Alex Prud'homme & Julia Child

Alex Prud'homme & Julia Child


If you have already read MY LIFE IN FRANCE  and THE FRENCH CHEF IN AMERICA then you are familiar with Paul Child's photography. In France is a Feast, Alex Prud'Homme makes Paul and his photography the star of the Julia and Paul Show.
Self-described as a 'six foot two inch, rather loud and unserious 36 year old Californian, Julia McWilliams fell in love with the bookish, professorial, sophisticated, 46 year old Easterner, and they shared a rich and fulfilling life together.

Q: After Paul’s death Julia returned to Pasadena. What prompted you to convince her to co-author her memoirs with you?

Background: after Paul's death at age 92, in 1994, Julia gave up La Pitchoune, their house in Provence, and remained in their Cambridge house until 2001. That year, she donated the house to Smith College (her alma mater), except for the kitchen, which was moved intact to the Smithsonian, in Washington, DC. It remains one of the most popular displays at the National Museum of American History. She moved to Santa Barbara, CA, where she lived out her days in a beautiful retirement community with a group of women she knew as a child in Pasadena. 

Julia's Memoir, MY LIFE IN FRANCE: In 1969, Paul suggested a memoir about their years in France, but the publishers weren't interested. Julia never gave up on the idea, and I grew up hearing many of their captivating stories about Paris and Marseille  at the dinner table. In subsequent years, Julia would mention she was working on "the France book," but it never appeared. Eventually, I graduated from college and became a professional writer. I offered to help Julia with her memoir several times, but she always politely declined, saying "not now, dearie," though she never completely shut the door. In December 2003, when she was 91, and her health was waxing and waning, I made my annual visit to Santa Barbra, and asked: "How's the France book coming?" And this time she said, "not so well, dearie." When I offered to help, she agreed. When I asked to see what she had written so far, she opened the drawer of her desk, but instead of manuscript pages I saw neatly organized envelopes filled with airmail paper. These were the letters Julia and Paul had written to my grandparents (my grandfather, Charlie Child, was Paul's twin brother, and Julia was close to my grandmother, Fredericka Child) from France to Pennsylvania, between 1948-54. I realized Julia had outlined the memoir in her head, but had not written a single word. We talked about those years in France, which she described as her "favorite years of life," when she experienced a "flowering of the soul," and found her life's calling in la cuisine Francaise

I thought that if I was enchanted by those stories, then others might be, too. So I convinced her to let me write the book -- in her voice, and with input from our editor, Judith Jones. We had a great time working together, from Jan - Aug 2004; she died on Aug 13th, two days shy of her 92d birthday. It took me another year to finish the book, and it was published in 2006. In 2009, half the movie "Julie & Julia" was based on MLIF. 

Q: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Julia and Paul during the conversations that shaped these books?

There were many revelations, large and small. On a basic level, I was surprised to discover how hard Julia worked on technique, which allowed her to have fun and make television cookery look easy - which it is not. I was impressed by her perseverance and resilience, which allowed her to overcome personal and professional obstacles. I was amazed to learn about the shifting dynamics of Julia and Paul's marriage (more on this below). I felt extremely lucky to help Julia re-live her most formative years: working on the book, the nurses said, rekindled her passions and added months to her life. And the better I got to know JC, the better I liked her -- which is not always the case in working with someone that closely.

Specific stories: 

I didn't know that P+J had tried to have children, and "it didn't take," as Julia said. When I pressed her on this, she didn't want to talk about it. Adoption or in-vitro fertilization were not things she considered. Later, she noted that had she had children, she probably wouldn't have had her career, as she would have devoted most of her energy to her kids. 

I was surprised to learn that in 1955, Paul was investigated by Roy Cohn and David Schine, Eugene McCarthy's henchmen, and accused of being a homosexual and a Communist. After years of dedicated, ill-paid service, Paul was deeply offended by this, and felt betrayed by his own government. He and Julia saw colleagues' careers destroyed by similar unsubstantiated attacks. It was one reason they quit the diplomatic service two years early, giving up a pension: they had had enough. Julia was still bitter about this experience, almost 50 years later.  

Q: It would be impossible to discuss Julia without recalling Judith Jones. Talk any that remarkable woman and her influence on Julia and her career.

Judith played a -- or THE -- crucial role in Julia's career. She acquired and published Beck, Bertholle, and Child's first cookbook, MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, in 1961, and all but one of JC's subsequent books (the exception was BAKING WITH JULIA). 

Judith did minimal editing on MASTERING, which landed on her desk as a near fait-accompli. By then, the authors had been working on the book for nine years (Julia had participated for seven years). They had lost their first American editor, Ives Washburn, who simply vanished; and the manuscript had been accepted and rejected - twice - by Houghton Mifflin. Luckily, Avis de Voto gave it to Judith, who was perhaps the one editor in all of NYC who really understood it. She took it home, cooked from it, and convinced Alfred Knopf to buy the book. Then she had to convince him to use that title. She prevailed, and MASTERING is still in print. 

