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The French Chef's Centenary: Remembering Julia Child as a Cultural Diplomat

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A tall, elderly woman stepped carefully to the ballroom podium, her long sequined jacket reflecting the floodlight as the room rose to applaud her. She straightened her spine as best she could, stood perfectly still, and focused fixedly on the French Ambassador as he spoke. Her exquisite blue eyes, which had somehow become more striking in her later years, glistened, and she smiled enigmatically. A medal was pinned near the collar of the black silk blouse she wore under her jacket. She moved to the microphone. In her inimitable voice, she spoke only very briefly, expressing thanks for the honor and those who had given it. She closed with a single, simple phrase, but one that spoke volumes: "J'adore la France." A tidal wave of cheers thundered across the dais. Hundreds of flutes of champagne, filled with Veuve ClicquotGrande Dame, rose into the air. Her smile broadened as she gazed across the room and basked in the moment. Julia Child had just been awarded theLégion d'Honneur.

Julia Child would have turned 100 in August. From the standpoint of her centennial, like that of her Légion d'Honneur, we can look back and see a host of ways in which she changed our world. Many of these are well known, but not all. The book that launched her career, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, remains seminal a full fifty years after its publication. In one stroke, it made something that had seemed mystifying and intimidating both accessible and enjoyable. The French Chef virtually created culinary TV programming, and, through it, Julia perfected the role of the culinary comedienne. Whether she was explaining differences in poultry by introducing a chorus line of "the chicken sisters" or permitting herself the naughty nuance of suggesting how her viewers could keep a suckling pig's tail from burning while they were roasting it, she was the perfect peppy pedagogue. My father used to refer to her smilingly as "the Auntie Mame of the culinary world." She held her own against David Letterman, and no one enjoyed Dan Ackroyd's Saturday Night Live parody of her more than she did.

But this was only part of Julia, and only part of what was being honored that night. In awarding her its highest order of merit, France was also acknowledging her diplomatic skill, her political conviction, and her international impact. It was remembering a woman who had spent World War II working for the OSS in Ceylon and fifteen years after it accompanying her husband on diplomatic postings in Paris, Bonn, and Oslo as a cultural attaché. It was recognizing a woman whose work and success made her a cultural diplomat in her own right and on her own terms. And it was saluting the fact that she did not merely assume the role of cultural diplomat (which she knew intimately and understood well by that point); she transformed it. The Légion d'Honneur crystallized her contribution in this broader context: as a political force to be reckoned with and respected. And her simple closing words -- "J'adore la France" -- reflected perfectly how clearly, deeply, and deftly she understood both this role and its importance in her career.

My glass and my voice were among those raised to salute Julia that evening. I loved, admired, and applauded her for the same reasons that everyone else there did. But, in my case, there was one other reason as well: Julia Child was my godmother. She had excelled as spectacularly in that role as she had in her others. This culinary celebrity was also the woman who had encouraged me when I took French in grade school and offered advice when I went to Europe alone for the first time at the age of 17. She not only nudged me to apply for a Fulbright but critiqued my essay when I did so. Her influence, and the example of the life that she and her husband Paul had built together, factored critically into my decision to make my own career in diplomacy and cultural affairs, and I turned to her often for counsel as I pursued it. When I was offered a job with the United Nations and took it, she was proud and supportive, quietly withholding reservations that I would come to know -- and understand -- only years later. When I took a sabbatical year to study public policy at Harvard, she welcomed me back to Cambridge with open arms. Among my most treasured memories of her were the many quiet lunches and dinners that we made and shared in her kitchen, where our lively discussions would often turn to politics, both national and international. Julia had one of the most informed and insightful political minds of anyone I knew. In my mind, there was no more perfect way to honor and spotlight this core, key part of her character -- and her legacy -- than the Légion d'Honneur.

Julia, her husband Paul, and my parents first met when Mother and Dad moved to Norway as Fulbright Fellows in 1959, just as the Childs were settling there. Paul Child, the new American Cultural Attaché, headed the Fulbright Program in Norway, and he was literally the first person my parents met when they got off the boat. The couples became friends. Near the end of their stay in Oslo, two years later, I arrived, just as Julia was preparing to deliver Mastering the Art of French Cooking and launch her own career. Mother asked her to be my godmother, and she happily accepted.

The Childs and my parents lived in Norway at an extraordinary moment -- the most tense and frigid point of the Cold War -- and the experience had an immense impact on all of them. For years afterward, for example, all four spoke vividly of the infamous U-2 incident that had occurred mere months after their arrival. Even as a boy, it fascinated me to hear them recount how the Soviet military had intercepted and shot down an American U-2 spy plane over the Urals, captured its pilot, and retrieved the photos of a secret Soviet nuclear facility he had taken from it. To me, this at first seemed the stuff of spy novels, and that was part of its allure. But, for Julia, Paul, and my parents, the U-2 scandal was all too real, particularly once it was discovered that the U-2 had been bound for Norway at the end of its mission and that Norway had been allowing the United States to use its bases to spy on the Soviet Union.

