The sky was still dark that morning in October, 1961, when a Frenchwoman named Simone “Simca” Beck and her American friend Julia Child headed over to the NBC studio sets in Midtown Manhattan, ready to make their television debut. They were to conduct a cooking demonstration for the Today show to promote Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), the 732-page tome both women had co-authored with the writer Louisette Bertholle. It had been released a few days before in America by the publishing house Knopf to rapturous reviews. Sales, though, could’ve been better. Appearing on Today, which pulled in around four million viewers a day back then, certainly couldn’t hurt.
Though the book had three authors, Bertholle’s involvement became minimal as the book neared publication, which is to say it was really a two-hander between Beck and Child. And it was Beck, in particular, who contributed the majority of the recipes to early versions of the book, many of them family heirlooms from her upbringing in Normandy. Child, meanwhile, gave the text its American soul, making the recipes legible to readers in the United States.
On this day, they had five minutes to make an omelette on a hot plate. They were terribly nervous. Neither woman even owned a television. “When the camera and the sweltering lights were at last upon me in the studio, I nearly froze with fear,” Beck wrote in her 1991 memoir, Food and Friends. She just barely pulled through.
Today, this clip of Beck and Child on Today has become somewhat hard to find, in spite of the fact that it’s so significant an historical artifact. It was, after all, the nation’s introduction to Child, who would seize the country’s imagination unlike any cooking personality had prior. Child called the experience “simply terrifying,” yet she was a natural compared to Beck. As the writer Bob Spitz observed in his Child biography Dearie, Beck’s “usual exemplary English sounded like French-accented Ukrainian,” and she ultimately “looked lost, diminished” on screen.
In the years that followed, the two women remained friends and worked together on a second Mastering the Art volume, yet their paths eventually forked. Child found television stardom with The French Chef, her cooking show that premiered on public television in 1963. Beck, then in her late 50s (and roughly eight years Child’s senior), gained the respect of America’s food establishment through cookbooks of her own, but never achieved the same public adoration Child generated. The press was always happy to point this out. “Julia Child is a household name,” the food writer Colman Andrews wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “Simone Beck isn’t—except perhaps in those rare households where the stove is more important than the television set.”
It doesn’t take a genius to understand how this imbalance came to be. Child, after all, was American, with a jolly persona that could lift the saddest of spirits. Beck, bound to tradition in both culinary and cultural terms, was resolutely French.
Yet Beck’s imprint on the way Americans think and talk about food is unmistakable. Both Beck and Child, as cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote months after Beck’s 1991 death, bore responsibility for “changing forever the way we think about eating.”
Contemporary chronicles of Child’s ascent—numerous biographies of her, for example—have tended to paint Beck as a bitter shrew resentful of Child’s high profile. If comparing the trajectories of Beck and Child seems tasteless—setting two women against one another is a sport of the patriarchy—consider that Child herself even found Beck’s lack of fame unjust. “I felt that she was such a colourful personality, and so knowledgeable about cooking, that had she been American rather than French she would be immensely well known,” Child wrote in her posthumously published autobiography My Life in France (2006).
Even in death, Beck has lingered as an object of pity in public memory, cast as the poor woman whom celebrity eluded. But maybe Beck didn’t want stardom at all.
She was born in 1904, baptized with a long name typical of French families in the era: Simone Suzanne Renée Madeleine. Growing up in Normandy in an upper-middle class Catholic family, she knew English before French. Though Beck’s mother kept black notebooks full of recipes, her family could afford to hire a fully-staffed kitchen. Beck came of age at the side of her family’s cook, Zulma. She hung around the stove so often that its steam made her hair curl, made her cheeks turn ruddy.
Cooking was a profession considered beneath a girl of Beck’s breeding, so that was out of the question—at least at first. Her parents told her to settle down with a man, so she followed the rules, reluctantly wedding a family friend named Jacques Jarlaud in June 1923. She was just eighteen. A short man, Jarlaud was the “unprepossessing equivalent of a frog,” Beck wrote in her memoir, she “some wide-eyed fairy-tale princess.” On her wedding night, Beck realized they had no physical chemistry. Years later, they would learn he was sterile, turning their marriage platonic.
