The Politics of Julia Child ’34

Famed chef’s fiery defense of academic freedom hooks historian as she researches another book

by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Julia Child in France in the 1950s.

Julia Child, center, shown here with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, was in France when she learned of a campaign to fire Smith professors.

On March 12, 1954, Julia McWilliams Child ’34 put together a stack of thin typing papers and carbons and started to peck loudly on her Royal portable typewriter. She was living then in France with her husband, Paul Child, and had just read a form letter mailed by Aloise Buckley Heath ’41 to Smith alumnae. Heath, representing an anonymous Committee on Discrimination in Giving, asked her letter’s recipients to withhold donations to the college until five named members of the faculty were fired for their supposed Communist membership or sympathies. In her accusation against Smith College, Heath was following her younger brother’s lead, for in his book God and Man at Yale (1951) William F. Buckley, Jr., accused Yale of fostering radicalism and atheism.

Julia Child was primed. An acutely political person, she had been following with alarm the rise of conservative anticommunism in the United States. She had long before departed from the Republican heritage of her family to become an unabashed liberal. Years of meritorious service in Asia for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, marriage to a maverick career diplomat and many years with him in France had sharpened her sensitivity to politics. She watched with dismay as Senator Joseph McCarthy rose in power and influence. By March 1954, his televised hearings had not begun, but his accusations against State Department officials in China were wrecking the careers and lives of those Child knew and respected. As she wrote to her beloved Cambridge pen pal Avis DeVoto in March 1953, “When, if ever, are Ike [President Eisenhower] and [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles going to act against McCarthy? . . . I am in implacable opposition and when the time comes to act, I am ready, irregardless of the consequences.”

Thus, she knew exactly what to say when Aloise Heath’s letter came to her attention. Hard at work though she was on Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), the book that would launch her phenomenal career, Child paused to articulate some of her deepest political beliefs.

“My dear Mrs. Heath,” she begins. Child acknowledges that Heath likely was motivated by “patriotic duty” toward the college and the country, but then suggests that Heath was doing both “a disservice.” “It is an extremely serious matter,” Child writes, “to accuse by implication five faculty members of being traitors to the United States,” and the college of “knowingly harboring” them. If Heath were going to make a charge “of this grave nature,” she need not broadcast it but should take it to the duly elected officers of the college.

Child went on to discuss by analogy Senator McCarthy’s tactics, drawing on an article she had read in the Herald Tribune that held that McCarthy believed the end justifies the means. “This is the method of the totalitarian governments,” she writes. It was, she suggested, “the nullification of all that the United States stands for.” And with that, Julia Child asserts what she believes:

“In the blood-heat of pursuing the enemy, many people are forgetting what we are fighting for. We are fighting for our hard-won liberty and our freedom; for our Constitution and the due processes of our laws; and for the right to differ in ideas, religion and politics. I am convinced that in your zeal to fight against our enemies, you, too, have forgotten what you are fighting for. . . .

“One of the purposes of Smith College, and the main reason why its alumnae support it, is that it is a free, democratic institution, privately endowed, and subject to no political pressures from any government or any party. . . . In this very dangerous period of our history, where, through fear and confusion, we are assailed continually by conflicting opinions and strong appeals to the emotions, it is imperative that our young people learn to sift truth from half-truth; demagoguery from democracy; totalitarianism in any form, from liberty. The duty of Smith College is, as I see it, to give her daughters the kind of education which will ensure that they will use their minds clearly and wisely, so that they will be able to conduct themselves as courageous and informed citizens of the United States.

“I am sending to Smith College in this same mail, along with a copy of this letter, a check to duplicate my annual contribution to the Alumnae Fund. I am confident that our Trustees and our President know what they are doing. They are only too well aware of the dangers of totalitarianism, as it is always the great institutions of learning that are attacked first in any police state. For the colleges harbor the ‘dangerous’ people, the people who know how to think, whose minds are free.”

I read these words as I was looking through Child’s letters housed at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library for something quite different: her reactions to the food and atmosphere of the south of France during the months she and Paul spent in Marseilles. Her words stunned me. I once heard Julia publicly and laughingly state that she had played tennis through her years at Smith College; this was in keeping with the hearty, apolitical persona she cultivated in her later career. With her 1954 letter to Aloise Heath, we can read her words to see a different Julia Child and the real impact of her fine liberal arts education at Smith.

Ultimately, for Smith and for the five members of the faculty, Heath’s letter proved deeply damaging. In May 1954, Howard Faulkner, Newton Arvin, Vera Michaels Dean, Mervin Jules and Oliver Larkin were brought before a subcommittee of the Massachusetts Un-American Activities Committee. Smith alumnae responded to the letter, however, by giving even more generously to the college.

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History emerita, is writing a book tentatively titled Learning to Love Provence.

SAQ Spring ’13