As far as famous chefs go, Julia Child’s biography is about as well-known as anyone else’s, thanks to notable written works like The Art of French Cooking and being portrayed by Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia. Her abilities in the kitchen are legendary, but was Julia Child a spy before she was a master chef? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
Similar to how not many people know Ernest Hemmingway was a spy, almost no one remembers Julia Child's background as an intelligence agent, either. Picturing Child in the OSS, a World War II-era precursor of the CIA, is difficult, but that’s exactly where she spent the ‘40s, serving her country in the fight against fascism… And sharks!
Born on August 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California, Julia Child spent much of her life in the Golden State, eventually passing away two days shy of her 92nd birthday. Before she became famous as a celebrity chef, she worked for the OSS when she was still known as Julia McWilliams. Before she mastered international cuisine, Julia Child had to master international intrigue, and she did so with aplomb.
Like many other American women in World War II, Julia McWilliams sought out a role for herself in her country’s war effort. That’s what led to her landing with the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. However, military intelligence wasn’t her first career of choice, and she only applied for the job after failing as an advertising manager at a furniture store. The future Mrs. Child described her messy exit from her previous employment in detail on her OSS application, but the agency seemed to have appreciated her honesty.
Julia Child stood out as much for her cooking talent as she did for her impressive height, towering over most people at 6’2”. In fact, this sizeable stature actually made her ineligible for regular military duty, which Child found out when she attempted to enlist in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her height wasn’t as issue as far as the OSS was concerned. However, her interviewers specifically noted her tall frame, which had allowed her to succeed in sports like golf and basketball, as a potential asset.
Child’s first role in the OSS was in the research and development department, working as a research assistant. This meant she would be working directly under Major General William J. Donovan, the first director of the OSS, who was known as “Wild Bill.” Donovan was a heavily decorated veteran of World War I and a military legend, and Child would later describe how Donovan’s “aura” remained with her throughout her life, despite limited personal interactions. The sheer presence of the man was enough to make a lasting impact.
Before her unique talents made themselves apparent, much of Julia Child’s early work in the OSS was clerical in nature. One of her jobs was typing up and organizing the names of thousands of OSS agents on small white notecards, a system which allowed for the tracking of operatives in the days before computers were invented. Clerical work might not have been exciting, but it was something that was absolutely necessary for an organization as large as the OSS. It would have taken Child hours to replicate the tasks that modern computers can handle in seconds.