Beck led a superficial life for that decade with Jarlaud, spending her days playing bridge and grabbing lunch with friends. It took catastrophe for her to snap out of this stupor. She survived a brutal car crash in 1928, after which she “wanted something more regarding than the life of a young housewife, which was beginning to pall,” as she wrote in her memoir. So she threw herself into an unlikely profession: bookbinding. This wasn’t thrilling work, but she ended up doing it for four years, steeping herself in the art of perfectionism.
What she really wanted to do, though, was cook. Her father’s death from leukemia in the early 1930s made Beck ditch her husband and chase her culinary dreams. In late 1933, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. She only stayed there for six months, deciding that taking private lessons from one of the school’s founders, Henri-Paul Pellaprat, would be a better use of her time. Under his tutelage for two years, she learned how to make salmon-stuffed rolled sole fillets, soufflé with Bénédictine, young duck with turnips and gumdrop-shaped green olives.
In the autumn of 1936, just around the time the ink dried on Beck’s divorce from Jarlaud, a man named Jean Fischbacher came into her life. Two years her junior, he worked at a perfume and cleaning product company, and Beck found him utterly charming. He christened her with the nickname “Simca,” after the small Renault car she drove. Their courtship was the first time that Beck felt something close to euphoria, an emotion her life had previously denied her. She’d only seen this happen in movies, just read about it in books.
The two wed in April 1937, and food became a vital part of the life they built together. They socialized by having friends over for dinner, where Beck would make guests fish pâté in a pastry crust, serving it with Hollandaise sauce. Fischbacher taught her to have confidence in her abilities. With his encouragement, she began to shed the traumas of her previous loveless marriage, finding liberation in the kitchen.
The chaos of World War II would intensify her ardour for food, which became a rare commodity. Fischbacher served in the army as a second lieutenant, stationed at the Eastern Front before the Germans took him captive. Back in Normandy, Beck would “carry on my own war,” she would later write, “dreaming up ways to send food to Jean.” She would pilfer Bénédictine from her family’s factory and trade it for butter, ham, and pâté that she would dispatch to Fischbacher.
After Fischbacher’s release and the war’s end in 1945, Beck turned cooking into her identity. On her husband’s recommendation, she joined a high-class women’s gastronomic club called Le Cercle des Gourmettes in Paris. She found her footing in this exclusive circle quite quickly, hitting it off with one member in particular: Louisette Bertholle. Beck learned that Bertholle had been thinking about writing a cookbook for Americans all about French cooking. Beck’s husband convinced her to assist on that project.
She didn’t hesitate. Beck taught herself how to type, and, over the next few years, worked tirelessly to breathe life into the book. She scoured her mother’s black recipe notebooks; she scanned her mind for recollections of Zulma’s cooking. Along the way, she and Bertholle produced a tiny recipe book called What’s Cooking in France, published by Putnam in America in 1952 to little fanfare; on her own, Beck also produced a small pamphlet devoted to prunes and prune liqueurs. These endeavors were just distractions, however, from the mammoth opus that consumed Beck’s energy.
In 1950, when she was in her mid-forties, Beck submitted a book of a hundred-plus recipes to a family friend of hers, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Fisher was a famed author herself and a member of the editorial board of the Book of the Month club, a prominent subscription service in the United States. After months, Beck received a terse reply. “This is just a dry bunch of recipes, with not much background on French food attitudes and ways of doing things,” Fisher wrote. Fisher advised that the book would be better served with stories alongside those recipes.
Beck’s husband told her not to be dismayed. Maybe she could find a collaborator other than Bertholle, a companion who knew French idiosyncrasies and the American way of viewing the world. It was a sharp suggestion, Beck realized. And she knew someone who fit the bill.
