Pinkwashing Julia Child
The Cruelty of the HBO Max Series’ James Beard Episode
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Last week on James Beard’s birthday—May 5—I watched “Crêpes Suzette,” episode five of the HBO Max series Julia. I was clenched as it began, dreading the scripted James. Honestly, I’d watched only one other episode of Julia, the first, and didn’t like it: thought it was artificial and fluttery, a lot of people taking bites (even from a guerrilla omelet, cooked on live TV before a sputtering host), closing their eyes, and swooning. It seemed stagy and dishonest. What would they do to James?
Before I start, a refresher on Julia Child’s documented history of homophobic slurs: how for years, she lobbed anti-gay barbs, casually, in letters and conversation. Historian Laura Shapiro mined this in her 2007 bio:
She often used the term pedal or pedalo—French slang for a homosexual—draping it with condescension, pity, and disapproval. “I had my hair permanented at E. Arden’s, using the same pedalo I had before (I wish all the men in OUR profession in the USA were not pedals!),” she wrote to Simca. Fashion designers were “that little bunch of Pansies,” a cooking school was “a nest of homovipers,” a Boston dinner party was “peopled by 3 fags in an expensive house…. We felt hopelessly square and left when decently possible,” and San Francisco was beautiful but full of pedals—“It appears that SF is their favorite city! I’m tired of them, talented though they are.”
A source I won’t name—someone close to cookbook author Marion Cunningham, related a similar story of Marion’s from the 1970s, about picking Julia up at SFO and driving her north to the city, as Julia studied the skyline and mused. Such a beautiful city, she said. What a pity the faggots have taken it over. And Marion was shocked—didn’t know what to say. Said nothing because it was Julia: charming, funny, powerful Julia. She just had this…thing, this illiberal attitude, baked-in bias. And you can argue that it was the times she lived in, or the rules of the class she was born into—and that everybody in America spoke a homophobic language (not true)—and maybe point to her apparent need to do these weird, corny, performative public things with her husband Paul, showing off how passionately, heterosexually in love they were. (James’s assistant, Carl Jerome, once told me about a dinner at which she and Paul recited love poetry by Herrick and Lovelace to each other.) “Faggots” were just this troubling thing that didn’t fit: not easily, in the mind of someone who could squeeze a majestic culinary canon into half-cup and eighth-teaspoon measures.
As Laura Shapiro wrote, “[Julia] found homosexuality outlandish—not immoral, and certainly not to be criminalized, but a rude disruption in the natural order of things.”
So what are we to make of “Crêpes Suzette,” and its pinkwashed image of Julia singing a few lines on stage with a drag queen at a make-believe San Francisco gay bar? This scripted Julia, giddy with the adulation of an audience packed with pedalos, as bubbly, impish James looks on?
The episode overall imagines a confluence of semi-real events. It’s 1963, I guess. A public TV station in San Francisco, KQED, is the first to pick up Julia’s Boston-based show, thanks to the tenacity of a young Black producer, Alice (a made-up character). KQED invites Julia to SF for a promotional weekend, all expenses paid, and everybody but Alice (of course) flies west: the director; Julia’s editor at Knopf, Judith Jones; Paul, Julia’s husband (of course). There’s a book-signing; Julia sees that she’s beloved and famous, in San Francisco anyway (“Like a Beatles concert,” Judith tells her boss, Blanche Knopf.).
James just happens to be in San Francisco; he surprises Julia at the signing. “Sign my spatula?” He’s cheeky, as played by Christian Clemenson. Julia introduces James to Judith Jones, which is absurd—in fact, Judith had introduced herself to James in 1961, a couple of years before this scene in supposed to take place, when Judith was trying to flag attention for Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the world of food media. She sought (and got) a sort of patron-level endorsement for the book and its authors from James, who took up a lot of space in the torrid sauna of food writers and magazine editors in New York, which is to say the country at large. But let’s move on.
James whisks Julia and Judith to dinner, before cutting out with Julia alone to the imaginary gay bar The Sword and Crown, “home to San Francisco royalty,” James says, “screaming queens mostly.” We see men together on the dance floor, see them kissing. (This could not have happened. SF’s tavern laws in 1963 were slightly more liberal than New York City’s, but same-sex body contact, much less kissing, could trigger the Alcohol Beverage Control Board to strip a bar of its license.) Julia looks around at all of this queerness and chides James. “You could have given me some kind of warning,” she says. “I was afraid that you wouldn't come,” he replies—maybe the subtlest reference possible to Julia’s intolerance. It soon vanishes, after we meet Coco Van (street name Ralphie), a queen in Julia’s French Chef TV drag, with pearls and L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes patch fixed to her blouse.
She gives the real Julia makeup tips—how to apply blush for a prettier look. This is part of Julia’s epiphany in the episode: she’s becoming famous, a cultural icon as well as a style one. She realizes how exciting fame is. “I thought it was scary at first,” she tells Paul in the final scene. “I didn't like it, but now... part of me does like it.” The episode’s heart is the conflict this creates with Paul—how, as a couple, they’ll have to learn how to share Julia, the public one and the private one.
This is a cruel revision of the truth. Not only did the real Julia dislike the queerness that, throughout the decade of the 1960s, was becoming more and more manifest in public, but it was exactly the kind of homophobia Julia embraced that made navigating public and private life an almost impossible dilemma for a closeted figure like James, someone even more famous than Julia was in 1963. In “Crêpes Suzette,” queerness in the form of Coco Van empowers Julia, helps her construct the public symbol of Julia Child, find new ways to define power and beauty, to construct a new gendered image. Coco is an adored, fictionalized shadow of the actual old homoviper at the Elizabeth Arden salon who permed the real Julia’s hair.
As for her friend James, who helped her find an audience—well, he’s left on his own in a taxi, in the episode’s penultimate scene, in an old reprise of the figure of the tragic, lonely homosexual. “Nineteenth and Diamond,” he tells the cabbie in a dejected voice—the Castro (fifteen years shy of being gay mecca), which is supposed to suggest what? A sad tryst with an old fuck buddy? Not like Julia and Paul, preparing to devour a room-service Caesar and sole meunière in bed—as a straight couple they have power and agency, access to a fecund, delicious world that feels regal, in contrast to the sham queens desperately trying to slay at The Sword and Crown.