Dedicated to the History of Maine and the People and Places That Preserve It

The Man Behind the Woman

By Ann Carrie Fisher
As the saying goes, “Behind every great man stands a great woman,” but in the case of the celebrated chef, Julia Child, her husband, Paul, was the Renaissance man behind the great woman.

If Julia McWilliams had not met Paul Child, it’s a good bet the world would never had the pleasure of reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking or watching her on TV in The French Chef. It was Paul Child’s love of good food that prompted Julia – a passable cook at best, before she met Paul – to study at Cordon Bleu when they lived in Paris.

By all accounts, Paul Child was a teacher, artist and articulate world traveler who loved good food. He also loved the State of Maine and passed that love on to his adored wife.

Paul is often overlooked in favor of Julia – in whose shadow he was content to bask – but Paul Child has a story of his own and a family connection to the Bar Harbor area.

Paul was born in Montclair, New Jersey. With his twin brother, Charles, Paul chose to spend as much time as he could during the summer in the log cabin the twins and their wives built in the 1940s on Blue Hill Bay, away from the livelier side of Mt. Desert Island.

Paul and Julia Child.

“The two couples hand-built a family retreat on Lopaus Point, near Bernard, on Blue Hill Bay. This is … far from the tourism of Bar Harbor and the exclusivity of Northeast Harbor/Seal Harbor. Julia and Paul visited frequently,” said local resident Paul Gillett on The log cabin … grew over the next 20 years “like a game of dominoes,” according to Charles Child in a 2009 article published in Portland Monthly magazine.

Paul hardly seems like the type who would enjoy country life. According to his obituary published in the New York Times in 1994, Paul Child was educated at Boston Latin School and Columbia College. After graduating, he moved to Paris, where he pursued an interest in art that included drawing, etching, painting and woodcarving. Child was not only a gifted artist, he was also an eclectic teacher who could instruct his students on painting & photography, but also English, even judo, in which he was a black belt, fourth class. In a career in education that spanned two decades he taught in Venice and at a private American school in France, as well as the Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut.

During WWII, Child joined the Office of Strategic Services – the precursor to the CIA – and was assigned to work in Washington, India, modern-day Sri Lanka and China. Although there has been speculation about the nature of his duties, his official capacity is listed as a designer of war rooms for American and British staffs. Paul was the head of a chart-making unit in Ceylon when he met Julia McWilliams, who was also a member of the O.S.S. It was far from love at first sight.

“We were based at a lovely old tea plantation, and I could look out my office window into Paul’s office. I was still unformed. He was 10 years older than me and worldly; he courted various other women there, but we slowly warmed up to each other,” said Julia in My Life in France, which she coauthored with Alex Prud’homme in 2006.

Although Julia had a privileged upbringing in Pasadena, California, Paul had already traveled the world and was as fluent in French as he was in English. He also had a discerning palate.

According to PBS filmmaker Marilyn Mellowes, He called Julia “wildly emotional” and “an extremely sloppy thinker” who was “unable to sustain ideas for long” in a letter to his twin brother penned shortly after he met Julia. The disdain ran both ways, however, as Julia was disappointed in Paul as well, describing him as having “light hair which is not on top, an unbecoming blond mustache and a long unbecoming nose.” According to Mellowes the couple eventually grew on each other, and in 1946 their bond was sealed when they traveled across the country together. They brought along eight bottles of whiskey, a bottle of gin and a bottle of mixed martinis.

Julia and Paul Child.

Paul’s tune had changed considerably when he wrote to his twin, “Julia never ‘puts on an act’, or creates a scene. . . She frankly likes to eat and use her senses and has an unusually keen nose.” In another letter he reported “She also washes my shirts! Quite a dame!”

On a trip taken to China before they were married, they reportedly sampled the restaurants of Chungking and Kunming and developed a shared curiosity about food.

Paul and Julia were in a car accident the day before their wedding on Sept. 1, 1946, and Julia wrote that they were “a bit banged up” on the big day in Washington, D.C. They did not have a honeymoon and also had no children.

After WWII, Paul was assigned to the United States Information Agency, which sent the couple to Paris on what would be a five-year stint and the place where Julia would co-author her best known cookbook. Both Julia and Paul were prolific writers, and sent hundreds of letters to family, friends and each other.

After his service in Paris, Paul was also stationed in Marseilles, Bonn and Oslo. He retired in 1961. After retirement he wanted to live the life of an artist, but he became content living behind the scenes when the original French Chef went on the air in the winter of 1963.

The couple settled in Cambridge, where Paul co-designed Julia’s new kitchen. According to Mellowes “... Paul reveled in his wife’s success ... “Whatever it is, I will do it,” Paul had said. He had acted as her manager, served as her photographer, tested her recipes; proof-read her books, and was content to let the light shine on her, not on him.”

Laura Shapiro said in Just a Pinch of Prejudice, “Paul attended all business meetings and took part in all decisions, helped rework the recipes for television, hauled equipment, washed dishes, peeled, chopped and stirred, ran errands, read the mail and helped answer it, wrote the dedications in all her books, accompanied her on publicity tours and speaking engagements, sat with her at book signings ... and in general made a point of being at her side on all occasions, professional or social. When he wasn’t needed, he disappeared happily into his own world, painting and photographing and gardening ... Every morning they liked to snuggle in bed together for a half hour after the alarm went off, and at the end of the day, Paul would read aloud from the New Yorker while Julia made dinner. ‘We are never not together,’ Paul said once, contentedly.”

Over the years, the Childs visited the Bar Harbor area as much as they could to rest, be with family and enjoy everything the area had to offer, including fishing off the wharf at Bass Harbor, hiking, boating and sailing. And, of course, cooking.

Brian Worcester, whose father owned Sawyer’s Market in Southwest Harbor, recalled in a 2010 article in Downeast magazine that “Julie” came into the store on a regular basis until the mid-’90s. “I can remember my dad preparing lamb legs for her and various other things,” said Worcester in the article. “Julia being Julia, if you didn’t see her in the store, you knew she was there if you heard her speak.”

The longing for the pine-scented ocean breezes of Maine is clear in a letter Paul sent to his family when he mentions a piece of balsam fir that had been mailed from Mount Desert Island to the couple in Paris: “The balsam . . . was as fresh as a young colt — only the very tips of the needles were brown, but it smelled (still does) of the forest + the wind + the fog + the moss. I could damn near hear the bell tolling off the point — a real wild odor in this old European town.” Julia and Paul Child.