The texts and emails started right away. Earlier this spring, when Julia, an HBO Max original series “inspired by Julia Child’s extraordinary life and her long-running television series, The French Chef,” premiered, I began getting questions from writers, editors, colleagues and friends. Did that actually happen? No one was writing to ask me about Julia Child—there are people out there far more expert on her life than I—but about Judith. Judith Jones.
As a doctoral student in the fall of 2012, I was lucky enough to be in the room when the Julia Child Foundation came calling on one of my professors: Judith Jones—who edited, among many, many other authors, Julia Child—had, at the age of 88, just retired after more than 50 years as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, and the Foundation wanted help collecting an oral history of her remarkable, but little known, life and work. Judith had long been my hero, grad school was a bore, and I wanted in on the project. Unbidden, I threw my hat in the ring.
Three months later, on a bone-bitingly cold day in January, I met Judith for the first time at her Upper East Side apartment. We drank tea and ate oatmeal cookies she’d pulled from a linen closet repurposed as a pantry. We talked about travel, books, love, and leftovers. What began as a working relationship bloomed into an intimate friendship, one that lasted until Judith’s death in August of 2017 when she was 93. Not long after, her stepdaughter, Bronwyn Dunne, offered me access to Judith’s personal papers, which is how I came to start work on a book about her.
For the past nine years, I’ve been talking, thinking, and writing about Judith’s extraordinary life and the impact of her professional career. Despite a minor groundswell of interest in the editor’s work in the final years of her life, and a short-lived flurry of homage-paying in the immediate wake of her death, most people still haven’t a clue who she is.
This, in and of itself, is neither disconcerting nor surprising: Editors and their input are inconspicuous by design. Editorial labor (and drama) plays out behind the curtain that is the workings of the publishing industry, and that’s the way—even most editors themselves would argue—it’s meant to be. Editors work in service of their authors, and are the invisible shepherds (or packhorses or midwives, pick your metaphor) of the books we read.
So when I caught wind of Julia the series, and that it included Judith as a character, I imagined the producers would take the project seriously, do their homework to get it right, and thus shed a little light on the editorial process—one vital to the making of books; to the making, in this case, of Julia’s books—and the relationship between author and editor. At least, that’s where my hopeful thinking went.
Myth and reality needn’t work against one another in the telling of history. We need both.
Instead, I’ve found myself constantly interrupting my viewings of Julia with my own incredulous exclamations; I’m sorry, what? I’m sure my neighbors hear me holler, though sometimes, when the kids are upstairs sleeping, an under-my-breath oh my god has to suffice. Because, when it comes to Judith, the show has it all wrong.
There are the little things: Judith never had that haircut. Judith didn’t need help from Julia to crack a lobster, or prodding to dip the sweet meat in butter. Judith edited in green, never in red. Judith didn’t go to Montauk “like a normal New Yorker” on summer vacation, but always north to Vermont. Judith never handed Blanche Knopf a recipe and told her to cook it for Alfred; Blanche suffered from body dysmorphia all her life, and while Alfred was something of a gourmand, Blanche hardly ate. She certainly did not cook. More to the point, Judith never told Blanche to do anything. These are, at the surface, minor inaccuracies.
But as the series progressed, the accrual of un-truths began to lodge itself under my skin: Judith didn’t edit James Baldwin (he moved from Knopf to Dial after the publication of Go Tell it On the Mountain in 1953– Knopf turned down his second novel, Giovanni’s Room–and was long gone by the time Judith arrived at Knopf in ’57), so why is there a framed portrait of him on her office wall? Judith didn’t sit at the Childs’ Cambridge kitchen table and slyly convince Paul Child that “letting” Julia go on television was his idea.
This isn’t mere dramatization, it’s misrepresentation. An overt, and problematic, misconstrual of the very lives and history the series purports to illuminate.
Take the first episode’s opening scene: Julia Child did not, as the show suggests, receive a single-page letter from Judith Jones in early 1961 saying Knopf would be delighted to publish the hulking cookbook penned by Child and her co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Berthole. That letter came a year earlier—and only after Angus Cameron, one of Judith’s male colleagues at Knopf, pitched the book on Judith’s behalf in an editorial meeting (Judith was too junior to attend, not at all yet the “respected editor” Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her new book on Child, asserts Judith was). When the offer letter did make its way to Julia, it was accompanied by a very long list of revisions that would need to be undertaken if Child and her colleagues wanted Knopf to bite.
For more than a year, between Knopf’s acquisition of the project and Mastering’s publication in October of ‘61, Judith and Julia corresponded constantly, working as a pair to restructure the book, with Julia acting as chief project manager for her authorial team. All that fastidious attention to detail, tenacious pursuit of perfection (the book, both Judith and Julia knew, had to work if it was going to succeed, and both women’s aspirations hinged upon its doing just that), and the relationship between Judith and Julia that grew out that joint purpose is glossed; we’re whisked right from Julia and Paul Child’s farewell dinner with their Norwegian expat friends to Julia’s first crack at making television at WGBH (which didn’t happen until the summer of ’62).
