While Julia Child was busy teaching her loyal public television viewers how to make boeuf bourguignon, her husband could be found crawling at her feet.
From the floor of "The French Chef" set, Paul Child would hold up signs to help his wife during filming. They called them idiot cards. "Move on!" "Wipe brow!" "Don't forget mushrooms!"
Julia was 51 when she started filming her cooking show at WGBH in Boston, and Paul, 10 years her senior, continued assisting her from the ground up well into his late 60s.
This was not always their relationship dynamic. Paul had already lived in France and Italy, was a black belt in judo and relished fine cuisine when they met in 1944. Julia, who had a cosseted upbringing in Pasadena, California, and a boarding school education in Marin County, had never lived abroad, though she'd worked as a copywriter in New York after graduating from Smith College. Against her wealthy family's wishes — and after turning down a marriage proposal from Harrison Chandler, son of Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler — she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the United States' intelligence agency during World War II. After a period in Washington, D.C., she was sent to Sri Lanka where she encountered Paul.
At first, he was not impressed by Julia. In letters to his brother, he described her as "an extremely sloppy thinker" with "an unbecoming blond mustache" who was "unable to sustain ideas for long." Yet as they fell in love he took it upon himself to open her eyes to the world, first in China when they were stationed in Kunming, then after the war in France, where they moved in 1948. The first day they stepped off the boat in France he brought her to La Couronne, which after more than 600 years in business was the country's oldest restaurant, and ordered for her what she came to call "the most important meal" of her life.
"I often compare their relationship to 'My Fair Lady,' where she's the willing student like Eliza Doolittle and he's the sophisticated older man who tutors her in culture and art and politics," says Alex Prud'homme, Julia's grand-nephew, who has written three books about her. "Paul was the leader of their relationship during the first half, and when he retired, everything flipped. It was very intentional. He described himself as the iceberg beneath the water, where you just see the tip, but he's playing this massive role as the ballast — and you can't have one without the other."
The Childs' marriage is at the heart of a new documentary, "Julia," which began rolling out in theaters on Nov. 12. The movie was co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the filmmakers behind the 2018 portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "RBG." Like "Julia," "RBG" also emphasized the power balance between the late Supreme Court justice and her husband, Marty, a tax attorney who lobbied the Clinton administration so aggressively on her behalf before her 1993 nomination that Ruth jokingly referred to him as her "campaign manager."
"I think the existence of the supportive, loving, feminist husband playing a role in the success of these two women is not a coincidence," Cohen says of her film subjects. "And it's not just that Paul helped out and was on set. It's that he was willing to support and cheer Julia on in decisions that might sometimes make his career take a back seat to hers. He got that she was going places, and wanted to help her get there — just like Marty Ginsburg did with RBG."
After the commercial and critical success of "RBG," it became clear that there was a "huge appetite for more stories delving deeply into the historic lives of groundbreaking women," Cohen says. The directors considered a number of potential female icons, but when they were approached by the Julia Child Foundation, their interest was piqued.
"We were on a cross-town bus considering the idea, and we started talking about food before Julia: TV dinners, Jell-O salads, tuna casseroles," West recalls. "We started thinking, 'Well, why is it that in the '70s and '80s, people really started cooking?' And we feel a lot of it had to do with Julia. She sparked something that so changed the culture."