As a graduate student at Washington State University in the late 1960s, Noël Riley Fitch found her calling in an issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. A two-page story about Sylvia Beach and her little bookshop called Shakespeare and Company in Paris in the 1920s sparked her interest.
Her professor, John Elwood, encouraged her to pursue Beach as a subject for her master’s thesis. Elwood had long had a love for French café society. When he was in the armed services in World War II, he met writer and critic Gertrude Stein in Paris. He loved that period of literary history, says Riley Fitch.
She enjoyed researching Beach, who was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses and was a great influence and resource for the American writers and artists who were living in Paris. But she was disappointed to find only general information.
It took discovering a cache of Beach’s personal papers in the library at Princeton University to finish her thesis. The work provided Riley Fitch a foundation of understanding Franco-American Paris and opened the way to more projects about subjects from that time and place. She has since written about Anaïs Nin, Paris café society, and Ernest Hemingway.
But it was at dinner one night in Paris with two French culinary historians that Fitch was served up what would become her most popular project—Julia Child. She demurred, saying she was in the middle of a biography of Nin. She also didn’t know much about Child. “My first reaction was—that old lady on television?” she says.
“They proceeded to give me a lecture on how important she was in changing the way Americans think and eat,” says Riley Fitch. So she was primed when she met the doyenne herself at a 1990 conference on food and wine. “She had read my books. I knew she was interested in the period I was writing about. I figured I had an advantage,” she says. Riley Fitch mentioned she was finishing the biography of Nin, and Child, who had met Nin, was intrigued. “Her exact words were, ‘Oh that should be juicy,’” says Riley Fitch.
Child had met Sylvia Beach in Paris and knew Riley Fitch’s biography was an accurate, well-researched portrayal. “I told her I would like to do her story in the same way I did Sylvia Beach’s story, in the context of a whole setting of international influence,” she says. Child was too busy to help with a biography and had little interest in seeing one of herself. Riley Fitch replied that she didn’t need much help, but would love to pursue the project with her approval.
Thus began a courtship that would lead to Child’s granting Riley Fitch access to her stories and papers. The historian made a point of her love of cooking and their common backgrounds— both had grown up in California and both had ties to New England. Both loved food and France.
“When I realized that I lived in the same sort of metropolitan area (where Child grew up), I was delighted. I could drive over to the Pasadena historical society or city library,” says Riley Fitch. “I could find the house she grew up in, the hospital where she was born, the school she went to. I found her grade school friends.”
Riley Fitch was able to create a portrait of a spirited, adventurous girl. Child was part of a neighborhood “gang” of children tearing round on bicycles. Even at an early age, when Child was ecstatic, “her voice might chortle, guffaw, crack, or have yodel,” Riley Fitch reported in her book.
“I’m always more interested in the early person—before they became part of our national consciousness,” she says. “I was less interested in the famous Julia, and more interested in who she was before. I realized she had a full life before she ever, ever started cooking. Before she became this cook on TV.”
There was the Julia who, once the war started, was drawn to Washington, D.C. She tried to join the U.S. Navy WAVES, but was rejected because of her height—two inches over six feet. She landed in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. She worked for a time as a senior clerk in director William Donovan’s office and later jumped at the chance to be posted overseas. At 31 she went to India. By 33 she was in China, where she met her husband-to-be, Paul Child.
To fill out this part of Child’s life, Riley Fitch had access to Paul Child’s daily letters to his twin brother. “Once she met Paul Child, I had a daily record of her life,” she says. Riley Fitch also met people who knew Julia from the OSS, and she tracked down the family who rented the Childs an apartment in Paris. “I had great fun finding all these people,” says Riley Fitch. Many of them provided color and details that surprised even Child.
Though Child was reluctant about the project at first, once Riley Fitch started her research, she opened her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to her. On one of the early visits, she met Riley Fitch at the door and said, “My secretary will show you where all my files, and my desk, and my cupboards, and my drawers are, and you are to look at everything. I have nothing to hide,” says the writer. Everything was there, even things she didn’t remember she had. Riley Fitch discovered filing cabinets in the basement filled with diaries and government papers.
When it did come time to ask questions, Riley Fitch found her way to the place where Child felt most relaxed. “It was usually at the kitchen table while she was cooking. She would clang and bang,” says the author, who tape recorded the interviews and later enjoyed hearing the sounds of Child simultaneously working and talking.
She also visited with Child in France, first meeting her as she was leaving her home in the country for the last time, and later catching up with her in Paris for a special dinner (one of Child’s final meals in France) at one of her favorite restaurants—Chez Josephine. “It was one of those foie gras and duck confit kind of places,” says Riley Fitch.
In the end Julia Child was pleased with what she called “The Book,” says Riley Fitch. Though Appetite for Life may not have turned out to be what many fans of Child were craving. “I think when it came out, people expected it would be a food book. They’d ask me, ‘Are you going to put recipes in it?’ I didn’t.”
“It’s really a cultural literary biography,” says Riley Fitch. She describes the time, people, and places. She explores how world events helped shape the woman who became the celebrated Julia Child, and how Child helped shape our nation’s notions of food. “Julia got the whole country interested in food,” she says. “She changed our attitude, even if we don’t cook her recipes.”