By JOHN DeMERS
It took six weeks of planning, plus the purchase of an air ticket and the reservation of a hotel room, for me to stand at a certain front door in a posh oceanfront development outside Santa Barbara – and knock. I’d already had to talk my way past a guard for the gated community, but the biggest challenge to my gift of the gab was still to come.
“Oh hull-oo,” said the familiar voice from somewhere above my head. It was a friendly voice, but non-committal, you might say “professionally friendly.” Indeed, I did let my eyes wander north a bit, till they found the face that launched a thousand PBS telethons. Julia Child was standing at that door, in a simple, casual pants suit, with little or possibly no makeup, and her hair barely brushed to face the morning.
The time was the mid-1980s, and I was food editor of United Press International. I’d traveled cross-country at considerable expense to interview Julia (as everyone called her from the start) for an extensive feature in a series known as Lifesize. God only knows how many publicists had put their heads together on this one. But in the end, it was only me standing at the door, babbling something that included my name, my affiliation and my appointment day and time.
“I’m so very sorry,” Julia said. “I suppose this was all set up correctly, but I had to have knee surgery yesterday. And as you can imagine, I don’t quite feel my best today. I think you’d be much happier with our interview if you came back another day.”
A thousand angry faces flashed through my mind, all of them belonging to the feature editor of UPI, a woman not known for compassion. I babbled a bit more, I don’t recall what: about flying to Los Angeles and driving up to Santa Barbara in a rental car, about – well, by this point, I suspect I was begging.
Finally, Julia said, “Well, all right. In that case, let’s just see what we can do, shall we?”
For the next seven to eight hours, sitting on the couch, peeking around the house or settling at the table for a light lunch – all with Julia’s husband Paul in remarkable attendance, saying little but belonging to everything – I got to relive Julia Child’s incredible life. I heard about her mother who couldn’t boil water, about her romantic meeting with Paul in war-torn China, about her food epiphany in post-war France. I got her take on the years of struggle toward the cookbook that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the primitive TV series in Boston that became The French Chef.
And I caught her eyes seeking Paul’s across the room when I asked if she had any regrets. “Only, you know,” and she paused, as though the words caught in her throat. “Only that we never had any children,” she said, and Paul nodded. As I was just about to turn the notebook page, Julia picked up the thought again. “But, many people – many young women, especially – have told me they’ve found a career, found a life really, because of the things that I’ve done.” She giggled. “Of course, I can’t imagine why. But sometimes, I think of all those people as our children.”
This week I sat in a darkened theater in Houston, watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul in the new film Julie and Julia. And I realized that, in ways I can’t begin to measure, I too am one of Julia’s children.