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The making of the cultural phenomenon that was Julia Child had three key ingredients: a man, a meal, and a TV camera. Five years after Child’s death, as Meryl Streep plays the woman who revolutionized America’s relationship with food, cinema audiences learned more about the wartime romance between Julia and her husband Paul, the television appearance that turned her into “The French Chef” – and her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” into a kitchen bible.
Born Julia McWilliams, on August 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California. The eldest of three children, Julia was educated at San Francisco’s elite Katherine Branson School for Girls, where – at a towering height of 6 feet, 2 inches – she was the tallest student in her class. Upon her graduation from Smith College in 1930, she moved to New York, where she worked in the advertising department of the prestigious home furnishings company W&J Sloane. In 1941, at the onset of World War II, Julia moved to Washington, D.C., where she volunteered as a research assistant for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a newly formed government intelligence agency. She and her colleagues were sent on assignment to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), an island off the coast of India. In her position, Julia played a key role in the communication of top secret documents between U.S. government officials and their intelligence officers. In 1945, she was sent to China, where she began a relationship with fellow OSS employee Paul Child. Following the end of World War II, the couple returned to America and were married. In 1948, when Paul was reassigned to the U.S. Information Service at the American Embassy in Paris, the Childs moved to France. While there, Julia developed a penchant for French cuisine and attended the world-famous Cordon Bleu cooking school.
Following her six-month training – which included private lessons with master chef Max Bugnard – Julia banded with fellow Cordon Bleu students Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to form the cooking school L’Ecole de Trois Gourmandes. With a goal of adapting sophisticated French cuisine for mainstream Americans, the trio collaborated on a two-volume cookbook titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Published in the U.S., the 800-page book was considered a groundbreaking work and has since become a standard guide for the culinary community. Then living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Julia promoted her book on the Boston public broadcasting station. Displaying her trademark forthright manner and hearty humor, she prepared an omelet on air. The public’s response was so enthusiastic that she was invited back to tape her own series on cookery for the network. Premiering on WGBH in 1962, The French Chef TV series, like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, succeeded in changing the way Americans related to food, while also establishing Julia as a local celebrity. Shortly thereafter, The French Chef was syndicated to 96 stations throughout America. For her efforts, Julia received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in 1964 followed by an Emmy Award in 1966.
Julia Child with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle cooking fish at L’école des Trois Gourmandes (courtesy The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts). A production still from her famed television show “The French Chef”. With husband Paul in their kitchen of their home in Cambridge in 1966. Child donated her kitchen to the National Museum of American History in 2001.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Julia made regular appearances on the ABC morning show Good Morning, America. Her other endeavors included the television programs Julia Child and Company (1978), Julia Child and More Company (1980), and Dinner at Julia’s (1983), as well as a slew of bestselling cookbooks that covered every aspect of culinary knowledge. In 1993, Julia was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame. Her most recent cookbooks were In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs (1995), Julia’s Delicious Little Dinners (1998), and Julia’s Casual Dinners (1999), which were all accompanied by highly rated television specials. In November 2000, following a 40-year career that has made her name synonymous with fine food, Julia received France’s highest honor: the Legion d’Honneur. And in August 2002, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unveiled an exhibit featuring the kitchen where she filmed three of her popular cooking shows. Child died in August 2004 of kidney failure at her assisted-living home in Montecito, two days before her 92nd birthday. After her death Child’s last book, the autobiographyMy Life in France, was published with the help of Child’s great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. The book, which centered on how Child discovered her true calling, became a best seller.
Meryl Streep talked about Julia Child in length while promoting “Julie & Julia” in 2009. “When you talk about passion, Julia Child just didn’t have it for her husband or cooking; she had a passion for living. What was compelling about her was her joie de vivre and her unwillingness to be bogged down in negativity. She loved being alive and that’s inspirational in itself. I saw her cooking shows when I was a kid. She was a pioneer because she was one of the first women on television who wasn’t an entertainer and she was already 50 years old, with her personality indelibly created by her own life experience. There was no focus group telling her how to dress and look, and her generous nature was what drew people to her. Julia’s personality was so much like my mother’s that I felt very familiar with it. My mother had an undeniable sense of how to enjoy her life, and she made every room she walked into brighter. She really was something, and all my life I wanted to be more like my mother. So this is my little tribute to that spirit. Unfortunately, in my own life I can be a real whiner. The cookbook my mother used was Peg Bracken’s I Hate To Cook. I remember when I was 10 going over to a friend’s house and she and her mom were seated at the kitchen table and they were doing something with what looked liked tennis balls, these big white things. They said, ‘We’re making mashed potatoes.’ I went, ‘What do you mean? Mashed potatoes come in a box.’ I’d never seen a peeled potato. My mother’s motto was, ‘If it’s not done in 20 minutes, it’s not dinner.’ She had a lot of things that she wanted to do and cooking was not one of them.”
Here’s a list of Julia Child’s many books. A link on the title will forward you to Amazon. Most of the books are still available and can be ordered.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two (1970) with Simone Beck
The French Chef Cookbook (1968)
From Julia Child’s Kitchen (1975)
Julia Child & Company (1978)
Julia Child & More Company (1979)
The Way To Cook (1989)
Julia Child’s Menu Cookbook (1991), one-volume edition
Cooking With Master Chefs (1993)
In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs (1995)
Baking with Julia (1996)
Julia’s Delicious Little Dinners (1998)
Julia’s Menus For Special Occasions (1998)
Julia’s Breakfasts, Lunches & Suppers (1999)
Julia’s Casual Dinners (1999)
Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (1999)
Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom (2000)
My Life in France (2006, posthumous), with Alex Prud’Homme