When those revelations emerged, no one in his right mind would have wanted to be the Cultural Attaché of the United States in Oslo. But Paul Child was, laboring to build respect for and trust in America, utilizing every possible implement in the arsenal of cultural diplomacy to steady the diplomatic dynamic as it spiraled downward. It must not have been easy--for him or for Julia. Within a few months, Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoe on his desk in the United Nations General Assembly, where I would be working fifty years later. By the time Julia, Paul, and my parents returned home in the summer of 1961, the Berlin Wall was going up, cementing the separation of the country where Paul and Julia had been stationed just before Norway and where each of the four had close ties and lifelong friends. Years later, when I half-teasingly asked Julia over lunch if all of these experiences had made the trying task of proofing her manuscript seem more attractive, she smiled brightly and waved a hand dramatically: "It was sheer joy by comparison!" Then she darted a quick glance at me: "You really were born into a bit of a mess, you know..."

It was at this point that Paul retired from his work as a Cultural Attaché, just as Julia's work began to catapult her into a position where she would play the role of Cultural Diplomat herself. At the very moment when his career ended, hers began, dovetailing in a way that seems, looking back on it, quite amazing. Their roles reversed, and they adapted to this with a fluidity that is rare today and was completely extraordinary then. This was due in no small part, I believe, to the strong similarities they saw between what they had done and would do. Part of the success of the transition was due to the background and perspective that they brought to their new task together. But part of it -- and a very important part -- was due to the freedom they found to create, imagine, and innovate in ways that they had never been able to in government.

When it came her turn, Julia did not simply accept and assume the role of Cultural Diplomat as she found it; she innovated here as well. Typically, a Cultural Diplomat, in a role like Paul's, represents the best of his or her own country abroad. Such work can often be done informally and individually, but many Governments have well-established ministries, departments or bureaux devoted precisely to fostering good relations (such as the United States Information Agency where Paul worked). As The French Chef, however, Julia turned the model on its head and broke the mold. Not only did she take on her challenge individually and informally, outside the structures and restrictions of official bureaucracy, she represented the best of a foreign culture at home. She introduced French cuisine, both the food and its preparation, to the broad center swath of America that knew little of the former and virtually nothing of the latter. As an educator (a role she prized), she increased the culinary competency of her compatriots, broadening first their interests, then their palates, their skills, their capabilities, and finally their confidence. She was indeed "the Auntie Mame of the culinary world."

By raising American cultural acuity, interest, and sensitivity, she also raised the level of understanding of and respect for Americans abroad. Americans who were increasingly interested in and knowledgeable about French cuisine traveled to France in greater numbers. Their greater knowledge and interest made it easier and likelier for them to come home with positive personal and culinary experiences. The chances of their making stronger, more positive impressions in France -- and perhaps even lasting friendships -- improved. They became more taken with France, and the French became more taken with them. They were better Ambassadors for America while they traveled, and better Ambassadors to it when they returned. They were simply better equipped to entice the French who met them to learn more about America and Americans -- and to tempt the Americans who heard the stories they brought home to learn more about France and the French.

In achieving this, Julia created a diplomatic feedback loop: cultural diplomacy at its very best. Before her, Jefferson and Franklin had both done this, as had Lafayette and de Tocqueville, but all on a much smaller and more restricted scale. It was television, the internet of Julia's generation, which, combined with her culinary focus and diplomatic foundation, allowed her to reach an even broader target: the general public. TV gave her the chance to equip the public and instigate a dialogue that could then continue, loop after loop, on its own. This was the reach and impact that could not have been achieved -- or perhaps even imagined -- before. It is every cultural diplomat's dream, and there are many things that Julia said over the years that made me believe it was hers (or one of hers).

This success was one of the ways in which Julia's time at PBS transformed her. She would always believe in organizations like the USIA and the State Department as effective and important state structures -- and as guards and guarantors of essential cultural freedoms. But her own experience made her believe even more strongly in the media and what it could achieve in this arena. Julia's work with PBS was not dissimilar to Paul's work with the State Department. PBS, too, had a clear sense of agency -- and a clear sense of mission -- in both cultural and public diplomacy. But, measured as environments that fostered ingenuity and individuality, the differences between the two in Julia's mind (and from Julia's experience) could not possibly have been more striking. Even had Paul risen to the rank of Ambassador, he could never have hoped to have the reach, recognition, or impact that Julia attained.

