Julia Child's recipe for celebrity was obvious. The TV chef introduced many Americans to French cooking with her overflowing cheer, unmistakable voice, and a charming dash of clumsiness. Not exactly the best traits for a spy.
Nonetheless, Ms. Child worked for many years at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Throughout World War II, the OSS ran America's intelligence operations and controlled a network of spies around the world.
In interviews, Child always played down her wartime achievements. She was just "a clerk." But her husband told a different story. Paul Child, who met Julia while working with the OSS, wrote to his brother about her high-level clearance. She was actually "privy to all messages both incoming from the field or Washington, etc., and outgoing to our agents and operatives all over China-Burma-India."
How did she arrive at this critical position in American intelligence? It's all because she was too tall.
When the war broke out, Child – then Julia McWilliams – tried to join the military. She didn't make the cut. She joked that both the Navy and Army turned her away because her 6-foot-2-inch frame was "too long" to enlist. Instead, she moved to Washington and applied for jobs at OSS and the Office of War Information. According to a trove of previously top-secret documents, Child's height may have actually made her stand out at OSS. During her interview, the OSS rep noted, "Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall."
Child rose through the ranks. She worked as a typist and researcher, at one point working directly for General William Donovan, the leader of OSS. The jobs varied from "typing up thousands of names on little white note cards" to developing shark repellent. "The repellent was a critical tool during WWII, and was coated on explosives that were targeting German U-boats," says the CIA's official history of Child. "Before the introduction of the shark repellent, curious sharks would sometimes set off the explosives when they bumped into them."
After two years in Washington, Child headed overseas. The OSS sent her to Sri Lanka and China, where she oversaw the flow of information and coded messages through the foreign offices. She had top security clearance. In fact, the CIA says that while she served in Sri Lanka, "Julia handled highly classified papers that dealt with the invasion of the Malay Peninsula. Julia was fascinated with the work, even when there were moments of danger." She received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service while in China.
Biographer Noël Riley Fitch says that Child's intelligence work actually helped create the future celebrity chef. The OSS introduced her to Paul and he introduced her the joy of "real" cooking. A California upbringing had tricked her into thinking that meals came from cans and freezers. Working in China opened her eyes.
"American food in China was terrible; we thought it was cooked by grease monkeys," Childs wrote. "The Chinese food was wonderful, and we ate out as often as we could. That is when I became interested in food. I just loved Chinese food."
Child's true culinary epiphany came later, when the couple moved to France. But her work at OSS changed Child in another way. Ms. Fitch explains that: "Seen from a view of posterity, her 'boring' job was to provide Julia Child with the discipline, the autonomous organizational skill, the patience to devise, test and perfect the recipes in her encyclopedic chef-d'oeuvre: 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' (1961, 1970), on which her immortality can be said to rest."
Wednesday would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday.
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