A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Julia Child Declassified

If Julia Child had not been over six feet tall, she would've enlisted in the WACs or the WAVES during World War II, instead of the Office of Strategic Services. She wouldn't have gone to Kandy, Ceylon with the OSS, she wouldn't have met Paul Child there, she wouldn't have married him after the war, she wouldn't have been introduced to gourmet French cuisine by Paul, she wouldn't have challenged herself to learn to cook it for him, she wouldn't have formed L'école des trois gourmands, written all those books, done all those TV shows...and cuisine in the United States would not be what it is today. As the Bobs sing in "Julia's Too Tall," their a capella tribute to the famous chef: "She's too tall to be a spy,/But not too tall to bake a pie."

Julia (as a fellow alumna, I feel we can be on a first-name basis) graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a major in history and minors in music and French. In 1935 she became assistant to the advertising manager at W. & J. Sloane, 5th Avenue, NYC., at a salary of $20/week. Returning home to California after a year and a half due to her mother's illness, she became a fashion columnist (!!!!) for a San Francisco publication, earning $25/column. When the magazine went bankrupt, she went back to work for W. & J. Sloane, this time in Beverly Hills, as advertising manager. In 1942, with World War II in full swing, she began working as a civilian in the Office of War Information, and from there transferred to the OSS. She stayed until the office was disbanded in 1946, got married to Paul Child, and the rest is culinary history.

Julia's 130-page OSS file was declassified in 2008, and it makes interesting reading. Not the insufferably dry parts the government wrote, but the parts she contributed, such as her résumé and job applications. Her cheerful forthrightness and dry humor shine through even in these mundane documents.

On her earliest filed résumé, she doesn't flinch when asked her reason for leaving her last pre-government job. "Fired, and I don't wonder. One needs a much more detailed knowledge of business, buying, markets, and more experience in advertising than I had for so much responsibility. But I learned a great deal, and did pretty well in establishing the mechanics of the office and the business personnel." On her OSS job application, she's a bit more diplomatic. Reason for leaving (same job)? "Resigned." "Store in state of upheaval owing to change of management. Disagreement with management." "(Think it was partly store politics. I was put in over the heads of several who wanted the job, and I was put in by the New York office. Basic disagreements with new manager about method & approach. Think also they needed a more mature person for the job.)"

At the job before the OSS, with the U.S. Information Center in Washington D.C., she "typed over 10,000  little white cards and put in for a transfer to the OSS." Elsewhere she sums up that job: "Verifying names & complete breakdown of titles of government executives and other persons of importance, typing them on small index cards, copying cards several times. Am supposed to get a promotion to typing bigger cards, but nothing has happened." I wish I could go back in time 70 years and reassure Julia that she has much, much bigger cards in her future.

When the OSS disbanded, Julia McWilliams was granted an Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service. In it she was praised for her resourcefulness, industry, sound judgement, drive, and inherent cheerfulness. "Morale in her section could not have been higher." Sounds to me like Julia was just being Julia. Giving 200% to everything you do, from typing little white cards to making television history, if you live to be 90 or so, can get you all the way from Smith to the Smithsonian.

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