The “immensely tall, exceptionally lively” Julie McWilliams – daughter of a wealthy Californian land manager – was in her early 30s before she finally found a place on this planet where she seemed to fit. And although the slightly awkward yet very engaging young woman would go on to become Julia Child, one of the world’s most beloved celebrity chefs, the first cozy life nook she found was not in the kitchen. On the contrary, the life experience that first helped Julie McWilliams to find herself was espionage.
In A Covert Affair, journalist Jennet Conant (author of “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington”) takes another deep dive back into English-language spy circles of the mid-20th century. This time she examines the experiences of Julia and Paul Child – the man who would become Julia’s husband – and several of their American colleagues, all employed by the US Office of Special Services (a precursor to the CIA) during and after World War II.
“The war made me,” Julia Child would remember later in life. Although she was employed by the OSS in Washington, India, Ceylon (where she met her husband), and China, the woman who would become the French Chef was never really much of a spy. A skilled organizer with a tidy mind, she kept files and handled personnel and logistics matters in sometimes rugged conditions, serving as a discrete and able administrator.
She fitted in because her privileged background made her much like the others employed by the US’s fledging surveillance group, a cluster of youngish Americans drawn largely from “the Ivy League and the Junior League” – “Smith girls with gumption who could also type,” “a wide variety of PhDs,” and “an assortment of creative types.”
Among the many bright young Americans with whom Paul and Julia Child shared dodgy accommodations, late-night drinks, and tight collegial ties was Jane Foster, a Californian society girl on the run – not unlike Julia – from a stifling life with her wealthy family.
Foster’s rather tragic story is at the center of much of “A Covert Affair.” Unlike Julia, she became more deeply involved in OSS attempts to harm and discredit America’s enemies – “almost any form of thoroughly amoral activity was condoned,” Conant writes, “when it came to manipulating one’s foe.”
Foster also became more profoundly disillusioned with her own government. After the war she was posted to Indonesia. There, instead of feeling thrilled that democratic forces had triumphed, she became depressed as it grew clear that, postwar, the US was frequently turning its back on questions of justice and siding with the European imperial powers.
Later in life – long after she had left government employment – Foster and her then-husband would be accused of having worked as Russian spies. Paul and Julia Child – known to be her longtime friends – would be dragged into the affair and Paul would risk losing his job.
Conant is the kind of writer who knows how to do her homework and “A Covert Affair” is built on letters, diaries, interviews, and a welter of recently declassified OSS and FBI documents. Her book paints a dark but intriguing picture of a particular decade or so of American life – an era when the conservatism and naiveté of citizens like Julia’s wealthy father allowed demagogues like Sen. Joseph McCarthy to flourish, even as the misguided idealism of bright young people like Jane Foster drew them too close to the Soviets for comfort. (How involved Foster was with the Russians is never fully clear, but Conant finally concludes that while “Jane was never an archvillain, smuggling out nuclear secrets and imperiling the security of the nation” neither was she “as innocent as she pretended.”)
While Foster was under investigation (and could even have faced the death penalty), the Childs acquitted themselves admirably, refusing to betray a friend to keep themselves out of trouble.
The experiences of Paul and Julia Child are the organizing principle of “A Covert Affair” even though the couple themselves are not always at the book’s center. Despite the book’s subtitle (“Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS”) the narrative is really built around the stories of various OSS workers, with Foster as the major focus.
But Conant does well to both begin and end with the unlikely lovebirds. Although their romance has been chronicled in more depth elsewhere, its sweetness (with the ultimate triumph of Julia’s “simple love and niceness” over Paul’s doubts about her lack of sophistication) serves as a reassuring counterweight to some of the ugliness of the Jane Foster experience.
It's also a useful reminder that, in the America that finally emerged from the Cold War, the Childs are still beloved icons, while Joseph McCarthy endures only as a symbol of shame.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.