James Beard (1903-1985) was a key figure in the popularization of quality cooking in America in the post-World War II era. He was, according to chef and food writer John Birdsall, one of “three gay guys,” along with Richard Olney and Craig Claiborne, who “would become architects of modern food in America.” And in his New York Times analysis of Beard’s career following his death, Claiborne states:
“Mr. Beard, more than any other person, helped shape the change in American dining habits. He was an innovator, an experimenter, a missionary in bringing the gospel of good cooking to the home table.”
Beard was born in Portland, Oregon, and hoped to become an actor or opera singer. After being thrown out of Reed College, apparently for having an affair with a male professor, he went to Europe to study singing and then moved to New York where he had some minor roles on Broadway.
Beard got his start in the food world in the late 1930s when he co-founded Hors d’Oeuvre, Inc., a company that catered fancy cocktail parties. This resulted in Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés (1940), the first of his 22 books, which included, Cook It Outdoors (1941), probably the first cookbook focused on the American love of barbequing, The Fireside Cookbook (1949, 1982), The James Beard Cookbook (1959, and many later revisions, with Isabel E. Callvert), and James Beard’s American Cookery (1972). Although fluent in preparing the most elegant and complex European dishes, Beard was known as “the dean of American cookery” and had great respect for American foodways. Besides his books, Beard wrote thousands of cooking and lifestyle articles for mass-market magazines, hosted I Love to Eat (1946-47) on NBC, the first cooking show on television, was a spokesman for many food brands, including Birdseye and Pillsbury, and advised on the menus of restaurants, including The Four Seasons and Windows on the World. In 1955, he founded the James Beard Cooking School.
In 1943, Beard rented a small second-floor apartment with a tiny kitchen, in the rowhouse at 56 West 12th Street, the first of his three residences in Greenwich Village. In 1956, Beard met Gino Cofacci, an Italian architect, with whom he had relationship (often troubled) for the remainder of his life. In 1959, Beard purchased the rowhouse at 119 West 10th Street. The larger kitchen became home to his cooking school. In 1973, Beard moved to 167 West 12th Street, an 1844 brick house that had served as the headquarters of the Co-operative League of America from 1922 to 1945. The League hired prominent architects Robert Kohn and Clarence Stein to redesign the lower two floors of the façade. Beard’s kitchen, with many cooktops for his classes, was located on the first floor (former basement), his living area on the second floor, a separate apartment for Cofacci was on the third floor, and an apartment for his assistant Carl Jerome, was on the top floor. With advice from Portland decorator Jerry Lamb, Beard had his living room painted Chinese red, with his own portrait hung above the fireplace. He installed a mirrored ceiling in his bedroom alcove.
Beard was a huge man, over six feet tall, and weighing almost 300 pounds for much of his life. He had a completely bald head and was almost always seen nattily dressed, with a bowtie. Biographer Robert Clark summed up Beards life:
“For thirty years, James Beard was not only the apotheosis of food, but in many respects the exemplar of a good life of which food was the wellspring.”
Following Beard’s death, his colleagues, led by Julia Child, established the James Beard Foundation in this house, which still operates here.