Julia Child would never have become Julia Child, The French Chef, on WGBH had she not gone to the jungles of Ceylon in 1944.
Back then she was Julia McWilliams, a 31-year-old administrative assistant for the Office of Special Services. Until World War II came along, she’d been the carefree socialite daughter of a wealthy California banker. All that changed when she got a job with the OSS in Washington, D.C. Her cheerfulness and drive earned her promotions and exciting overseas postings.
She had tried to join the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), but at 6’2” she was too tall. She started out in the OSS as a typist in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Then she got a promotion to a top-secret researcher for Gen. William J. Donovan, the head of the agency. She worked on a team developing a shark repellent.
On April 29, 1944, Julia McWilliams’ orders came through: She was transferred from Washington, D.C., to Ceylon.
Julia Child, Administrative Assistant
Her personnel file reads:
This is to notify you that the Office of Strategic Services has taken the following action concerning your employment.
Nature of action: Transfer
Effective date: 29 April 1944
Her title: Administrative assistant.
In Kandy, Ceylon, she registered, catalogued and channeled a great volume of highly classified communications. She worked nights and half days on Sunday doing tedious paperwork. “I hate this work,” she told her diary.
But she loved the people – sophisticated and adventurous spies who were also anthropologists, professors, biologists, cryptologists and engineers.
She wasn’t impressed at first with Paul Child, one of her OSS colleagues in Ceylon. Child had lived as an artist and poet in Paris, where he developed an appreciation for fine cuisine. Julia didn’t think he was attractive: too short, bald with an unbecoming moustache and an unbecoming nose. Besides, at 42 he was too old for her. Paul thought she had nice legs and a pleasantly crazy sense of humor, but she wasn’t his type.
One Sunday, Julia McWilliams joined Paul Child and some friends on an expedition to photograph elephants. She then decided she found him quite attractive.
Romance didn’t bloom yet. Paul was posted to Kunming, China, and Julia followed him. They hated the Army food – rice, potatoes, canned tomatoes. Together they explored the Chinese food in local restaurants. Then they were transferred to Chongqing, where they continued their culinary adventures.
It wasn’t until Paul was posted to Beijing and Julia was back in Washington that Paul finally realized how much he missed her. He wrote her a love letter, which she received a month later.
They married in Lumberville, Pa., on Sept. 1, 1946.
With thanks to Dearie, The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. This story updated in 2022.
Image: Julia sampling food By Lynn Gilbert – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51678880.