Was Julia Child a spy? Well, sort of.
During the final two years of the Second World War, the woman who would one day be renowned for bringing French cuisine to American kitchens was stationed in Asia, working with top security clearance at the organization which would eventually become today’s Central Intelligence Agency. Child, then still Julia McWilliams, wasn’t a traditional secret agent. Rather than hiding in bushes and peering through binoculars, she spent most of her time at a desk. Yet between riding elephants and helping to find a recipe for shark repellent, she excelled, eventually receiving the “Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service” for her work at her final posting, in Chunking, China.
When Child first volunteered her services to the Office Strategic Services in 1942, the military had recently turned her away for being too tall. (The Women’s Army Corps was recruiting, but stipulated a maximum height of 6 feet; she was 6 ft. 2 in.) The OSS, however, was happy to have her, writing in their interview notes: “Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall.”
Like most women at the OSS at the time, she toiled as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, spending most of her time typing up the names and addresses of government executives—in declassified government files, Child describes how she “typed over 10,000 little white cards and put in for a transfer.” This was likely mind-numbingly boring work, but her talents and experience got her noticed. She moved steadily up the ranks, from department to department, gaining more responsibilities along the way.
It was in the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section where Child first began to take part in more significant work, and gained exposure to the kind of alchemy that may have sown the seeds for her culinary career. In July 1942, the OSS began to search for a shark repellent. Shark attacks were actually quite rare—only 20 had taken place in less than three years of wartime—but frenzied media accounts had bred panic among frightened men. Morale was low. There was another reason to find a way to detract curious (or hungry) sharks: On some occasions, American naval explosives had been accidentally set off by inquisitive sharks mistaking them for a snack.
Two men headed this investigation: Captain Harold J. Coolidge, a scientist from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Dr. Henry Field, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Throughout 1943, Child was Coolidge’s executive assistant, working closely with the zoologist and explorer. “I must say we had lots of fun,” Child told fellow OSS Officer, Betty McIntosh, during an interview for McIntosh’s book Sisterhood of Spies. “We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment—strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
Over the course of a year, researchers tested more than 100 substances, ranging from gruesome decayed shark meat to a gamut of acids and alkalis. The final recipe was a mixture of copper acetate and black dye, which together gave off a smell rather like a dead shark. It wasn’t perfect (success rate was a little over 60 percent), but it was better than nothing, keeping sharks away for six to seven hours per dose.
In her next role, Child went farther afield, working first in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and then in China. In an early letter from her far-off posting, she wrote: ”There are movies and dances twice a week at the American officers’ club, walks in the moonlight. On Sundays there are picnics, golf, tennis, swimming or a weekend down in Colombo.” The work she was doing, and the top-secret papers that passed through her hands as Chief of the OSS Registry, must have been still more fascinating, even if she couldn’t always write home about it.
When the war ended, Child left the OSS for good. But she took with her two important souvenirs: the French she had picked up at thrice-weekly private lessons in Washington D.C., and her husband, Paul Cushing Child, who would, in time, introduce her to French food.
Watch Julia Child Get the Hilarious “Drunk History” Treatment She Deserves
Since its premiere on Comedy Central in 2013, Drunk History has provided America with sloppy, nonsensical stories about some of its most recognizable figures, from Abraham Lincoln, to Elvis Presley, to Richard Nixon. Now, as the series’ fourth season comes to a close, Drunk History is turning its beer goggle gaze to Julia Child, the late celebrity chef and cookbook author credited with bring French cooking to the U.S.
According to a very inebriated Lyric Lewis, Child was a 6’3 “dumb tall” spy who helped the Office of Strategic Services develop shark repellent for underwater bombs. The comedian paints Child as a humdrum giantess who only eats cans of creamed corn until her husband, Paul, takes her on trip to Paris to expand her culinary palette.
While it’s difficult to imagine Child burping on the job, or saying the phrase “cool, cool, cool tight, tight, tight” on her honeymoon, the chef actually was a spy—sort of. According to the ABC News, Child did work for the OSS—an early version of the CIA created by President Franklin Roosevelt—during World War II. Though Child began as a typist, her superiors determined that she was “better qualified to fill a more responsible position." No word, however, on if Child's top secret missions ever included shark repelent.
Early Life Of Julia Child
New York Times Co./Getty Images Julia Child was born the daughter of a paper company heiress.
Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams on Aug. 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California. She grew up sheltered and privileged. Her father John McWilliams, Jr. was a successful banker while her mother Julia Carolyn Weston was heiress to the Weston Paper Company of Massachusetts.
As such, Child received a quality education. She attended the Katharine Branson School for Girls — a preparatory school in California — where her statuesque six-foot-two figure made her captain of the basketball team and president of the hiking club.
Later she attended the all-women’s Smith College, as her mother and aunt had before her, majoring in history. She was active in college clubs like the Grass Cops, which kept students off the school’s precious lawn.
But Child barely showed any special interests other than a vague ambition of becoming a writer. In her diary she wrote, “I am sadly an ordinary person…with talents I do not use.”
After college, Julia Child took a secretarial course at the Packard Commercial School but quit after a month when she landed a job as a secretary with W. J. Sloane, a home furnishings company based in New York City. She worked there for four years until she was fired after a document mix up.
But her seemingly mundane career trajectory in stenography soon took a drastic turn as the country prepared to enter World War II.
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3. She Met The Inventor Of Caesar Salad & Even Got The Recipe
The legendary Caesar salad was invented in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico by the Italian immigrant restaurateur, Caesar Cardini. According to the New York Times, Child’s traveled to Tijuana with her family around the age of 10 or 12. It was then she got to meet the inventor himself, as well as got to enjoy this glorious new and exciting salad.
At the time the salad was prepared tableside. She recalled specific events of that day and said, “I remember the turning of the salad in the bowl was very dramatic. And egg in a salad was unheard of at that point”. Later, Julia Child was even able to persuade Cardini’s daughter, Rosa, to give her the authentic recipe.
What the CIA, Julia Child and Shark Repellent Have in Common
As "Shark Week"draws to an end, the Central Intelligence Agency offered up a most unusual, yet fascinating history lesson to mark the occasion on its Twitter account.
While the operators of the spy agency's Twitter account have taken comedic, if sometimes perplexing, liberties with their social media activity in the past, none so far may top this GIF of TV cooking guru Julia Child clubbing a dead shark.
Even without context, the three-second clip is mesmerizing enough, but the CIA account then proceeded to outline how a young Julia Child once made her mark on U.S. history outside of the culinary arts.
According to records from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Child joined the CIA's origin agency, the Office of Strategic Services, just after it was established during World War II in 1942.
One of the first tasks taken on by the agency was to create a shark repellent, after news reports of shark attacks on sailors and airmen began surfacing in battlefield updates.
Years before she discovered her passion for crafting cuisine, Child was a member of a team looking to concoct a "recipe" that would steer away one of nature’s most determined predators.
The final product would be used by the Navy until the 1970s, by which time Child had made her way inside the homes of millions of Americans through her television shows and world-renowned cookbooks.
Clearly satisfied with itself by the end of its Tweet-story lesson, the CIA again shared the Child GIF, and then even got a shout-out from the official "Shark Week" account.
Later Career and Declassification
Julia eventually became a research assistant who worked under Colonel William J. Donovan, director of the OSS. As summarized on her official file, she worked “directly reviewing, filing, and performing minor research in connection with the reports and documents following into Colonel Donovan’s office.” Her job was mostly secretarial until around 1943 when she began assisting in the OSS Emergency Rescue Equipment Section.
One of the most exciting projects Julia worked on was the development of a specialized shark repellant. She was assigned to assist the researchers who were trying to figure out a way to keep sharks from bumping into underwater explosives—which were strategically placed in order to deter German U-boats—and setting them off prematurely. One of her reported suggestions was to cook up a variety of preventative mixtures to put in the water around the explosive locations.
Julia also worked overseas during her time with the OSS. According to her file, she was stationed in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) where, as her wartime colleague Fisher Howe told NBC in 2008, she “was head of the secretariat, the documents control.” She handled a wide assortment of classified documents, including some that remained secret even after her role was declassified. She eventually became the Chief of the OSS Registry with top security clearance.
