Julia Child lived in Cambridge, had a home in Southern France, and died in California, the state of her birth. She shared herself with a vast audience, including the people of New Hampshire. She came here often, helped raise money for New Hampshire charities such as Monadnock Music, and visited her dear friend, Lael Wertenbaker. They met in Europe during World War II. Julia was with the Office of Strategic Services, and Lael was a war correspondent for Time Magazine. Maybe they were both spies.
Julia died on August 13, 2004, just two days short of her 92nd birthday. Five more years and she could have seen a movie called Julie and Julia, which opens tomorrow. I like Meryl Streep, who plays Julia, and Stanley Tucci, who plays her husband Paul, but there was something so unique about Julia that it’s hard to imagine anyone else stepping into her shoes. I call her “Julia” because all of us who knew her did so. For that matter, not even strangers called her “Mrs. Child.” In that sense, everyone knew her. But yes, I was one of the lucky ones who actually did know Julia Child.
Julia was special in many ways, and not just how she looked and how she sounded. She did one thing – cooking – and she did it better than anyone else before or since. She changed the way America thought about food, and how America ate. She was larger than life on television, and in real life too. No one ever felt she was talking down to them although, given her height of six feet two inches, she usually was. And the voice! She always seemed nearly out of breath, but never at a loss for words.
Who was Julia’s friend, Lael Wertenbaker? She, too, was a most remarkable woman. During the War, she interviewed many notables, including the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels. She knew most of that era’s famous people, including Orson Welles! Like Julia, she was one of a kind.
I met Lael only once, near the end of her life, at a charity auction in Marlborough where I was Julia’s co-auctioneer. She had lost her sight, but her memory was fine. She told me about her career as a journalist reporting from Berlin at the beginning of the War. I later learned of her many books on subjects as varied as her husband’s death (Death of a Man), the life of Mata Hari, who really was a spy (The Eye of the Lion), and cardiac surgery (To Mend the Heart). She came to the McDowell Colony, moved to New Hampshire in the 1960s, and had lived in Keene for many years.
Lael never had a movie made about her, but there was a play on Broadway in 1962 called A Gift in Time. It was based on Lael’s book about her husband’s death, and Olivia de Havilland played Lael. Olivia (I’ll use her first name even though I don’t know her), is the last living star from Gone with the Wind and won two best actress Academy Awards and, just last year, the National Medal of Arts.
So who’s the “Julie” in this new movie. From what I’ve read, she cooked all the recipes in Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and wrote a blog on the subject. No small feat, to be sure, and Amy Adams probably does a good job portraying her in the movie. I don’t know Amy either, but I’ve seen her in a movie or two and I’ll tell you this. She’s no Olivia de Haviland … and Julie’s no Lael Wertenbaker.