The idea that the culinary icon Julia Child was once also an international spy for the CIA sounds much more like a cooked-up concept for a TV show rather than an actual turn of events, but it turns out to be both: In the latest development of all of the women-led spy, assassin, and super thief movies currently in the making, Child's true-life spell as a spy is in fact being turned into an hour-long TV series for ABC known simply as Julia. ABC, of course, is the network behind the progenitor to this wave, Alias with Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow.
It's not that unusual for celebrities to have surprising side hustles before finding fame—for example, Martha Stewart famously first dipped her toes into modeling, Queen Elizabeth II was a wartime driver and mechanic, and James Franco, well, worked at McDonald's—but Child's little-known tenure at the OSS, or the Office of Strategic Services, which preceded the CIA, during World War II, definitely takes the cake—especially since she wasn't just tending wounds or stationed in the kitchen, but instead working as an agent and intelligence officer. (Not that she ever really went undercover—something that her 6'2" stature and booming voice likely would have impeded anyway, as the former did when she was rejected from serving both the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and Women’s Army Corps.)
The series is set to be dramatized, but the true-life story is pretty action-packed in and of itself: Child quit her job as an advertising manager at age 28, and then described it as "a most interesting position" in her application letter to the OSS, despite the fact that she had previously been working at a furniture store. Still, she somehow nailed the interview: "Good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall," her interviewer reportedly wrote of Child, resulting in her hire in 1942 for clerical work, and eventual move to work closely with William Donovan, the director of the OSS and so-called "Father of American Intelligence."
In two years time, Child shifted to the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section and posted to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, where she became the head of the secretariat and the documents control—and, in her free time, besides of course going out to restaurants, rode elephants. She ultimately ended up posted in Kunming, in southwest China, where she gained top-level security clearance and became chief of the OSS Registry—and met her eventual husband, fellow OSS officer Paul Child.
It was there, too, that she was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service, thanks to "her drive and inherent cheerfulness, despite long hours of tedious work, [which] served as a spur to greater effort for those working with her"—skills that of course served Child post-war, when she then turned to cuisine.
And while all that sounds like more than enough for a show, of course, ABC Signature Studios and the writer Benjamin Brand, who doesn't seem to have had any too recent projects, but did work on the film The Italian Job and the NBC series Nemesis: The Final Case of Eliot Ness, also have a few more things in store for their "darkly comedic dramedy": They plan to reimagine Child's post-war life so that includes the CIA dragging her—and her newfound celebrity status—back into service as a somehow "covert operative." (Despite the fact that she famously later denounced office life with the quip: "A party without cake is just a meeting.")
Still, the show actually does have some precedence: In the '90s, Child starred in a PBS program called Cooking for the C.I.A.—an acronym Brand told Deadline he was disappointed to learn stood for the Culinary Institute of America. In other ways, too, the seed for the show Brand had hoped has always been there: Child was no stranger to, say, butchering giant hunks of tuna, as well as defending America, onscreen.
There's no word yet on who's set to play Child—and wield her presumed arsenal of frying pans, cleavers, and rolling pins—but between playing a Russian spy who also falls for a CIA agent next year in Red Sparrow and her well-documented love of fried food—including the time she nearly ordered McDonald's fries from the Oscars red carpet, Jennifer Lawrence definitely seems up to the job.
But Meryl Streep, who portrayed Child to rave reviews in Nora Ephron's 2009 film Julie & Julia, of course has even more expertise of her own—despite admitting she didn't know "what a potato looked like" except in powder form until late in life. The actress not only has a serious history of acting her heart out in kitchens, but also has some surprising aquatic and assassin skills herself. Though little known to appear in action movies, Streep starred in 1994's The River Wild as an expert water rafter, in which she ultimately shoots and kills Kevin Bacon—a scene she followed up on a few years later in 2002's Adaptation, where she held Nicolas Cage at gunpoint in the midst of a swamp, and almost had him before a gator got there first.
Child no doubt would have understood her difficulties: While working in Sea Rescue, she also dealt with the pesky marine monsters of her own, ultimately developing the official OSS recipe for shark repellent to protect naval officers, as well rescue kits and "other agent paraphernalia". You can read all about it on the CIA's website, but as usual, Child summed it up much more succinctly: "I must say we had lots of fun," Child said in an interview decades later, as casually as if she were talking about preparing boeuf bourguignon.
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