Like many close friendships, the one between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto was borne of serendipity. These two women met across the miles (in an era long before Facebook or LinkedIn) yet formed an instant bond -- curiously, over a sharp carbon steel knife.
By 1952, Julia and her husband Paul had been living in Paris for three and a half years. He was a diplomat assigned to the United States Information Agency in Paris. While they were there, Julia fell in love with classical French cooking and enrolled at the legendary Le Cordon Bleu to study with master chefs.
She also joined an exclusive women's club, called Le Cercle des Gourmette, where she and two other members hatched the idea of starting an informal cooking school for American women living in Paris. These small steps would ultimately lead to the publication of 10 books and 329 television shows, establishing Julia's iconic status in culinary history.
But well before Julia had legions of admirers of her own, she wrote a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto, a noted author and historian in Cambridge, Mass., who was also a respected columnist for Harper's magazine. An article DeVoto had written about the disappointing performance of stainless steel kitchen knives in America captured her interest. The budding chef strongly agreed with his contention that the knives failed to maintain their cutting edge. Along with her letter of several paragraphs, she sent him a small carbon paring knife from Paris and offered to purchase others if he liked it. The letter began like this:
Dear Mr. de Voto:
Your able diatribe against the beautiful-beautiful-rust-proof-edge-proof American kitchen knife so went to my heart that I cannot refrain from sending you this little nice French model as a token of appreciation...
Avis DeVoto typically handled much of her busy husband's correspondence so she was the one who wrote back to this stranger, at some length, confessing her own interest in cooking and cutlery. Her gracious and engaging response kindled a remarkable correspondence that continued until 1961, the same year the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published. Over nine years, between 1952 and 1961, the two women wrote 400 letters to each other -- lengthy ones by today's standards, in which a growing number of people communicate in tweets of 140 characters or less.
Julia and Avis met in person for the first time in Paris, two years and 120 letters after they first became acquainted. Over that time period, their relationship had gone from one of being total strangers to intimate soulmates. This transformation is especially relevant today when people question whether virtual friends we meet through the Internet and social media can become real ones.
For three decades, these letters remained sealed in the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge. But in her book, As Always, Julia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) culinary historian and biographer Joan Reardon has carefully curated and edited this treasure trove of personal correspondence, one that Julia and Avis probably never dreamed would be made public or would interest anyone else.
The letters provide the backstory for the long path leading to the publication of Child's groundbreaking cookbook and offer an unparalleled window into the culture and history of the '50s and '60s, especially as experienced by women. As importantly, the tête-à-tête between two articulate, intelligent, and sophisticated women proffers insight into the essential ingredients of a long and intimate friendship.
Here are some of the lessons about best friends that can be distilled from Julia and Avis's letters:
The relationship between two best friends eludes precise definition.
Talking to someone who is best-friend-worthy is almost effortless, like the friendship that blossomed between Julia and Avis. Avis wrote to Julia: "I feel that I can communicate more readily and freely with you than anyone in the world." When two women truly connect, it's almost as if they can communicate in code and they rarely run out of things to say. And if they do run out, they feel perfectly comfortable being silent, as in a comfortable marriage.
When I surveyed more than 1500 women for my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend (Overlook, 2009) to find out what made women best friends, a large number of them repeated the same phrase, "We just clicked." This was true with Julia and Avis. After Avis's first note, banter came easily and the two were never at a loss for words.
Although both women were married (Avis had children while Julia didn't), they both cherished having a close friend apart from their husbands. Women can talk more easily to each other than they can to men on a host of subjects and Julia and Avis' letters bear testimony. They had frank discussions covering aging, girdles, Kinsey's research on sex, and the then risqué novel Peyton Place.
Best friends can trust each other.
Friendships need nurturing. There is always the risk of divulging too much information -- TMI -- too soon. But if someone is so private that she doesn't share parts of herself, it can create an impenetrable barrier preventing friends from getting close. Appropriately, the first letters between Julia and Avis are more formal and focus on cookery.
Over time, however, the two women begin to reveal more intimate details about their lives, including problems Avis was having with one of her sons, Gordon. She admitted he was a "difficult child," and a cause of concern to both his parents. Women who are close are able to share feelings, be forthright and admit that life isn't always perfect. Julia wrote: "...it is lovely to be perfectly at ease, and to be able to discuss anything at all, and may it ever remain so!"