Beck had met Julia Child at a party in early 1949. Born and raised in California, Child had worked at the Office of Strategic Services during the war, but she grew to love cooking after moving to Paris with her husband, Paul. When she and Beck met, Child was a student at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, yet she was upset with the lack of zeal among her classmates, most of whom were American World War II veterans. She yearned for a friend who cherished food like she did.
“It was an immediate take,” Child would later write of her introduction to Beck. Child saw Beck as “good-looking and dashing in a most attractive and debonair way, full of vigor, humor, and warmth.” Beck, in turn, was struck by “this handsome, curly-headed woman” who stood over six feet tall. The two started plotting their partnership.
Along with Bertholle, they began teaching cooking classes out of Child’s apartment, finding groups of Americans who were eager to grasp the fundamentals of French cuisine. The trio began calling their organization L’école des Trois Gourmandes, or “the school of three hearty eaters.” Teaching came easily to Child, yet Beck found the job unusually strenuous. Language was a particular obstacle. Though she knew English well, her manner of speech was decidedly British, her French accent foreign to American ears.
In spite of such differences in ability, Beck and Child remained close, and Beck soon involved Child in the book project. When Beck showed Child her budding manuscript, Child found the directions lacking in clarity. So she gave it a makeover. By 1957, when the Childs found themselves back in America due to work, the book had swelled to nearly 900 pages. Child suggested they present the book to Houghton Mifflin, located in Boston. This required Beck to visit America for the first time in her life.
Then 54, Beck went to New York that following January, finding Americans “casual, generous, and outgoing,” so far unlike herself. When she and Child traveled to Boston for their meeting, however, they were disappointed to hear that the publisher’s editors wouldn’t even make time to see them, so they left the manuscript with a clerk. Six weeks later, Houghton Mifflin wrote Child to tell her that the book was unpublishable, too academic to resonate with readers.
Beck, having faced such rejection before, wasn’t deterred. After three months in America, she returned to France and got to work, trading letters with Child until they completed another draft at the end of 1959. After countless queries, it landed on the desk of Judith Jones, an editor at the publishing house Knopf. Jones promised to publish the book in 1961. Jones titled it Mastering the Art of French Cooking, its three authors credited in alphabetical order, with Beck’s name first.
The book was a slow burn with the American public, though the press recognized it as a groundbreaking work quite quickly. Craig Claiborne, the renowned food editor of the New York Times, thought its thousand-plus recipes, whether for quiche Lorraine or cassoulet, were “written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are.” The book emerged in an era when Americans were becoming hip to French cooking; over in the White House, the Kennedys had the French-born René Verdon as their chef.
Promoting the book required Beck to return to America to tour the country with Child, back when the very concept of a tour for a cookbook struck many as outlandish. They rubbed elbows with luminaries of the era—the British cooking teacher Dione Lucas, the pre-eminent food personality James Beard—while giving department store demonstrations in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. It was during this time, too, that both women made their Today show appearance. Their labour paid off. Sales skyrocketed. Knopf ordered a second printing of 10,000.
Though Beck didn’t know it yet, Child’s brief taste of small screen glory would grow into a full-fledged hunger. By the time she and her husband had relocated to Cambridge , Child told Beck that she wanted to do a television show, thinking it would be a prudent way of getting word out about the book. In 1962, Child would make an omelette with mushrooms on a segment of an educational show broadcast on the public television station WGBH. Audiences responded to Child so emphatically that WGBH decided to give her a cooking show of her own. The cooking show was not exactly a new genre—both Lucas and Beard, for example, had their own in the 1940s—but it had yet to soar, lacking a figure who could fuse education with entertainment. With The French Chef, which began airing on WGBH in February 1963, Child offered just that. Viewers fell for the disarming lady who cleaned a pig’s ears and teeth with a toothbrush.
