Who doesn’t have fond memories of watching Julie Child on public television? She just made you smile! From her towering 6′ 2″ height to her unique honking voice, Julia Child was one-of-a-kind.
Nowadays one tends to forget just how much she changed the culinary world. In the 1950s, everything was about the future: prefab food, plastics, polyester. In the 1954 movie Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart bounces on a sheet of plastic while extolling its virtues. “Here. Look at this stuff.” he says. “You’ll fly in a plane made of it. You’ll wear a suit made of it and before we’re through with it, you’ll probably be able to eat it.”
Julia Child changed all that. In the midst of canned soups and frozen TV dinners, she made French haute cuisine available to the home cook through her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As the American face of Mastering one tends to forget that Julia had two co-authors, Frenchwomen Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle.
Although she never actually uses the word “narcissist” regarding Simca in her autobiography, yet second-hand we get the distinct impression that Julia Child’s co-author was a bona fide narcissist. But is that fair? We’ve already explored how narcissists write in their own books, but is it possible to armchair diagnose narcissism second-hand through the pages of someone else’s book? It’s a fascinating exercise.
It came as a surprise to me that, despite the French Revolution, twentieth century France had a very definite class system. The word “castes” almost comes to mind. Simca was born into an upper class wealthy family that made their fortune manufacturing Benedictine liqueur.
Julia’s nephew Alex writes that “Simca could be warm and charming one minute but cold and harshly critical the next.” Sounds narcissistic to me. Her aristocratic upbringing and great emphasis on impeccable manners and knowledge of wines and other niceties may be merely “cosmetic,” but there are three incidents related by Julia Child that, to me, scream “narcissist!”
When Julia Child’s first television show, The French Chef, became a massive success in the 1960s she writes, “I never really discussed the show’s success with Simca: it didn’t seem important, and I didn’t want her to feel over-shadowed.” Now while that may seem kind, it betrays that Simca had to be The Big Cheese. Julia knew her celebrity status would have embittered a jealous Simca.
Another narcissistic episode occurred when a writer from McCall’s traveled all the way to France to photograph Simca and Julia cooking together. On the morning of the photoshoot, Simca called to say she had other plans. Voila…just like that she ditched Julia and McCall’s to go to Paris!
Paul Child exploded but Julia “knew from long experience that confronting Simca over this matter would only make her swell up with indignation and wounded pride…the most important thing to do was to maintain my good relations with Simca. And the best way to do that was to let her go off to Paris without direct confrontation.” If that isn’t a clue into Simca’s narcissism, I don’t know what is!
The last clue (and also the last straw) was a letter Simca sent, criticizing Julia as a cook and as an American. “For years I had brushed off Simca’s slights and insults, but now I was sick of it,” Julia writes. After a decade of collaboration and abuse Julia finally had enough, throwing Simca’s letter on the floor and stomping on it!
While they remained lifelong friends, the working relationship was gone forever, destroyed by narcissism. Simca went on to publish several more books but none of them enjoyed the success of Mastering because her narcissism had alienated the best thing she had going for her: Julia Child.
I often say, “Scratch any dramatic movie or book and you’ll find a narcissist providing the drama.” That still holds true. Simone “Simca” Beck may’ve been a first class cook, but unfortunately she was also a first class narcissist.
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Author: Lenora Thompson