Perched on the railing of a veranda in Kunming, China, Julia McWilliams was aware only of the uniformed man beside her, reading the poem he wrote for her thirty-third birthday. She stretched her very long legs out in front of her, crossing them at her ankles, so Paul Child could see what he would later call "my beloved Julia's magnificent gams." She barely noticed the formal gardens beyond the porch or the miles of rice paddies stretching toward Kunming Lake. Nor did her gaze settle on the mist-shrouded Shangri-La of temples carved into the rock of West Mountain. It was his voice that captured her, each word he read a note weaving a melody through her heart: "The summer's heat of your embrace . . . melts my frozen earth."
The cotton dress clung to her slim, six-feet-two-inch body. Here she was in China, a privileged girl, seeking adventure, even danger, in the civilian opportunities of World War II, and she had found it, not in the Registry of the Office of Strategic Services, nor in the backwoods refugee city of Kunming at the end of the Burma Road, but in the urbane, sophisticated, multilingual presence of forty-three-year-old Paul Child. They talked all evening, his intellect challenging her, his experienced touch awakening her. In the last China outpost of Lord Mountbatten's command, surrounded at sea by Japanese forces, warplanes droning in the distance, Julia McWilliams felt alive.
How like autumn's warmth is Julia's face,
So filled with nature's bounty, nature's world. . . .
The cadence of his voice, reciting his sonnet "To Julia," intensified the air of anticipation between them, dimming for the first time the news they had received that week of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia was invading Manchuria to the north. Just hours earlier they had heard of Japan's surrender and knew the world was changing for everyone, not just themselves.
I cast this heaped abundance at your feet:
An offering to summer and her heat.
Paul drove Julia by jeep to a mountain retreat for a weekend, where they talked of meeting each other's families: he had a twin brother, whose family lived in Pennsylvania, she two siblings and a father in California. The differences in their height (he was a mere five feet ten and three-quarters inches), age, education, cultural and political backgrounds, and values seemed less severe in this foreign territory where the future was so uncertain. He called theirs a "sweet friendship" in his sonnet, but she wanted much more from this wartime embrace in a strange land. When he read aloud "the awakening fields abound / With newly green effulgence," he could have been talking about her.
They had met just the year before in a tea planter's veranda in Ceylon, when he was courting several women and seemed far beyond her reach in knowledge and experience. He had the worldly-wise caution of a man who had supported himself since he was a child, sailing the high seas, working at physically demanding jobs, and educating himself in the classics, art, and music. Despite her degree from Smith College, the gangly girl from the West seemed to have little in common with this cosmopolitan ladies' man. "I was a hungry hayseed from California," she would declare half a century later:
There were a lot of women around and he was ten years older than I. Very sophisticated. He had lived in France and I'd only been to Tijuana! So I found him very impressive, you see. And he was also an intellectual. I was a kind of Southern California butterfly, a golf player and tennis person who acted in Junior League plays.
She was indeed a party girl, a child of well-to-do parents, who had never had to work. Though she occasionally held jobs in New York City and Los Angeles, marriage was the usual goal of her generation. Had the war not come, she said, she "might have become an alcoholic" amid the society life of Pasadena. Julia stood out in any crowd, not just because of her height, but because she was strikingly beautiful in a wholesome way. She was also like a magnum of champagne, the effusive life of the party, even, as far as Paul was concerned, occasionally "hysterical." But as he learned more of this woman, he saw the depth of her character, and her joy lifted him from his isolation and reserve. Thirty-five years after their wedding, he told a Boston newspaper, "Without Julia, I think I'd be a sour old bastard living off in a cave."
Chinese food brought them together, at least talk of food did. He thought she could cook, but in fact she had a keen interest in food largely because she was always hungry. They loved the Peking-cuisine restaurants in this refugee city where the first cookbook was written around 3000 B.C. and the "earliest restaurant" opened during the T'ang Dynasty. They drove out with OSS friends whose parents were missionaries here and who knew the language and food, and they feasted on the many regional Chinese cuisines. Paul also spoke to Julia about the food of France, which he had enjoyed in the 1920s. Fluent in French, he talked with such a distinct inflection he seemed British to Julia. He would have been seen as effete in her native Pasadena.
Paul was unlike the Western boys she hung around with in her large circle of friends in Southern California, unlike any of the men her friends married. In hearing about his life, she soon realized he had no religion, few family connections, and held the business world in disdain. He was an artist and raconteur, a black belt in jujitsu, who could mesmerize colleagues with his stories. He represented a world she ached to know, an intellectual and European world, typical of the OSS personnel (such as anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Cora DuBois) whom she had come to admire during the past year in India and China. When she described her Presbyterian-raised father, a man of business and prominent in the civic affairs of Pasadena, Paul realized how dissimilar she was to any woman he had ever loved, for they all, including a woman he had lived with for many years, were petite, dark, and sophisticated in dress and manner. In contrast, Paul found Julia youthful, but "tough-fibered" and "natural."
"It wasn't like lightning striking the barn on fire," Paul said of their meeting in India. "I just began to think, my God, this is a hell of a nice woman, sturdy, and funny withal. And responsible! I was filled with admiration for this classy dame." If love grew slowly with him, for her it was the coup de foudre,
and she made immediate plans to learn to cook for him. Like her paternal grandfather, John McWilliams, who left all he knew to follow the Gold Rush in 1849, she was ready to consider a break with her past.
Excerpted from Appetite for Life by Noel Riley Fitch. Copyright © 1997 by NOEL RILEY FITCH. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.