At one point, I realized that Julia's own understanding of this fact was more painful and personal -- and had come at higher cost -- than I had known. While we were having a quiet lunch together in the kitchen one day, a few years after Paul's death, she spoke to me of my career with the United Nations -- and of her concerns about it. She recalled again how her discovery of her own path had transformed her life and her being. She urged me, it seemed with even more conviction than before, to "do something you love -- and something that will love you in return." She talked about how vital it was to create and to do something that nurtured creativity. But then she was suddenly sad and silent, sitting across the table from me with her eyes downcast, with shoulders that seemed, in that moment, bent more by care than age. When she looked up, and directly at me, there were tears in her eyes and her voice, though she struggled against both. "Whatever else you do, promise me at least that you won't let them bleed you dry, not the way the State Department did my Paul." My heart went out to her instantly, and my face showed it, though I had no idea what to say. I looked down too, for a second, and bit my lip. When I looked back up, and directly at her, I simply nodded.

What she had said had hit home and hit hard, on so many levels, as had the way she had said it. Her voice became so very different from the voice that everyone knew and loved. Her words hung heavily in the air, above all when she spoke of "my Paul," and the sadness of a lifetime welled from her throat. It was then that I sensed how deeply the sorrows and frustrations of his career had also been her own. She allowed me to see, in that instant, the dark hollow that had haunted Paul's life -- and hers. That insight made me appreciate even more the generous impulse on her part that led her to try to guide someone she cared about toward a better, hopefully brighter path.

That conversation also made me realize that one of the most cherished things that Julia's own experience had given her was the chance to be not only a cultural ambassador, but a leader. At PBS, Julia had seen firsthand how leaders were nurtured and created by such organizations, and she had felt firsthand the power -- and responsibility -- of the positions in which they are placed. This in turn raised the bar and set it very high, on both scores. Much more was to be expected of organizations that devoted themselves to the goals to which she had dedicated herself. But, perhaps even more tellingly, much more was also to be expected of leaders -- particularly those created by them.

A conversation that Julia and I had only a few months later would bring these points (and particularly the second of them) into very stark relief. In mid-December 2000, after having returned to New York from my sabbatical at Harvard, I came up to Cambridge to attend a conference at the Kennedy School. Only a day or so earlier, Vice-President Gore had conceded the presidential election. At midday, I slipped out of the School and headed over to the house to join Julia for lunch.

As we stood at the counter preparing our meal, Julia turned to me. "What is the mood at the UN?"

"Grim." I groaned.

"And the spirit at the Kennedy School?"

"Morose. How does the situation seem to you?"

She sighed, turned, and looked directly at me. Her face had not the slightest trace of its usual smile. "Absolutely ghastly."

The whole house seemed sad and still. We talked quietly for a moment, while we sliced and chopped. As I turned to set a plate on the table, I said "You know, people are already speaking of the possibility of his running again in '04."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Julia stiffen. One hand gripped the edge of the counter, the other brought down a knife on its side with a bang. With an edge and a steeliness that I had never heard in her voice before, and would hear only that once, she said "I don't ever want to see that man again!"

I froze. The very low, flat, hard voice I'd just heard could easily have come from a woman of Julia's stature, but no one, hearing it out of context, could possibly have identified it as hers. The word "ever" had a sharp burr on it, almost a growl. It was a cry of betrayal--on grounds of both loyalty (which Julia valued enormously) and leadership.

She explained to me, as we ate, that, as far as she was concerned, "anyone in the public eye -- but above all a candidate for the Presidency -- needs to be able to make his point or perspective understandable to others. But, more than that, he needs to make it attractive. He needs to draw people in and draw them along with him." A leader, she argued, had to engage, inspire, and activate. Above all, she insisted, his sense of passion and purpose had to be absolutely palpable. At this point, Julia was aglow, animated entirely by the force of her argument. The weary looks we both had worn as we prepared lunch were completely gone now. Her blue eyes glistened. Her voice rose. She straightened herself in her chair, looked at me directly and intently, and raised one arm to make her point. "If the energy and magnetism aren't generated, then why bother?"

Sitting across the kitchen table from her, I had put my fork down soon after she began, devoting myself completely to watching her attentively and absorbing every word she said. As I looked directly at her, I was transfixed not just by the argument she made, but equally by the force and magnetism that flowed through her as she made it. There was something beautiful about it. She was living proof of her own point. Her conviction was complete. She radiated energy. She was engaging, inspiring, and completely convincing: Julia in full flight at full force.

There was no doubting, at that point, that Julia was as passionate -- and perceptive -- about politics as she was about cuisine. There was also no doubting that that passion had informed both the perspective she brought to her work and the message she conveyed so successfully through it. To see her in that moment was to feel what a core, key part of her character her political passion was. She knew completely -- and from her own experience -- what she was talking about. This, I reminded myself, was the woman who had written the book that made something that had seemed mystifying and intimidating both accessible and enjoyable--the woman who had brought two countries and cultures she adored closer together by doing so. This was the French Chef, the woman who had not only been an outstanding cultural diplomat, but had gone on to remake and remodel the role. This was the woman who, only one month before, had been awarded the Légion d'Honneur.