Judith had a huge - largely unacknowledged - influence on MASTERING, Vol. II, and Julia's later books -- especially the groundbreaking FROM JULIA CHILD'S KITCHEN, the JULIA CHILD & CO books, and THE WAY TO COOK. I discuss this in last year's THE FRENCH CHEF IN AMERICA (out in paperback on 10/31) -- which, btw, I dedicated to Judith. 

Interestingly, there was a real creative tension between Julia and Judith. While Judith could be lovely (Paul Child described her as "an Irish fairy princess"), she could also be tough and provocative. Julia pushed back, and there was friction. At one point, Julia reprimanded Judith for "catering to timid and squeamish" readers who were afraid of killing a lobster or eating rabbit. And Judith pushed Julia hard to turn her manuscripts in on schedule, and fought to keep advances low, which led to squabbles. 

Speaking for myself, Judith was the best editor I have ever worked with. After Julia died in Aug 2004, it took me another year to complete MY LIFE IN FRANCE. Since Julia was not available to answer my many questions, I turned to Judith, who usually had an answer or knew where to look. When it came to writing in Julia's voice, Judith and I both had her idiosyncratic syntax in the back of our minds, and worked together to put her on the page as accurately as we could. We picked Paul's photos together, which was fun. In her editing, Judith made just a few, subtle changes to my work, but they tightened and improved it immeasurably. 

Q: For those of us who in adolescence believed that only petite bosomy blondes  and muscular men with full heads of could be sexy, it was hard to imagine Julia as being the object of a man’s desire, but her life with Paul was as passionate as any cinematic embrace between Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas. Talk about their chemistry.

It's true, their relationship was extraordinary, in many ways. 

First, I don't agree that Paul and Julia were unattractive: they were not fashion models, but they dressed well, read widely, kept in shape (Paul was a black belt in Judo, among other things), and were physically attractive people -- especially in their younger years. More importantly, they both had dynamic and unusual personalities, and deep intelligence, which made them attractive in a different way. I'd argue that their passion was as much intellectual as physical. While Julia was tall, loud and bright, Paul was shorter, quieter, more visually-oriented, with a sharper and more prickly intellect. They functioned as a "team," as they put it, or "two side of a coin." Later, their success/ celebrity made them objects of desire. Such is human nature. 

Second, one of the most fascinating things about Paul and Julia was how their relationship evolved over time. He was ten years older than Julia, and for the first half of their marriage was the "senior" member. Paul was a gourmet, fluent in French, and a diplomat who took the ingenue Julia to France, encouraged her to attend the Cordon Bleu, and tutored her about food, wine, sex, Culture, Politics, Economics, Semantics, and the like. 

During their years abroad (1948-1961), Julia was an obscure diplomatic wife who taught cookery and toiled on a massive cookbook with her French friends. But when they retired and settled in Cambridge, MA, in 1961, Paul stepped back from the limelight and pushed her forward. At that point they reversed roles, and Julia took the lead. MASTERING THE ART was published in Oct '61, Julia first appeared on WGBH in '62, and she began performing as "The French Chef" in '63. By '67 she had won an Emmy, was on the cover of Time mag, and made a TV documentary about a State Dinner at the LBJ White House. She was off and running, and Paul was happy to be "the part of the iceberg that doesn't show." 

Their marital role reversal was unusual - even by contemporary standards. It is reminiscent of "My Fair Lady," with Paul emulating Henry Higgins and Julia like Eliza Doolittle. Paul described the flip-flop as "Nature restoring an upset balance." 

In the end, their marriage was built on mutual respect. Paul credited Julia with pulling him out of his armored shell: "Without her, I would have been a miserable misanthrope," he said. "She could charm a polecat." And Julia dedicated MY LIFE IN FRANCE to him, noting that "Without Paul Child I would not have had my career."



Buy the Book

The Paris Insider Newsletter

THE PARIS INSIDER family of weekly newsletters,Including THE PARIS INSIDER (Tuesday,) THE PARIS READERS CIRCLE (Wednesday,) THE PARIS WEEKENDER (Thursday,) and THE PARIS INTERVIEW (Friday) offer freshly written reviews about restaurants, museums, books, events, showings and what's on in Paris. Arriving at 9:15 AM Pacific Time you'll receive all of this plus tips on excursions to the surrounding regions from Champagne to the Loire Valley and much more. Thank you for subscribing.


icon bistro

No one should have a bad meal in Paris! Whether a 2-star restaurant or a local bistro there should always be an excellent rapport qualité prix– relationship between price and quality. At my favorites you will be treated as a regular and have a satisfying experience. Just tell them  “Terrance sent you.”


icon events

Regularly scheduled literary salons with guest writers, private dinners, restaurant openings, wine tastings,market visits and cooking classes attract a discerning, sophisticated crowd who love to have a good time while they learn. Our cadre of Paris–based colleagues happily share their passion for this magical city.