Yes, that Julia Child.
Long before she was the doyenne of French cooking in America, Julia was a spy.
She worked for many years at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Throughout World War II, the OSS ran America’s intelligence operations and controlled a network of spies around the world.
She ended up as an intelligence officer because she was too tall to enlist in the regular military. She joked that both the Navy and Army turned her away because her 6-foot-2-inch frame was “too long” to enlist.
Determined to do her part, she moved to Washington and applied for jobs at OSS and the Office of War Information. According to a trove of previously top-secret documents, Julia’s height may have actually made her standout at OSS. During her interview, the OSS rep noted, “Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall.”
Julia McWilliams (Child’s maiden name) was part of a spirited group of women (invariably referred to as “girls” by their colleagues) who signed up to work for William “Wild Bill” Donovan’s OSS during the war. They wanted to serve their country, but most of them — Julia especially — were looking for adventure, too. Julia’s superior administrative skills made her a desirable recruit. So did her background.
Julia was from a wealthy, prominent, conservative California family and had gone to Smith College. The word around the OSS offices was that Donovan’s idea of the ideal female hire was “a cross between a Smith graduate, a Powers model and a Katie Gibbs secretary.” He liked to recruit rich Ivy Leaguers of both genders, reasoning that they were more resistant to bribes. Julia — tall, a bit gawky and unworldly — was intent on livening up her own personality after a youth spent in the narrow-minded upper echelons of Pasadena society.
After two years in Washington, Child headed overseas. The OSS sent her to Sri Lanka and China, where she oversaw the flow of information and coded messages through the foreign offices. Julia ran the OSS camp’s “nerve center,” compiling the research that came in from the field and dispatching it to Washington and the field operations that needed it.
She had top security clearance. In fact, the CIA says that while she served in Sri Lanka, “Julia handled highly classified papers that dealt with the invasion of the Malay Peninsula. Julia was fascinated with the work, even when there were moments of danger.”
In interviews, Julia always played down her wartime achievements. She was just “a clerk.” But her husband told a different story. Paul Child, who met Julia while working with the OSS, wrote to his brother about her high-level clearance. She was actually “privy to all messages both incoming from the field or Washington, etc., and outgoing to our agents and operatives all over China-Burma-India.” She received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service while in China.
She also created her first recipe while in the OSS – for shark repellent for the Navy.
Biographer Noël Riley Fitch says that Child’s intelligence work actually helped create the future celebrity chef. The OSS introduced her to Paul and he introduced her the joy of “real” cooking. A California upbringing had tricked her into thinking that meals came from cans and freezers. Working in China opened her eyes.
“American food in China was terrible; we thought it was cooked by grease monkeys,” Child wrote. “The Chinese food was wonderful, and we ate out as often as we could. That is when I became interested in food. I just loved Chinese food.”
Child’s true culinary epiphany came later, when the couple moved to France. But her work at OSS changed Child in another way. Ms. Fitch explains that: “Seen from a view of posterity, her ‘boring’ job was to provide Julia Child with the discipline, the autonomous organizational skill, the patience to devise, test and perfect the recipes in her encyclopedic chef-d’oeuvre: ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ (1961, 1970), on which her immortality can be said to rest.”