Beck would later laud Child as “a natural film star”; she took to the camera like a moth to a porchlight. But Child began to wonder if her friend was suppressing some deeper sadness. On a late 1963 visit to Beck in France, Child vigorously dodged any mention of her show around Beck, writing that she “didn’t want her to feel overshadowed.” According to her memoir, Beck didn’t seem to mind that great acclaim followed for Child. Child landing on the cover of Time magazine in 1965 boosted sales so much that the two women started toiling away together on a follow-up to Mastering the Art (sans Bertholle, who was busy with a book of her own). To make the writing easier, Beck and her husband even built the Childs a house not far from them in Provence where the American couple could live part-time.
If the first cookbook had more of Beck’s stamp, Child took charge this go-around. Beck, then in her mid-sixties, found herself battling arthrosis. Plus, Child “gained confidence and authority, especially as she was the one living in America,” as Beck observed in her memoir. Once the cookbook appeared in 1970, Beck returned to America to publicize it. Child was the star of the proceedings, with Beck lucky to get any promotion. Any solo publicity Beck did grab framed her in terms relative to Child, with a Times headline declaring her “Simone Beck: The Cookbook Author Without a Show on TV.”
People in Child and Beck’s orbit took note of friction between the two. “It became clear to me, in working so closely with Julia, that her relationship with Simca was growing more and more strained,” their editor Jones wrote in her 2009 memoir, The Tenth Muse. The two women “were like sisters who had long nourished each other but were ready now to go their separate ways.”
Jones seemed more than happy to assist Beck in finding a new direction, telling her to write a book of her own based on a few recipes that had ended up on the cutting room floor. Beck heard similar clamours from fans she’d met on her book tour. So she began to write Simca’s Cuisine, a book co-authored with the American journalist Patricia Simon.
The process was challenging. Jones, in her memoir, chides Beck’s supposed arrogance, saying she seemed allergic to constructive criticism. But she couldn’t deny Beck’s great instincts as a cook. Her recipes—for rolled soufflé filled with crab, eggplant quiche, and frozen caramel mousse—were from Normandy, from Alsace, from Provence. She included ingenious tips like how to cut onions without crying, telling cooks to “take a wooden kitchen match, light it, blow it out, and hold it between your teeth while slicing the onions.”
Upon the book’s publication in 1972, Beck was quite proud. Vogue called it “simply and brilliantly done,” while the New York Times surmised it “is likely to be the last of the great personal cookbooks to come out of France.” In the Los Angeles Times, Jeanne Voltz noted that Child had “overshadowed” Beck while hinting at rumours of a “rift” between the two women, but that it didn’t matter, concluding that “this is a Frenchwoman’s gift of good home cooking to America’s venturesome cooks and eaters.”
In spite of what registered to the public as obvious tension with Child, Beck came to terms with the fact that Mastering had served its purpose, allowing both her and Child to pursue their own passions. She could finally write—and live—as she wanted to.
Beck spent the 1970s, a time when she was nearing her seventies, teaching and travelling. In 1976, she began a cooking school in Provence. But she also made time to jet around the world, conducting cooking demonstrations in Napa Valley and Venice.
Though Beck had intended her 1972 cookbook to be her last, these journeys inspired her to write New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine, published in 1979. Co-authored with her American assistant Michael James, the book relied on ingredients common to America. Beck folded macadamia nuts into cakes, ice creams, and blue cheese balls; she trapped avocados in aspic with tarragon and port. In spite of its American orientation, the book didn’t garner the same stateside reception as Simca’s Cuisine. The Chicago Tribune frowned that the “book falls short of Beck’s previous works” due to recipes that became bungled in translation.
She juggled her career commitments against twin tragedies in her personal life: the death of a brother, her husband’s stroke. Her husband would later die of cirrhosis in 1986, the same year that America’s International Association of Cooking Professionals honored Beck with a gala reception. Though Beck welcomed such recognition from America’s food establishment, her partner’s death devastated her, and she struggled to find reasons to live in his absence.
