A Literary Fallen Souffle
The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act By Alex Prud’homme
Review by Pam Munter
“Hello! This is JOO-lia Child.” Is there anybody on the planet who doesn’t recognize that falsetto chirrup? She was a household name in her lifetime and—incredibly—her fan base has only increased since her death in 2004, two days short of her 92nd birthday. The books about her have poured off the presses, many of them biographies. One of the most recent is The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act by her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme (Knopf, 2016). Prud’homme is also the co-author of a delicious photographic tome featuring Child and her husband, Paul, and is the co-author of Child’s engaging memoir, My Life in France. Julia has even been memorialized by Meryl Streep, certainly a ticket to immortality if there ever was one. What more can there be said about this surprisingly charismatic, mediagenic woman?
Much of the terrain here will be well-known to readers and admirers: her privileged upbringing, her long-time marriage, her collaboration with two French chefs who together detonated the culinary revolution in their seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her wildly popular TV show on PBS, the prolific cookbooks later in life, and her many TV shows after the groundbreaking one ended. Hers was an outsized personality made for television, the first “celebrity chef.”
Prud’homme’s self-described task is to capture Child’s “second act,” after she left France to create the personality known as JULIA CHILD. He considers her “act one” as morphing from a “‘too-tall, too-loud, rather unsophisticated social butterfly,’ as she described herself, into a worldly diplomatic wife and expert on what she liked to call ‘cookery.’” In spite of the book’s title, a significant portion details her familiar life in her prized cottage in France, not America. The book’s timeline is frustratingly nonlinear and seems to wander wherever his attention takes him. We’re led through the history of WGBH where she got her start with “The French Chef;” he writes brief and unnecessary histories of nearly everyone who came in contact with her; and somewhere near the middle of the book, he explores her parents’ backgrounds. He offers verbatim conversations to which he was not a party with little attribution. It results not in the savory treat we expect but is more reminiscent of day-old bread.
And therein lies the major disappointment. Prud’homme knew Julia Child well – socialized and worked with her – but he doesn’t provide much insight. Writing about the Childs’ now-famous house in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “…upon entering 101 Irving Street you were stepping into Paul’s and Julia’s conjoined brains. It was the decorations that gave that impression.” But what was the feeling? The ambience? We know that guests would inevitably end up in the kitchen but what was the conversation like, other than about the food? Were there disagreements? Guests who may not have gotten along? Those who drank too much?
We do read about her notorious fights with her French collaborators, well-documented in other biographies. And when two of her later TV shows were canceled, she was publicly angry at PBS. Prud’homme alleges she was absolutely certain that the network nabobs were wrong because “the shows were so good.” Did she ever consider the possibility that the public had simply moved on? “She suspected that she had been overlooked, let down or even sabotaged,” certainly an allegation that demands further substantiation. Most of this book, regretfully, comes from secondary sources, not from his frequent, direct contact with her. Both Julia and Paul wrote extensively, making this more a literary olio.
The author was a frequent observer of the synergistic Child marriage, but offers little insight other than pop psychology. He notes it “grew more complex” with her celebrity, adding, “There was a tension inherent between her wish to be a good wife and her professional ambitions.” And yet, Paul was the driving force in promoting her career, helping her become a star. He knew his wife was talented and ambitious, but Prud’homme smells trouble in that “Julia’s professional obligations dictated how and where she and Paul spent their time.” When there are corroborating quotes, they are too meager to justify his allegations. Did Julia confide in him about chronic disagreements with Paul?
Perhaps the author was reluctant to reveal less-than-glowing information. One of the more unsettling observations was that both Julia and Paul used homophobic slurs, even though many of their friends and colleagues were gay. Prud’homme doesn’t comment except to say, “There is no simple way to explain Julia and Paul’s homophobia, except as a function of their generation, their ignorance and their experience.” Experience? He later notes she had a change of heart when her longtime lawyer died of AIDS.
Prud’homme spends insufficient time discussing Child’s lasting appeal to the non-chefs who comprised a significant part of her audience. Many would tune in merely to drink in her culinary exuberance, relish her “conversations” with her food and chuckle at her often hilarious mistakes—which she would good-naturedly dismiss. She was funny, unpretentious and endearing but this cut-and-paste book seems more like an overwrought Hollandaise that has separated after too much mixing.
At the end of her life and after her beloved Paul had died, she moved to a senior community in Montecito, California where she had breakfast daily with several women she had known from her childhood in Pasadena. He describes those final days, planning her own 92nd birthday party, inviting friends from around the globe. Before it could happen, however, she died in her sleep of kidney failure. “Julia Child died as she had lived, with great dignity, in her words, ‘slipping off the raft’…What was to have been her birthday celebration became a wake…Julia had managed to exit her life as she lived it, with a touch of drama and exquisite timing.”
For those seeking a more rounded, organized biography of this colorful icon, try Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz (Knopf, 2012). Spitz might not have known her personally, but manages to give us a warm, moving and more coherent portrait.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and has been a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her essays and short stories have appeared in over 70 publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be will be published by Adelaide in October.