The collapse of time, here, might seem benign, even necessary (much as it is in a cooking program, where ingredients are prepped ahead of time and finished dishes are ready for tasting just moments after the performing cook has slid the raw product into the oven). But it’s not quite so simple; there’s historical injury done by this narrative sleight of hand.
Another example: In episode 5, Julia Child is already a rising star. Alice Naman, a fictional Black woman producer at WGBH (that’s a bone to pick another time), has gone behind her boss’s back to arrange for Julia to go to San Francisco, where she’ll do a morning TV spot and, at Judith’s behest, a book signing as well. Flanking the long line of fans awaiting Julia’s pen are walls and tables full of books, among them Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. That book was published in 1963, the same year Julia’s show earned a regular spot on WGBH. Friedan and Julia (and by extension, Judith) had differing notions of late 20th century womanhood and what it could be, a tension that’s been written about and deserves to be studied even more (in no small part because of who that conversation excluded: all women who weren’t white, straight, and middle- or upper-class).
Judith Jones, as editor, straddled genres all her professional life, making waves in the worlds of fiction, poetry, food, and cultural reportage.
Into the bookstore walks James Beard, who Julia jubilantly introduces to Judith (Correction: Judith introduced Julia to James, not the other way around, and it happened in 1961 for the occasion of Mastering’s launch in New York, where both Judith and Beard lived.) Later in the same episode, Judith excuses herself from dinner to go call Blanche Knopf (a visionary but notoriously venomous publisher who is, also, wildly misportrayed), who reports to Judith that John Updike’s 1961 Rabbit, Run has just been nominated for a National Book Award. The conversation is pure fantasy, though this literary event did, in fact, happen.
To collapse ’61 into ’63 is every bit as troubling as skipping over the year plus of work that went into readying Mastering for publication. It suggests (as the show does, again and again) that “John” and “Julia” were Judith’s only authors, and that John’s success was far more important to Judith than Julia’s. Later, we hear Judith tell Beard that she won’t take him on as a cookbook author because “I’m a fiction editor.”
This dichotomy is false. Judith, as editor, straddled genres all her professional life, making waves in the worlds of fiction, poetry, food, and cultural reportage. Her career was dizzyingly long and illustrious, and far from homogenous: She fished The Diary of Anne Frank from the slush pile and advocated for its publication in English by her then employer, Doubleday, but wasn’t given credit for its discovery until decades later. She was the first to publish Anne Tyler and the last to publish Langston Hughes, put out the poems of Sylvia Plath but rejected her novel The Bell Jar (as well as the short stories of Alice Munro).
She was the workhorse and visionary behind what is widely considered the canon of English language cookbooks, the books that changed the way Americans thought about the cuisines and cultures of the world, not to mention how they cooked and ate. Many consider Judith’s cookbooks as significant of the form’s golden age.
For cookbooks to have earned a place at a literary publishing house as revered as Alfred A. Knopf shouldn’t be taken for granted; Judith worked incredibly hard to accomplish all that she did—into the night every night (not, as Julia shows her, in some strangely book-free sprawling mid-century office and a stiff drink in her hand, but at home, after cooking dinner with her husband, Evan Jones, helping her two adopted children with their homework, and tackling the domestic tasks that pile up in the margins of working motherhood)—and was met with plenty of resistance along the way.
This isn’t mere dramatization, it’s misrepresentation. An overt, and problematic, misconstrual of the very lives and history the series purports to illuminate.
Judith was hired by Blanche Knopf in 1957 to edit English translations of literature from abroad (not, as Julia tells us, to do the translations herself), and in her first decade or so there, she worked with little support, both at work and at home. Horowitz’s assertion that Judith had a staff when she was working on Mastering first made me angry—Judith, to be clear, didn’t even have an assistant yet—then made me ache; Judith told me, decades later, that those years were gruelingly hard. She couldn’t reveal how overwhelmed she felt at work, and was loath to display it at home. She had, she believed, made her choices—to wed, to work, and to parent—and she believed it was her duty to carry all that came along with those roles without revealing the impossible burden of it all.
At Knopf, she exerted endless effort to maintain her composure and dignity, keeping her head down and her chin up. She held her tongue more often than she let it rip, though viewers of Julia are led to believe the opposite. Judith often did the same at home, navigating the slippery terrain of being not only a professional woman and working mother in the mid-20th century, but a female primary breadwinner in a heterosexual marriage; though Evan Jones was devoted to Judith, he sometimes struggled with being outshone and out-earned by his wife, and she learned to make herself small in certain ways to maintain her marriage.
These are the sorts of intimate, relational corners of history that could have been taken up by Julia; that are, in fact, ripe for screen adaptations of biography. We see the producers almost go there when Julia and Avis DeVoto discuss Paul Child’s increasing grumpiness about Julia’s busyness, her fame, the demands pulling her away from their couplehood. In the show, Julia treats it lightly—she says she doesn’t mind giving men that little boost to their ego by downplaying her own ambition, success, and feelings of torn-ness. It’s all said so casually, as though it bears no weight. Why, I wondered watching the scene, do we continue to peddle such oversimplified narratives? There was real pain there—it was Julia’s, it was Judith’s, it was (and remains) so many women’s—but in this televised rendering, it is flicked away in a mere moment as Julia’s tiny red car putt-putts out of the WGBH parking lot.
