After devoting nearly nine years to penning “The Beatles,” the author called upon personal experience and
plenty of research in crafting “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child.” The book’s
release coincides with the
late cooking icon’s 100th
birthday Aug. 15.
‘Julia . . . wanted to know what was going on in [her fans’] kitchens. I think she tailored her work based upon what she heard from people.’
Q. How did you piece together Julia Child’s life?
A. I met her while I was in Italy in 1992 and I traveled with her for about a month, doing nothing but eating all day and talking about her life. And I had the foresight to run a tape recorder. When we got back, I told Julia that I intended to write a biography of her and she urged me to do it because she was in the process of working with another biographer and she was very unhappy with it. But by the time I got around to writing it — I had gotten involved with “The Beatles” — Julia had died. Fortunately, I had 35 to 40 hours of interviews with her, but I relied mostly on a year and a half of research at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, where all Julia’s archives are stored. And then I went on a tour of the States and Europe, talking to everybody who was still available, all her colleagues, her friends and associates, and family members.
Q. You write that you had a crush on her. What was your initial perception of Julia?
A. I had the same perception of her that everybody who met her had. And that is, you just fall into Julia’s embrace. She was that kind of character. She looked you in the eye when she spoke to you, she never pulled her punches, she shot from the hip, she was a magnificent character. And that was all part of her charm. People took to Julia because she was a seemingly ordinary woman who became a pop icon because of her ordinariness. Julia didn’t like prepackaged food and Julia wasn’t prepackaged herself. She was a natural person who you could trust. Everybody felt they had a personal attachment to her.
Q. And she stoked that personal connection by making herself available, walking around Cambridge, and listing herself in the phone book.
A. Exactly right. Julia really liked to meet her fans face-to-face, because she wanted to know what was going on in their kitchens. I think she tailored her work based upon what she heard from people. And she met a lot of people face-to-face, because as you said, she was always on her feet, always walking around, always shaking hands with people in the airport and at restaurants. Book signings always took so long because Julia would always look people in the eye, ask them a bit about themselves, and call them “dearie.” She was a public personality. She didn’t hide behind walls, she took phone calls. There’s a wonderful section of the book in which your editor [Sheryl Julian] told me about how Julia listed her name in the phone book and on Thanksgiving would start taking calls from people all over the country starting around 1 in the afternoon, nonstop until 8 at night (see cover story, Page 18). And they would all be like, “Julia, my turkey’s not turning out the way it’s supposed to. What do I do?” And Julia would be on the phone helping people get through their Thanksgiving recipes.
Q. What were you most surprised by in researching her life?
A. I was completely surprised that at the age of 40, Julia couldn’t cook. She was just learning. And at the age of 50, she hadn’t been on TV before. So by the time she was 51, when this started to break, this was a woman who reinvented her entire life post-middle age. It was unheard of in those days and for her not to know what she wanted to do by the time she was 40 and to have become one of the most beloved icons, if not one of the most beloved women, of the 20th century, I find that completely extraordinary.