A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS

  • By Jennet Conant
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 416 pp.

An insightful look into the surprising origins of America’s first celebrity chef.

Paul Child was a 41-year-old bachelor artist when the Office of Strategic Services sent him to Ceylon in 1944 to build a map room for Lord Mountbatten’s war operations in Southeast Asia. Amid the tropical lushness Paul brooded over his loneliness. In long — and remarkably frank — letters to his twin brother, Charles, he confessed his despair at not being able to find the woman of his dreams. Someone intelligent, sympathetic and sophisticated, who appreciated the finer things in life. Someone who was his equal.

Every crop of incoming OSS and military gals raised his hopes. Paul’s austere looks and prickly personality made it hard for him to compete with other men in the camp, Jennet Conant writes in A Covert Affair, but one woman seemed a promising match: Jane Foster, a smart and sexy blond OSS officer from a wealthy San Francisco family. Her wide-ranging adventures and flair for the dramatic made her the life of any party. She also shared Paul’s artistic interests and offbeat sense of humor. They became good friends — but never lovers, as it turned out. Though Paul found her captivating, she proved too “gay and irresponsible” for his tidy life.

Their colleague Julia McWilliams, who handled all classified documents as head of the OSS’s Registry, developed a crush on Paul. He epitomized the worldliness she aspired to, as someone who had dropped out of college, tramped around the world on freighters, lived in Italy and France, dabbled in art and photography, picked up several languages and developed a taste for fine cuisine.

A graduate of Smith College, Julia yearned to make something of her life. After a series of unfulfilling jobs she was still drifting when the war broke out. Rejected by the WACs and WAVEs as too tall, at 6-foot-2, she went to work instead as a research assistant at the Washington headquarters of the OSS, under “Wild Bill” Donovan. When the agency began sending employees overseas, Julia was quick to volunteer — partly out of patriotism, partly in a desperate bid to escape the cloistered world of southern California where she’d grown up in a house with servants and a cook.

“Julie,” as Paul called her, was bright, competent and well liked. But she seemed unusually naïve for a woman in her early 30s. On outings into the countryside of Ceylon, and later China, her cheerfulness and gutsy nature made her a great companion, Paul told his brother. But tutoring the “grown-up little girl” in the ways of the world “would be too much for Dr. Paulski to risk attempting.” She was, he added, “trying to be brave about being an old maid.”

Excerpts from the personal letters of Paul and Julia are the most engrossing part of this dense but highly readable book. In one chapter we follow their intense correspondence back home after the war, fed by mutual feelings of dislocation. To deflect the hurt of Paul’s indifference, Julia offers upbeat accounts of her life partying with friends. In one letter she reports finally dumping Harry Chandler, the rich boy-next-door and heir to the Time Mirror fortune, “who has been sucking around for years with $2 million and a thick head.” Eager to impress, she describes her rigorous program of self-improvement: learning to cook, following current events, reading books Paul recommended (Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer she declares “too much of a stiff-prick forest”). From their own words we get a more intimate look at their emotional bond than in Julia’s My Life in France, and a richer account of Julia’s coming of age than in Noël Riley Fitch’s Biography of Julia Child.

Readers coming to A Covert Affair mostly for a sweet love story, however, may be disappointed. There’s a whole lot more going on, and despite the teaser of a subtitle, Paul and Julia disappear for long stretches.

The real main character is their friend and former OSS colleague Jane Foster. Much of the story is told from her perspective, and the book draws its narrative tension from lingering questions of whether Jane was involved in Soviet espionage. The post-war world of the happily wed Childs is shattered when Paul — with his nonconformist attitude and past ties to Jane — is swept into the Kafkaesque nightmare of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red hunt.

Conant’s research is thorough. In this book, her fourth, she drew on thousands of pages of recently declassified OSS files, the huge archive of Julia and Paul Child’s papers, many personal memoirs and scores of interviews. Some of the material echoes adventures and personalities documented by Elizabeth McIntosh in Sisterhood of Spies.

Impressively, Conant manages to make the various storylines of this sprawling book coherent and engaging despite the galloping narrative style and thick layering of details. Even where the story digresses it proves interesting because of the many personal anecdotes that capture the drama and excitement of what it was like being part of early cloak-and-dagger operations. In one scene, we share tight quarters with Julia and her female OSS companions as they sail to Ceylon on a ship carrying 3,000 GIs. “Julia launched a rumor that we were missionaries,” which helped curb the whistles and wolf calls, one of the women recalled.

The portrait of Paul and Julia at the start of their life together provides the emotional heart of the book. When Julia later found her calling as a cookbook author and chef, Paul devoted himself to boosting her career; she regarded his support and counsel as critical to her success. From their improbable pairing grew a marriage that lasted 47 years.

Diana Pabst Parsell, the Independent’s senior editor, has written for a wide range of publications. She is now working on a book about 19th-century travel writer Eliza Scidmore and the origin of Washington’s cherry trees.

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