But back to Judith. By reducing her, as Julia does, to the star’s sidekick and “guinea pig” (as well, wrongly, as Updike’s taskmaster, husband-less, child-less, and someone Blanche Knopf saw as anything close to an equal) is to shove Judith into boxes in which she never belonged, and fought all her adult life to escape. It seems, to me, an odd and insulting backward turn of revisionist history, one that overlooks the rich, intense, and fascinating relationship that emerged between the two women, both professionally and personally. (Here, again, I take issue with Horowitz and her assertion that Judith followed Knopf’s publishing practices when it came to the copious edits she gave Julia on Mastering. There was no house style for cookbooks at Knopf. Judith invented it. Judith was it.)
Responses to the series have ranged. The cult of Julia remains strong, and some just can’t get enough of that on-screen warble. Others, left hungry for a deeper portrait of Julia after Nora Ephron’s 2009 film Julie & Julia, have gobbled up the new portrait. Sharper critics, however, point out the many dropped threads of allegedly interconnected plotlines, and the show’s unwillingness to push past hackneyed cliché. Mostly, though, the buzz has been infused with delight, (rightfully) celebrating the show’s stellar cast and (wrongfully) lauding the series’ illumination of “a pivotal time in American history… feminism and the women’s movement, the nature of celebrity and America’s cultural evolution.” Some of us (hands up!) hoped this series would bring more accuracy and precision to Julia’s biography, both her person and her ascent to global celebrity. But that, it has not.
This Julia, for all I delight in Sarah Lancashire’s performance of her, seems strangely apologetic, at moments almost abashed at her ambition and success. She is bawdy, yes, but her physical strength and the incredible discipline that set her apart are downplayed almost to the point of disappearance.
I don’t think it’s a stretch, then, to say that’s part of the reason the show’s detractors are having a field day. Haven’t we had enough Julia? As Jaya Saxena asked on Eater, do we really need more of this white woman borne of tremendous privilege who, in the scheme of American culinary history, had more peers (and competitors) than are often acknowledged? And “When,” Saxena wonders, “does a person become a myth?” When, I would argue, we ignore or flatly contradict the historical evidence at hand, however incomplete it may be. Such mythologizing becomes especially thorny when we, as storytellers, don’t do audiences–be they on screens or in the pages of books– the courtesy of telling them they’re being hoodwinked, that what they’re seeing is the dress-up of Halloween rather than the correctives of Women’s History Month.
Critics point out the many dropped threads of allegedly interconnected plotlines, and the show’s unwillingness to push past hackneyed cliché.
This is not only unfair, it’s downright dangerous. Even if you don’t care about food or the history of publishing, you have, of course, been awake enough to hear, in recent years, how many desperate calls there are to dive back into the annals of history and do better with what we have. To work harder to look for, and tell the truth. Even when it’s a slog. Even when it’s contradictory. Even when it’s painful.
Judith’s story, like Julia’s, is far from agonizing. Their lives, in the scheme of things, were easy, buoyed along by whiteness, heterosexuality, and the safety-net of generational wealth. But as women trying to elbow their way into the professional world in the 1950s and 60s, they faced discrimination and paternalism, and lots of it.
Their serious attention to food as a site of culture, creativity, ingenuity, and, critically, sensual pleasure, was often written off as literature-lite, women’s stuff, pat-on-the-head fluff. Their work, in my mind, is all the more important and interesting because of its paradoxical convergences.
Aren’t Julia’s imaginative leaps harmless? Isn’t it all in good fun? Fun it may be, but harmless it is not. The show’s glaring inaccuracies do a great disservice not only to the characters—namely the women—whose actual lives and work are portrayed in the series, but serves to flatten an historical moment to the point where it is so palatable, so easy, that it slips down the throat, whole and unexamined, like a raw oyster.
Proof of a life in the historical archive is a privilege few have known across the span of history. So when we do have it available to us—in the instances of Judith and Julia’s lives, we’re talking literal rooms full of letters, manuscripts, photographs, and video footage—why ignore it?
There’s still plenty of subjectivity and interpretation that can grow on the trunk of historical fact once the research has been done, ample places where the record bears voids that can—that must—be speculated into. This is not only a possibility, it is a mandate, what lauded historian and cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation”; all archives are, at best, incomplete, but they still must be grappled with. Anyone looking back should be examining any and all evidence that’s available, and then is impelled to intelligently and feelingly imagine the rest.
All this is to say, myth and reality needn’t work against one another in the telling of history. We need both. But ignoring one for the other, in this 21st century, is unforgivable. To make subject matter of actual lives is no small thing, and the onus is on the narrators to be more careful, if for no other reason than so that audiences may care more. Especially in cases like this one, where the reality is as good, if not better, than the myth.