Her life’s final great project routed her away from her grief: Food and Friends, a memoir and cookbook co-written with the American journalist Suzy Patterson. Per Patterson’s recollection, it wasn’t an easy working relationship. “The fun/torture of it for me was writing it,” Patterson wrote in the Montreal Gazette. The trouble may have been worth it. The engaging book was split into two halves, the first weaving between memoir and recipes, the second dedicated to a mix of French and international recipes like Italian-style green gnocchi, nasi goreng, and Brazilian mocha ice cream. The press reacted well to Beck’s swan song, with the Times saying that reading it was “like listening to your mother tell those entrancing stories of when she was a little girl.”
It was Beck’s old friend Child who had persuaded Patterson to write the book with her. Though the two women saw each other less often as Beck approached old age, their bond remained. “You’ve got to do this,” Child reportedly told Patterson. “Simca’s life story is fascinating and should be told.
Beck died mere months after the book’s publication, succumbing to heart problems in December 1991, when she was eighty-seven. “The doctor said that because she wouldn’t eat, she died,” a cousin of hers explained to the Times. It was a cruel and poetic stroke of fate: Beck died because she lost her appetite.
Her demise provoked widespread sorrow within the food establishment, with famed cooking teacher Peter Kump calling her “one of the most talented architects of the new gastronomic movement” in a Chicago Tribune piece. Child seemed especially crestfallen. “She was the first person who was interested in food the way I was—as a profession, a life-consuming passion,” Child told a journalist. “She felt as I did.”
But in the years that followed, the historical record became unkind to Beck, all while Child’s prestige only grew. There were reports of the nicknames: Child’s husband Paul reportedly groaned of “Sigh-Moan,” commenting that she had a voice that could “be heard in Montevideo.” Judith Jones didn’t mince words when she referred to Beck as “condescending and difficult” in her memoir. Even the reappraisals have a tinge of viciousness: “No matter how refined her palate, her haughty, untelegenic French demeanor never won over the American public,” the writer Christine Muhlke observed in a 2006 T magazine piece.
That’s not to say that saintly overcorrection is necessary in Beck’s case. In his 2017 book The Gourmands’ Way, the writer Justin Spring revealed how Beck’s hauteur could morph into ugly intolerance. “You’ll never find a communist in my house,” she told one reporter. She then continued: “The barbecue, where everyone joins together and has a good time, that has nothing to do with France. The melting pot works in the United States but not in this country.” Herein lies a reminder that Beck’s very way of perceiving the world was uncompromisingly, distinctly French.
To be fair, many reputable figures have similar skeletons in their closet—in her 2007 biography Julia Child: A Life, the scholar Laura Shapiro unearthed evidence of Child’s homophobic attitudes, ugly sentiments that reportedly mellowed during the AIDS crisis. But Child’s well-documented prejudices have not prevented history from revering her. In the years following Child’s death, Nora Ephron would direct Julie & Julia, cementing her legend. The cultural fascination with Child is ongoing: A book of Child’s quotes appeared last year and documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West directed Julia, released this past fall. An eight-episode dramatic scripted series, Julia, is currently in production from HBO Max, with Isabella Rossellini cast in the role of Beck.
Beck hasn’t inspired such a cottage industry, but perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted it. Near the end of her life, Beck made peace with the fact that stardom wasn’t for her, a reality that does not negate her contributions to American food culture. “I have always felt that my professional success was largely due to America and its cooks,” she wrote in her memoir. “My friends over there wonder why I’ve never been known as a cooking star in France.” She had some guesses as to why. In France, cooking television wasn’t the expansive genre that it was in America. Cooking there was a serious art, not a form of entertainment.
“We have rock stars and movie stars, sports stars and even chef stars,” Beck wrote. “But cookbook writers and teachers?” Beck found gratification in the work itself. She had recipes to write, students to teach, and she saw little use in becoming a household name. To cook in pursuit of fame? Why, there was nothing more American.