By Thane Peterson
I didn't really know Julia Child, but I felt deep sadness nonetheless on Aug. 13 when I read a news alert that she had died in her sleep the night before, a few days short of her 92nd birthday. I only talked to her once -- by phone, for all of 25 minutes -- and then had a few e-mail exchanges with her. But she remains one of the most memorable personalities I've ever interviewed, and I've interviewed thousands of people over the years.
She was 88 when we spoke, but she was still tough, almost provocative, in her manner. After answering a question, she repeatedly asked me, "What do you think about it?" -- as if to say, "This is a conversation, and you need to hold up your end if you want to keep asking me questions." But she ended the interview with a kindness that was typical of her. I had mentioned that my mother was a great admirer of hers, so before ringing off Child admonished, "Now be sure to give your mother my regards." (Mom was thrilled.)
Despite her fame, Child remained remarkably open, almost innocent. What other celebrity would give a reporter her personal e-mail and then respond to queries months later? Once I even asked her if she happened to know a photo collector I was trying to track down who supposedly lived in Santa Barbara, where she spent her last years. She didn't, but offered "to make some inquiries" if it would be of help to me.
Another time -- in all sincerity, as far as I could tell -- she invited me to drop by and pay her a visit if I was ever out her way. I'll always regret not having taken her up on the offer.
This last invitation came about as a result of an e-mail exchange that says a lot about the woman and the prickly sense of independence she retained until the end of her days. I had read that she was planning to live full time in California (before, she spent half the year in Boston). But in my note wishing her well, I made the mistake of referring to her new digs as an "assisted living facility."
I immediately got back a testy message noting that this was wrong and that she would be living in her own place, with her own kitchen, and her own fruit trees off the back patio. I should have known better than to connect the name "Julia Child" with the words "assisted living." This was a woman who never needed any assistance in living life to the very fullest.
For more of Child's own words, here's the interview I did with her just before Thanksgiving, 2000. I think it gives a good feel for the vital personality the world has lost with her passing.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column, only on BusinessWeek Online