After the war ended, the OSS was dismantled and replaced with the CIA. Julia received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service for her work. Some of her citation, included in her full file, reads as follows:
“The important work of registering, cataloguing and channeling of a great volume of highly classified communications and documents was performed with exceptional speed and accuracy. This in addition to the accurate filing system devised and set up by Miss McWilliams facilitated the efficient functioning of all branches of the agency. Her drive and inherent cheerfulness, despite long hours of tedious work, served as a spur to greater efforts for those working with her. Morale in her section could not have been higher. Her achievements reflect great credit upon herself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”
While stationed in China, Julia met Paul Child, who also worked at the OSS. They married in 1946 before he joined the U.S. Department of State and was assigned to France. Julia’s involvement with the OSS was semi-public knowledge during her lifetime. However, the actual details of her service were classified until 2008, when the records of her involvement were declassified and released by the National Archives.
Julia Child: The OSS Officer Who Introduced French Cuisine to American Households
Among the daunting tasks that a new chef must perfect is flipping a pan or skillet filled with breakfast ingredients, a stir-fry, or another recipe that involves mixed foods.
“When you flip anything, you really just have to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this,” Julia Child said, regarding how to flip potatoes during an episode of her hit 1960s cooking show The French Chef . “Well that didn’t go very well. See, when I flipped it I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should’ve.”
Child’s show was completely unedited. Thus, the viewers witnessed all of her mistakes, her charming explanations, and her quick wit. If an expert like Child could make a mess all over the stove and brush it off as a mishap, then so could the inexperienced cooks at home.
Her down-to-earth presence captivated the audience and inspired a nation of Americans to broaden their palates in home cooking. As an author she published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1962, which has 1.6 million copies in print worldwide, and 17 other books. She was instrumental in introducing French cuisine to American households. The French Chef earned her place in history as the first educational television personality to receive a Primetime Emmy Award .
Dan Aykroyd’s parody of Child’s cooking show on Saturday Night Live in 1968 came during the peak of her popularity, showing “Julia Child” have an accident with a sharp knife, with blood spurting around the kitchen and Aykroyd trying to fashion a tourniquet out of a chicken bone and kitchen items.
The culinary icon inspired generations of beginners to become enthusiasts and influenced the way the average person today approaches food, but her secret career during World War II is just as noteworthy as her savory exploits. Then known as Julia McWilliams, she graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts with a degree in history in 1934 and moved to Manhattan to become a writer. She earned a coveted role as an advertising copywriter for the furniture store W. & J. Sloane. As the US military prepared to enter the war effort, Child sought adventure in the form of military service.
Child’s height was disadvantageous to her plans. She was denied by the US military for being too tall, at 6-foot-2. The US Information Agency headquartered in Washington, DC, hired her as a typist and soon after she transferred to the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor unit to the CIA. Her history background helped her in her role as a research assistant for the Secret Intelligence division.
She kept records of all OSS officers’ names typed out on small white notecards. Each new task gave her more responsibility, including when she aided the OSS Emergency Sea Equipment section in developing a shark repellent to be coated on underwater explosives.
Indeed, before her days crafting delicacies in the kitchen, Child tested 100 different substances — from known poisons, to extracts from rotting shark meat, to organic acids and copper salts — to form a range of cocktails.
However, a memo from December 1943 penned by Edward Howell, the chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, stated that “although slight repellence was shown in bait tests […] none of us expected that the chemical would really function when the animals were stirred up in a mob behavior pattern.”
“I must say we had lots of fun,” Child told OSS officer Betty McIntosh, during an interview for the book Sisterhood of Spies . “We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment — strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
During the latter years of World War II, Child had overseas assignments in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China, where she served as the chief of OSS Registry. Her top-secret clearance made her privy to every single incoming or outgoing cable among all intelligence agencies and special operations units in the area.
In Ceylon, she met her husband, another OSS officer named Paul Child, and the pair quickly married in 1946. Paul Child took a job for the Foreign Service, and together they explored France. Her appreciation for French cuisine was born after a meal at La Couronne in Rouen two years later, tasting oysters, sampling sole meunière, and washing it down with Chablis wine. She described it as “the most exciting meal of my life.”
While Julia Child ultimately became world famous through her delicious new career, her service with the OSS wasn’t fully recognized until as recently as 2008, when her files were declassified. She received a citation for meritorious civilian service that read, “Through her resourcefulness, industry and sound judgement, the important work of registering, cataloguing and channeling of a great volume of highly classified communications and documents was performed with exceptional speed and accuracy. […] Her drive and inherent cheerfulness, despite long hours of tedious work, served as a spur to greater effort for those working with her. […] Her achievements reflect great credit upon herself and the Armed Forces of the United States.”
These wartime accomplishments only added to the legacy of a delightful woman who would present her dishes with a hearty “Bon appétit” — a fitting way to remember a woman who had a giant appetite for life.
Julia Child’s Spy Days Included Work on a Shark Repellent - HISTORY
The Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. We are not responsible for them in any way.
Julia Child swimming with sharks? ( Score: 2)
Kind of suggests a brand new spin on Dan Akyroyd's sketch on SNL. [nbc.com]
Re: ( Score: 2)
Instead of complaining, maybe you could provide an alternate link?
Re: ( Score: 2)
I think it's just geoblocked outside usa.
for me as well. next time just look it up on youtube.
Re: ( Score: 2)
I wish! It might work for that, but NBC is pretty good about getting takedowns on youtube so that you have to watch videos on their very-poorly-designed website.. which I guess is unavailable outside the US.
Dinner Dinner Dinner Dinner ( Score: 2)
Re: ( Score: 2)
she had a hand in making this, I'm sure
Public Relations stunt? ( Score: 1)
Re:Public Relations stunt? ( Score: 5, Insightful)
Maybe, but whenever I read about Julia McWilliams' role in WWII, I find myself admiring the courage of her and people like her.
Re: ( Score: 2)
Except this is actually admission of an abuse: This research could have saved lives. Civilian lives, American lives, even children's lives. There was really no excuse for keeping this sort of information secret for any length of time.
Strange. ( Score: 2)
This was years before she became the culinary icon of French cuisine that she is known for today. In fact, at this time, Julia was self-admittedly a disaster in the kitchen.
I had no idea this was a contradiction.
Wow. From a recipe that even a shark won't touch ( Score: 5, Funny)
. to one of the most famous chefs on the planet. That's quite a journey. Hopefully she didn't keep her shark-repellent ingredients in the kitchen, could make for some. interesting meals:
"Ooops, looks like I grabbed the copper acetate instead of the cumin again, I really need to separate those better! Save the liver!"
Re: ( Score: 1)
When I was a kid I used to tinker with kitchen chemistry. I accidentally made copper acetate: put vinegar in a little closed bottle, and some copper object (coin etc.) so that it stays _above_ the liquid. Copper will slowly react with vapor of the acetic acid yielding rather beautiful (and stinky) blue rhombic crystals. (As always, be safe: just don't eat it or don't give to kids, etc.)
She probably found it among her students ( Score: 1)
Anecdotal ( Score: 1)
My grandfather was a blimp mechanic (El Toro airbase, southern california) who saw plenty of downed craft and rescued wreckage. He claimed the repellent did nothing once there was blood in the water. There was always blood in the water once someone drowned. It was classified as an ongoing project that was eventually shelved due to continual failure, but promising reasearch. The repellents just weren't effective at all.
Watch | Julia Child & Jackson Pollock Worked For The CIA
Spies are meant to blend in, not stick out, and the best spies are the ones you’re least likely to expect.
When you think of a CIA agent, you probably think of the Hollywood stereotypes: a tall, athletic man in a black suit with dark sunglasses, walking around with one hand on his gun and the other on his ear piece.
But that’s stupid. Spies are meant to blend in, not stick out, and the best spies are the ones you’re least likely to expect. So I bet you never knew these people were secretly working for the CIA.
1 – Julia Child
When you think Julia Child, you probably think “soufflé” before you think “spy.” But you’d be wrong.
Julia McWilliams was an advertising copy writer for a New York City furniture store when Pearl Harbor changed her life. Wanting to join the war effort, she applied to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s CIA, and started work as a research assistant directly under OSS Director William “Wild Bill” Donovan.
From there her career took several surprising turns. She helped develop a shark repellent to coat marine explosives for the U-boat warfare effort. She spent time in Ceylon helping to coordinate the invasion of the Malay Peninsula. She ran the OSS Registry in China during the final crucial months of the war in the Pacific.
She also met her husband, Paul Child, who was also working for the OSS, and the two were married in 1946. He joined the US Information Agency and was assigned to Paris in 1948 where Julia studied French cooking at one of France’s most prestigious cooking schools, Le Cordon Bleu. And the rest as they say, is history. The officially-sanctioned history with all the spy bits left out, that is. Julia’s role in the OSS wasn’t declassified for over 50 years.
As publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Sr. was one of the most influential men in the news media from the early 1960s to the late 1990s. And he worked hand in hand with the CIA.
The connection was first uncovered by Ramparts Magazine in 1966, investigated by Congress in the mid-70s and documented in detail by Carl Bernstein in his landmark 1977 Rolling Stone article, “The CIA and the Media.” In the report, Bernstein identifies Sulzberger (along with Henry Luce of Time Inc., William Paley of CBS and numerous other mass media organizations) as working directly and knowingly with the CIA to help the agency achieve its propaganda objectives. There were ten CIA operatives working at the New York Times in the 50s and 60s alone.
The CIA’s drive to infiltrate the news media was codenamed “Operation Mockingbird” and included everything from Sulzberger’s New York Times and Paley’s CBS down to AP, Newsweek, Reuters and even the Louisville Courier-Journal. The program formally came to an end in February 1976 when then-Director George. H.W. Bush created a new agency policy promising that the CIA would never again contract with any accredited U.S. news service, newspaper, radio station, television network or journalist. Because we all know the CIA would never lie about something like that, right?
3 – Jackson Pollock
Do you ever get the feeling that modern art can only exist because it’s being funded by the CIA in a vast conspiracy to confuse and disorient the public? Because if you do, you’d be exactly right.
At least, such was the case throughout much of the 50s and 60s. In 1950, Tom Braden set up the CIA’s International Organizations Division specifically to pay for such diverse artistic endeavors as the touring program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the animation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (complete with an altered ending that made it more palatable for American propaganda purposes). As we now know (thanks to the 1995 admission of former case officer Donald Jameson) they also funded abstract expressionist painters, from Jackson Pollack to Mark Rothko to Willem de Kooning.
So why would the CIA be interested in promoting an artist who hung paint cans upside down and let them drizzle on to the canvas randomly? The official explanation is that it was all part of a cunning plan to convince the Soviets of the vibrant creativity of American culture…Or something like that. Given that it probably just made the Russkies cock an eyebrow or laugh at American silliness, one has to wonder what the real purpose of the program was. Especially when it’s discovered that other counter-cultural movements of the period were funded by the Agency, it would seem that the program was aimed more at demoralizing America itself than in scoring cultural points in the Cold War.
4 – Ken Kesey
Speaking of CIA-funded cultural movements, it turns out the 1960s drug culture was helped along by everyone’s favourite spy agency.
In 1959, Ken Kesey, Alan Ginsberg and 140 other young men and women volunteered to take partin an experiment at Stanford University. The experiment, run by two researchers who were secretly working for the CIA, involved giving the subjects their first hit of LSD. Five years later, Kesey was “Captain Flag” of the “Merry Panksters” taking their Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test across the country and Ginsberg was spearheading the budding counterculture movement along with fellow suspected CIA operative, Timothy Leary.
But Kesey and Ginsberg weren’t the only 60s counterculture icons to be under the influence of the CIA. Others who have been confirmed to have been CIA funded include feminist movement leader Gloria Steinem. Even Gordon Wasson’s research into magic mushrooms (introduced to the public via CIA associate Henry Luce’s Life magazine) was funded by the CIA as part of their MKUltra mind control program.
5 – Ahmed Wali Karzai
In 2013 the then-President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzei, admitted that the CIA deliver bags of cash directly to his office as part of an ongoing campaign to control the Afghan government. But if you think that openly bribing the president of a foreign country is something, wait until you get a load of this: In 2009 it was revealed that the CIA was also openly bribing his drug dealing brother.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai, was a powerful politician in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province who functioned much like every other warlord in the war-ravaged country namely, using his government position to protect his business. And do you want to guess what that business was? If you guessed heroin and opium, you’d be correct!
So yes, the CIA was not only openly bribing the president of a foreign country, but his drug-dealing brother, too! Given the long history of the CIA’s drug running with Air America, their participation in Iran-Contra, their association with Pablo Escobar and dozens of other stories, is this really a surprise?
This list just scratches the surface of the CIA’s reach, of course, but it should at least give you pause for thought. Not all CIA agents, operatives, associates and useful idiots look like Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan.
But all of this is ancient history now. The real question is who is secretly working for the CIA today?
Top photo | The Central Intelligence Agency flag is displayed, partially cast in a shadow. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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