Before Becoming A Chef, Julia Child Was A Spy With Unexpected First Foray Into Cooking


Before she was a celebrity chef, Julia Child was a highly decorated intelligence officerBefore she was a celebrity chef, Julia Child was a highly decorated intelligence officer

Welcoming, wise, and talented, Julia Child was the perfect picture of a celebrity chef welcome in kitchens all around America. But before hosting The French Chef on WGBH, Child worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the midst of World War II, working as a spy handling incredibly classified information and putting the beginnings of her culinary knowledge to very unexpected uses.

Child had a well-rounded upbringing that laid a solid foundation for her eventual work as a highly successful, effective intelligence officer for the organization that preceded the CIA. She started attending college preparatory school starting at age nine, excelled at multiple sports, majored in history, and harbored dreams of becoming a novelist. When life had different plans for her time and again, Child answered the call on each occasion.

Julia Child joined the OSS to perform unique tasks during World War II

When America officially joined World War II in late 1941, Child fully intended to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) or in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES. However, standing at six feet, two inches, she was deemed too tall for either; instead, she joined the OSS.

At first, she was a typist, based in Washington, D.C. However, her knowledgeable background saw Child quickly rise in the ranks to take on bigger responsibilities. She found herself working under General William J. Donovan, the head of the OSS, as a top-secret researcher.

The U.S. Navy found itself encountering a peculiar yet pressing problem: there had been multiple shark attacks against Naval officers. On top of that, sharks also swam too close to underwater explosives that were meant for German U-boats and set off the weapons, rendering them harmless against the enemy. Child was tasked with creating a shark repellent for both life jackets and for these underwater mines.

Child and the research team went through 100 substances in their experiments before finding copper acetate to be the most effective repellent. Such a formual is still in use today, now for fallen space equipment for its return to Earth.

Julia Child was, effectively, a spy who was very good at her job, whatever it may be

Julia Child was, essentially, a spy for the OSS and had access to tons of highly-classified documentsJulia Child was, essentially, a spy for the OSS and had access to tons of highly-classified documents
Julia Child was, essentially, a spy for the OSS and had access to tons of highly classified documents / Kimberly Butler / ©ABC / TV Guide / courtesy Everett Collection

Child was one of 4,500 women who served in the OSS and she managed to stand out among her peers of either gender – and loved every minute of the work.

“I must say we had lots of fun,” Child told fellow OSS officer Elizabeth McIntosh for her book, Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. Although Child grew up in a family with a cook, she did not absorb the art until after meeting her husband; experimenting with the various substances for the shark repellent – from organic acids, shark meat, and poisons – was her first dive into the trial-and-error work of cooking.

Child was also a trusted member of the intelligence community even outside of her singular shark experiments. While serving as a research assistant, Child cataloged some 10,000 names of officers into the agency’s internal database. She was also entrusted with handling many highly classified intelligence documents. While in what is today Sri Lanka, Child also cataloged several such documents and classified communications.

THE FRENCH CHEF, Julia Child, 1962-1973 / Everett Collection

As head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat, Child received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service; she also received a distinction celebrating her unique, enduring defining characteristics, including “drive and inherent cheerfulness.” Child’s spy file was officially declassified in 2008.

In addition to exposing Child to the trial-and-error process of mixing compounds, understanding reactions, and adjustment measurements for cooking, her work as a spy also helped Child cross paths with fellow OSS employee Paul Cushing Child, whose time in Paris helped him develop a refined palette that he introduced to his future wife.

JULIA, from left: Paul Cushing Child, Julia ChildJULIA, from left: Paul Cushing Child, Julia Child
JULIA, from left: Paul Cushing Child, Julia Child (shown in archival footage), 2021. © Sony Pictures Classics / Courtesy Everett Collection


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