Portrait of a Marriage: Julia Child Captured in Paul Child’s Shimmering Photographs

Here is an excerpt from a classic New Yorker article by , published in the , issue. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photograph by Paul Child / © The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

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One of the most significant meals of the last century occurred almost seventy years ago, on November 3, 1948, when Paul and Julia Child, two years wed, arrived in Le Havre on the S.S. America from New York. They were on their way to Paris: Paul Child, a career civil servant, had been offered a job as an exhibits officer for the United States Information Service, a now defunct division of the State Department. Their baggage included a Buick station wagon, nicknamed “The Blue Flash.” They packed themselves into the car and drove south to Rouen, where Julia Child ate her first French meal, at La Couronne, then the oldest restaurant in France. Paul ordered the meal: oysters, followed by sole meunière, salade verte, wine, fromage blanc, and black coffee. Julia Child would later say, “It was the most important meal of my life.” From then on, she was all in.

France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child” is a labor of love, about a love affair. The text is written by Julia Child’s nephew, Alex Prud’homme, with whom she collaborated on her autobiography, “My Life in France.” Katie Pratt, a photography curator whose parents were close friends of the Childs, is the co-author. Almost every day during their years in France, Julia and Paul Child took an afternoon walk: these tender, exacting black-and-white photographs are a record, mainly, of those perambulations, first in Paris and then in Marseille, where Paul was stationed in 1953.

The photographs fall roughly into two categories. The first show Paul Child’s attention to pattern and detail, a skill that he used during the war, when he was posted at the Office of Strategic Services in Kandy, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka (among his tasks was making maps of enemy movements and charts of potentially poisonous plants). Two facing pictures in “France is a Feast” underscore his lapidary eye: on the left side of the page, cornhusks hang like stalactites from the eaves of a barn; on the right, in a second photograph, the cornhusk fractals are inverted and held by the spiny bare branches of a winter vineyard. Paul wrote obsessively to his twin brother, Charles, a painter, over the course of his life (Charles replied less frequently). In one letter, Paul describes how he is entranced by reflections and doubling. The photographer Edward Steichen, whom the Childs befriended in Paris, had advised Paul to limit his work to one subject. For a time, he tried this, labelling his efforts “All Sorts of Things Reflected in Something.” In this quest, Paul photographed a set of shiny copper pans in the cramped kitchen of their flat in Paris, on Rue de l’Université, (an address the Childs dubbed the “Roo de Loo”); a portrait of their housekeeper, “Jeanne-la-Folle,” polishing a mirror; the Pont Neuf reflected in the Seine.

The second category, and the endless sun of these photographs, is Julia. He can’t keep his eyes off her. A contact sheet of Julia’s long legs, propped up in a telephone booth; her open, ruddy face as she arranges a picnic in a newly mown field; Julia sunbathing with a friend on a Paris rooftop; a nude portrait, silhouetted against a closed curtain in a hotel room. We’re so accustomed to Julia Child the ample lioness, hooting over a slippery chicken, that it’s a shock to see her gamine, gawky as a gazelle in her early days in Paris. In one of the most beautiful photographs collected here, she’s standing on a hillside in Les Baux-de-Provence, arms akimbo, the curve of her stance echoed in the branches of the nearby pine trees. She’s thirty-six. It’s before books—before the thousand-page manuscript that became “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”—before cooking on television, before fame. She’s laughing. She looks like a woman with an appetite.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Cynthia Zarin is a poet, journalist, and children’s book author. She earned a BA at Harvard and an MFA Columbia University, and has taught at Yale.

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