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.