When Julia sent Avis her still preliminary cookbook manuscript for review, she pleaded with her: "And please be frank and brutal." She knew she ran a risk by sharing recipes that might be pilfered but by then Julia had sufficient trust in her friend's judgment and discretion. Similarly, Avis was comfortable giving her honest critique.
Shared interests create strong ties between friends
Whether writing in long hand or typing on onion-skin paper that slowly meandered across the ocean, these two extraordinary women conversed about publishing, politics and world events. Because they shared a passion for cooking, they exchanged recipes, cooking techniques, and tips about tools. They also mailed each other little gifts or items hard to find on one continent or the other. Even far apart, they were often in each other's thoughts.
Julia wrote: "How nice it is that one can come to know someone just through correspondence and become a really passionate friend." There was ongoing chatter about parties, get-togethers and people they both knew -- tossed in with some juicy gossip about notable people. Through the constant exchange of information, they developed a shared history that became a strong foundation for the friendship.
Best friends support, encourage and console each other
Avis was one person that Julia was able to vent to about low advances, sloppy copy editing, contentious co-authors and indecisive publishers (things of the past, of course). Without Avis's encouragement, Julia might have given up her dream of ever completing the book. At one point, when she was particularly discouraged, Julia wrote her: "We must accept the fact that this may well be a book unacceptable to any publisher, as it requires work on the part of the reader. NOBODY has ever wanted to publish ANY of our recipes in any publication whatsoever thus far."
In another letter, Julia wrote: "... I am deeply depressed, gnawed by doubts, and feel that all our work may just lay a big rotten egg." Yet, Julia remained undeterred despite a string of rejections from book publishers and magazine editors, because Avis was there as her most ardent supporter, willing to share the publishing connections she had made through her husband. Perhaps, more than anyone, Avis clearly understood Julia's vision for the book from the start. In the acknowledgements section, Julia refers to her friend as the book's "foster mother, wet nurse, guide and mentor."
Best friendships are based on give and take among equals
Julia and Avis had mutual respect and admiration. This sense of balance and equilibrium solidifies friendships. The same person isn't always on the giving end or receiving end. One person may be more needy at a particular point in time but overall a healthy relationship is one of equals. Avis was as much a partner in Julia's career as she was an inspiration. In today's parlance, the two might be seen as life coaches for each other.
When Julia's manuscript was rejected, Avis felt the pain almost as deeply as her friend. When Avis husband passed away from a heart attack while on a business trip to New York, her friendship with Julia helped console her through the darkest hours. Avis wrote: "Your letters help so. They all do. Haven't had the time to feel hollow yet, still half expect to see him coming through the door."
Soon after Bernard DeVoto's death, the Childs embraced Avis by sending her airfare to join them on a three week trip to London, Paris and Germany.
Best friendships need to be nurtured
Even the best of friends can drift apart unless they consciously make time for each other. When their lives are busy or simply out of sync, women need to develop rituals to maintain their bonds: a girlfriend getaway, weekly lunch, or regular call. In this long ago, long distance relationship, snail mail provided a way for Julia and Avis to remain involved in each other's lives.
In one letter, Julia wrote: "I suppose one reason we can write so easily to each other is that, for one, we have established the rhythm." After their initial meeting in Paris, the women visited each other from time to time and the Childs eventually relocated to Cambridge to be close to Avis.
Another reason this friendship was so important to Julia was that being married to a diplomat, the couple relocated from place to place. They moved from the states to Paris, to Marseilles, to Bonn, to Oslo. When they were leaving Oslo, she wrote, "... At least this will be the last time we shall spend 2 years making a life, and then have to leave it again." Today, it is more likely than in the past for women to be mobile, moving to pursue educational and job opportunities, or to follow husbands and lovers. Any major life change -- graduations, marriages, becoming a mother, geographic moves, career changes or divorce or widowhood -- increases the risk of a friendship drifting apart unless it is nurtured.
The question frequently asked is: can words, written or electronic, replace person-to-person contact? As Always, Julia shows how, in some circumstances, they can. Ironically, Julia wrote: "Perhaps if we lived next door, we would have developed curtains and veils and various tender heels."
The relationship between Julia and Avis is a compelling testimonial to the power of female friendship. Julia aptly summarizes that sentiment in one letter:
"All from one kitchen knife. It was a miracle, wasn't it? To think that we might easily have gone through life not knowing each other, missing all this free flow of love and ideas and warmth and sharing."
Photo credit: Paul Child, used with permission of the Schlesinger Library