Longtime editor Judith Jones died on August 2 at the age of 93. To say she had an eye for talent—and for what makes for a good book—is an understatement. After all, she did find The Diary of Anne Frank in a rejection pile and got it published in English for Doubleday (it had already been published in Dutch and French). In 1959, working for Knopf, Jones came across a French cookbook written for Americans by a first-time author named Julia Child. Houghton Mifflin had taken a pass on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but Jones sensed this could be big. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Much had already been written about Judith Jones before she died—a 2014 Q&A with Charlotte Druckman in the Wall Street Journal was particularly lovely. And there is now a flurry of obituaries by those who knew her well.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Judith Jones, but I did spend some time with a mutual acquaintance, Jacques Pépin. In 2012, I had lunch with the legendary French chef at a lobster shack in Madison, Conn. We covered an array of food-related subjects, and at some point we touched on Julie Powell’s book, Julie & Julia, and the movie starring Meryl Streep.
There is a scene in the book and the movie, in which Powell is preparing a momentous dinner for a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor and his guest, Judith Jones. Powell had embarked on her now famous quest to cook 524 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the span of 365 days. While gaining fame from her blog, Powell learned she would be hosting Child’s editor, Judith Jones, for a meal in her cramped Long Island City apartment.
Powell decided on the daunting Boeuf Bourguignon, "the classic dish of French cookery, the first dish Julia Child ever cooked on The French Chef," she writes in Julie & Julia.
I started my first Boeuf Bourguignon at about 9:30 on the night before the Dinner. I began by cutting up a thick piece of slab bacon into lardons. When my mom made this for Christmas Eve in 1984 in Austin, Texas, she used Oscar Mayer, she didn’t have any choice. But in 2004 New York, there’s no excuse—certainly not when the woman who discovered Julia Child is coming over. I simmered the lardons in water for ten minutes once they were chopped so they wouldn’t make "the whole dish taste like bacon." I personally didn’t see the problem with this, but I’m no Julia Child, and in a situation as fraught as this one it must be assumed that Julia’s opinion is the correct one.
The situation only got more fraught. She was up 'til four in the morning, called in sick from work, and slaved in the kitchen all that day. And then the phone rang.
It wasn’t even Judith who called. I’ve never spoken to Judith—and now it looks like I never will.
"I’m so sorry," moaned the journalist. He was distraught. "I know how much you were looking forward to this. She just doesn’t want to venture out to Queens in this weather."
Powell was crushed, but put on a brave face. "Well, she is ninety, after all, and it is sleeting. Maybe next time," she told the reporter, adding that "I didn’t even start wailing disconsolately until I was in the shower."
But over lobster rolls on the Connecticut shore, Pépin related a different story. "I was in Boston," he recalled. "Because when I teach in Boston, I used to pick up Julia, and we always cooked together, and for the students, too. And I remember, I don’t know, eight, ten years ago, she came, she said, ‘Do you know what a blog is?’ It was just starting. I said, ‘No idea, Julia.’ She said, ‘I have that woman, you know, who is doing a blog? She’s going to do all the recipes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Isn’t that a silly thing? I mean, how silly can that be?’ And then she said, ‘You know, she wants to take advantage of me, of my name, too, but she is not serious about cooking.’"
He then added: "But in the movie, remember there is a time where Judith Jones—she’s her editor—she’s supposed to meet that woman in Queens in her apartment. And she canceled it because of … rain and so forth, too. And I remember that Julia told me, ‘I don’t want you to do it.’ She told Judith Jones. Julia did not want to give credit to that woman. She thought that she was taking advantage of her."
On the other hand, Pépin loved how Meryl Streep portrayed his late friend Julia Child:
When I knew they were going to do that, I said you cannot do that without doing Julia’s voice. And if you do Julia’s voice, then it becomes a cliché right away, so it’s impossible. Well, Meryl Streep came, and five minutes later, I didn’t even know I was not looking at Julia. She looked taller than Julia. And I know Meryl Streep because we’ve done stuff together for the market, the Connecticut Farm Association. I was cohost with her for several years. And she is about the size of my wife. I mean, she’s not [tall]. She’s fantastic.
And so was Judith Jones—a fantastic editor and ever loyal to her writers.