good biographies of Julia Child. It's also remarkable that all the good ones have something new to bring to her familiar story. The latest is Dearie by Bob Spitz, and as I began the book, I was afraid I was in for a whitewashed version of Julia Child, if not a hagiography. But no - quite the contrary.
As is often the case, the obligatory childhood history is not the most compelling part of the book. Julia McWilliams grew up in privileged circumstances in Pasadena, California, then went to college back east at Smith, where she indulged in hijinks involving as much smoking and drinking as possible. The Prohibition lasted until 1933 and Julia graduated in 1934, so alcohol had even more of a mystique for Julia and her classmates than for most college students.
The story of her career with the OSS during World War II has been told fascinatingly in Jennet Conant's A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS. The story of her romance with Paul Child, marriage, and experiences in France has been told best by Julia herself in My Life in France, written by her grandnephew Alex Prud'homme. Her life from 1952-1989 has been documented entertainingly by Julia and her friend Avis DeVoto in their letters to each other, edited by Joan Reardon in As Always, Julia.
What Bob Spitz reveals in Dearie, even as he shows great affection for Julia, is Julia's Evil Twin. We are accustomed to reading about the irreverent Julia, who brings a blowtorch to the kitchen to finish off the creme brulee or who sends Valentine's Day cards of herself and husband naked in a bubble bath. What we haven't heard about until now is the Julia who walked off the Live With Regis and Kathie Lee Show in a fury. The Julia who hired a ruthless and unpleasant lawyer to act as her agent, to the distress of her longtime colleagues who had to deal with the agent. The Julia who drove Jacques Pepin to fits of swearing by making unannounced last minute critical changes to their joint live and TV appearances, to his on-air consternation. The homophobic Julia, who to her credit, would later change her opinions.
Dearie clocks in at over 500 pages, and it never felt bloated or too long. The Julia Child that emerges from it is focused and ambitious. She knew that her fame, and therefore her success, was based on her being on TV, on being in the public eye. She was protecting her brand before anyone thought to use that now overworked term. This may not be the most likeable Julia Child you've read about, but it's well-documented, gripping, and very revealing.
(The uncorrected proof edition I have has several photographs mislabeled, which will probably be corrected in the final edition. These include a photo of Julia dated 1922, when she would have been 10. Her sister appears to be around 1 or 2 in the photo, making Julia at most 6 or 7. Another photo shows a menu from "that lunch" which took place in November, 1948, but the menu shown is clearly dated August, 1932. And a photo captioned "In Santa Barbara, with Minou, 2001" shows a Julia who is a good thirty years younger than the 88 she would have been in 2001.)
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 7, 2012 11:33:29 AM PDT
Wow, too many errors for me at this time. BTW, Julia was a clerk with the OSS - forget the "spy" nonsense.
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 6, 2012 10:34:20 AM PDT
Ms Winston says:
Roger, the author makes it clear that Julia was never a spy. She had access to high level records of agents, however. The author makes it clear that she was bored to death with her job and relates how she attempted to bring some humor to it by tweaking the collective nose of her superiors. For what it is worth, I am enjoying the book.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 1, 2014 6:29:54 AM PDT
T. Burke says:
Julia Child's attention to detail, drive, and organizational abilities were clearly evident in her assignments with the OSS. She was in an administrative function but certainly not just a "clerk". She was responsible for accounting for incoming and outcoming sensitive information at the higest security levels including codes identifying agents in the field. She created the organized system in the field for these functions. It was not trivial.
Posted on Jul 1, 2014 6:48:46 AM PDT
T. Burke says:
I have read the other books cited in this review and agree with the reviewer's remarks. For those desiring a thorough, better written, and much better documented biography I recommend "Appetite for Life" by Noel Riley Fitch. It was published in 1997 but is far as it goes is an excellent resource. Like "Dearie" it is a hefty volume but Doubleday did not flinch at publishing Appendices, Sources, extetensive notes, and Bibliography whereas Knopf for "Dearie" refers the reader to an online source for all of this. I visited it and it is not intuitive to use and is less than useless but to be fair maybe I should try harder. Nany Barr's "Backstage with Julia" is a favorite of mine. It cover Julia later years after "The French Chef" with interesting details about her public and television appearances, insights about traveling withnJulia etc.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 1, 2014 8:25:49 AM PDT
I'm a big fan of well-sourced biographies, and the more notes and references, the better. I did finally get around to Appetite for Life, but haven't read the Nancy Barr book yet. It's going on my list, thanks!
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2015 7:09:42 AM PDT
Your description of what Ms. Child did in the OSS is the very description of a "clerk."
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