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Was Julia Child Really a Spy?

Silhouette of woman in misty alleyway

It’s a popular piece of trivia that the famed chef Julia Child was actually a World War II spy—but how much of this rumor is true? While it’s true that Julia really did work in the intelligence services during the war, her role didn’t exactly involve the kind of clandestine activities we generally associate with “spy” work.

Early World War II Career

When World War II broke out, Julia—who was not yet married and went by her maiden name, McWilliams—decided to get involved. “[I] wanted to do something to aid my country in a time of crisis,” she states in her book, My Life in France. According to the National Women’s History Museum, she volunteered with the Pasadena, California chapter of the American Red Cross prior to the United States’ involvement in the war. While there, she created and supervised the Voluntary Stenographic Services.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Julia wanted to do more. First, she worked with the Aircraft Warning Service to track ships off the coast. Then she passed a civil service exam and applied to several military organizations, but was unsuccessful in her attempts to get hired. After moving to Washington, D.C., she got a boring secretarial job for the U.S. Department of State in the research unit of the Office of War Information.

However, Julia craved a bigger challenge. She was finally able to join the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence corps that preceded the CIA and focused on coordinating espionage activities—particularly those taking place behind enemy lines—across all branches of the armed forces. In her book, Julia reveals her humorous reasons for choosing to work for this organization: “I was too tall for the WACs [Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps] and WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve].”

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.

Was Julia Child a Spy?

Whether or not Julia Child was a spy remains a big question. The answer is… yes and no. In the sense of the word that we’re used to, Julia definitely was not a spy. She performed no fieldwork, intelligence gathering, or dangerous missions—activities we generally associate with official “spy” work.

Nonetheless, as her commendation demonstrates, Julia was an important part of the espionage community during the war. Her work was effective and crucial for keeping intelligence communications flowing. “You can be an able and effective intelligence officer but not be undercover, and we were not,” Howe remarked. “But she was a very effective person in the job she had.”

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »