While most people know her as a master chef, Julia Child also served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, where she collected and analyzed top-secret intelligence.
To this day, Julia Child is remembered for her love of French cooking and her TV show that brought fine cuisine to the masses. Even more than her exquisite cooking, her sing-song voice and contagious enthusiasm endeared her to fans around the world.
But before she churned out exquisite recipes on camera, she made a career as an intelligence officer working under the agency that preceded the CIA. In fact, Julia Child’s spy career generated her first big recipe, a shark repellent designed to coat both explosives and pilots’ lifejackets.
Oddly enough, her intelligence work actually led her to discover her passion for food by way of her husband, fellow spy Paul Child. This is the strange but true story of how Julia Child’s spy career led her to become an iconic celebrity chef.
The Early Life Of Julia Child
Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams on Aug. 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California. She grew up sheltered and privileged. Her father John McWilliams, Jr. was a successful banker while her mother Julia Carolyn Weston was heiress to the Weston Paper Company of Massachusetts.
As such, Child received a quality education. She attended the Katharine Branson School for Girls — a preparatory school in California — where her statuesque six-foot-two figure made her captain of the basketball team and president of the hiking club.
Later she attended the all-women’s Smith College, as her mother and aunt had before her, majoring in history. She was active in college clubs like the Grass Cops, which kept students off the school’s precious lawn.
But Child barely showed any special interests other than a vague ambition of becoming a writer. In her diary she wrote, “I am sadly an ordinary person…with talents I do not use.”
After college, Julia Child took a secretarial course at the Packard Commercial School but quit after a month when she landed a job as a secretary with W. J. Sloane, a home furnishings company based in New York City. She worked there for four years until she was fired after a document mix up.
But her seemingly mundane career trajectory in stenography soon took a drastic turn as the country prepared to enter World War II.
Julia Child’s Spy Career During World War II
Like many Americans, Julia Child wanted to help the country prepare for the war. In September 1941, three months before the U.S. entered the Second World War, Child began volunteering with the Pasadena chapter of the American Red Cross where she headed the Department of Stenographic Services.
She also worked in the Aircraft Warning Service, a civilian service branch of the U.S. Army tasked to monitor enemy aircraft entering American airspace.
Unfortunately, when she tried to join the military for good, she was rejected from both the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) because she was too tall. Undeterred, Julia Child found another way to contribute to the war efforts.
In 1942, she became a senior typist with the Research Unit of the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., and, by the end of the year, Child was a junior research assistant with the Secret Intelligence Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA. She was among the 4,500 women who served in the OSS.
As a research assistant for the OSS’ secret intelligence, Julia Child recorded thousands of officer names into the agency’s internal database system and handled highly-classified intelligence documents.
Later, Julia Child’s spy career took her to the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section where she helped develop a recipe for shark repellent.
There had been multiple shark attacks against U.S. Naval officers since the start of the war. Curious sharks also often set off explosives meant to attack enemy parties. The OSS was tasked to create a shark repellent that could be used for the military’s underwater endeavors.
After much trial-and-error involving over 100 different substances — including poisons, organic acids, and even decayed shark meat — and year-long field tests, the research team, which included Julia Child, found copper acetate to be the most effective repellent.
“I must say we had lots of fun,” Child told Elizabeth McIntosh, another OSS Officer who interviewed her for the book Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS.
“We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment — trapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
The shark repellent — dubbed “Shark Chaser” — was issued by the Navy based on Child’s original recipe until the 1970s. Although it was rumored that the repellent was indeed also used to protect NASA equipment as Child told McIntoch, that has not been verified by documentary evidence.
Still, it’s clear that Child made a big impact in her time at the OSS, but she was destined to transform herself one more time.
Discovering The Joy Of French Cooking
Julia Child was placed at multiple stations abroad during her career as an intelligence officer with the OSS, holding positions in China and India. In 1944, she was sent to work in Kandy, Sri Lanka, where she met her husband, Paul Child, a fellow OSS officer.
After the couple married, they moved to Paris, France, where her husband was assigned to the U.S. Information Agency in 1948. It was during their time in France that Child, whose privileged upbringing left her with no cooking skills, became enamored with French cuisine.
Julia Child’s spy days ended when she left the OSS following the end of World War II. To fill her newly freed-up schedule, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, one of France’s most prestigious cooking schools. It was an ambitious undertaking since, as Child put it herself, she could only “boil water for tea.”
“My first big recipe was shark repellant that I mixed in a bathtub for the Navy, for the men who might get caught in the water,” she said in a 2012 interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
But Child rose to the occasion. When she wasn’t in cooking class, she studied French and roamed the Parisian street markets for local ingredients to incorporate in her cooking.
After she graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, Julia Child met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who were in the midst of writing a cookbook for American readers. The three joined forces to complete the project, a book called Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.
It took 10 years of toiling in the kitchen for new recipes and rewriting and editing the book’s manuscript before it was finally picked up by a major publisher. It was a grueling process, but Child loved it.
“Really, the more I cook the more I like to cook. To think it has taken me 40 yrs. To find my true passion [cat and husb. excepted],” she wrote to her sister-in-law. Her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published in 1961. The rest is now history.
Child’s Legacy In Cooking And Culture
After the success of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child landed her own show The French Chef.
The cooking show was among the first of its kind on television, showcasing not only her impeccable culinary skills but also Child’s charm as a television personality. The show produced 199 episodes which aired between 1963 and 1966 and cemented her as a cooking icon.
Child went on to write multiple other cookbooks and co-founded institutes such as American Institute of Wine and Food and the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts.
She also received honors for her culinary prowess, including the French Legion of Honour, the highest order of merit that can be awarded to civilians and military members. She died at the age of 91 in 2004.
Outside of the kitchen, her influence has been felt in popular culture too. Child has been parodied on Saturday Night Live, impersonated on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 2009 feature film Julie & Julia. And in 2017, Eater reported that a show about Julia Child’s spy days was in development at ABC.
More profoundly, Child is credited for galvanizing American cooks in the kitchen and as a proponent of guilt-free cooking thanks to her famous love of butter.
But before she captured the hearts of American viewers on screen, Julia Child dedicated her life to working behind the scenes to serve her country in a time of need.
Now you’ve learned about Julia Child’s spy career before she became a chef, dive into the secret life of Roald Dahl, who went from fighter pilot and spy to renowned children’s author. Next, meet Virginia Hall, the American woman who the Nazis dubbed “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”