Reviewed by Nancy Rommelmann
It is 1954, and as he has for the past dozen years, Paul Child is designing war rooms for the Foreign Service, often in exotic locales, currently in Bonn, a German city of industrial complexes and teeming with American soldiers behaving badly.
"Woe -- how did we get here?" his wife, Julia, whom Paul met in 1943 when they were both members of the Office of Strategic Services stationed in Ceylon, scribbles in her diary. She is not happy to have left Paris and Marseilles and her blossoming career as a cooking teacher. But the Childs go where the government tells them to, including, for Paul, to Washington D.C., for a series of queasy interviews. As he telegraphs Julia, "SITUATION HERE LIKE KAFKA STORY."
Paul's interrogation proves to be about a fellow OSS member, Jane Foster, whom Paul once described as "a wild, messy girl, always in trouble, always gay and irresponsible." She is a San Francisco socialite, wealthy and educated, as are most female OSS recruits -- "Smith girls with gumption who could also type," writes Jennet Conant in A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS. Foster was a stripe of girl hired, by wartime OSS head William "Wild Bill" Donovan, to engage in black ops intelligence, "on the grounds that the well-off were harder to bribe."
Foster, exuberant, impetuous, fearless and artistic, is also principled, so much the worse for anyone in the post-war McCarthy era, and it is her stand against certain American policies in Indonesia that puts her and those who have had contact with her, including Paul Child, under suspicion.
Conant, the author most recently of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington and a onetime writer for Vanity Fair, engages in a bit of title disingenuousness, in that her assiduously researched book is perhaps 15 percent about Paul, 10 about Julia.
No matter: It is a wallop of a story, people engaging in the sorts of international dangers that is the stuff of the movies. Nine OSS girls, Jane and Julia among them, sailing to India on a warship packed with 3,000 solders. Ceylon, where Foster has black silk cocktail dresses made and where OSS officers drink and dance at the Silver Fawn, also known as "the Septic Prawn" for the dysentery to which they all succumb. Malaria too runs rampant, as do extramarital affairs; it is the war, after all; no one knows who will be coming home, or when.
There are floods, and rats, and cholera, and the specter, and then the reality, of the atomic bomb. There are colonial-era palaces and beachside huts in which covert operations are hatched, an undertaking tailor-made for Foster's talents. Fluent in many languages, including Malay, she sets up fake radio stations that trick the Japanese, and stuffs paper messages urging Indonesians to resist the Japanese into inflated condoms that are then released to sea. Later, after Foster believes America has reneged on its promise to support Indonesian independence, she gives information to the Soviet Union.
Or perhaps she does. It is hard to know, and Conant cannot make clear, once one factors in the political witch hunts and anti-communist fervor. Does Foster's endemic carelessness bleed over into treason? If so, her crimes make her eligible for the death penalty. The Childs know this sharply and will not betray a friend, no matter their light misgivings, and any affection and admiration the reader has for Julia, for Paul are, by their steadfast behavior, amplified tenfold. They are, in Conant's loving and serious portraits, people of courage and creativity and appetite. Here is 6-foot-2 Julia, traipsing around in "men's loafers and a leopard coat," able to keep a secret better than anyone, disarming "the stuffiest foreign diplomats with her down-to-earth American humor and entertaining anecdotes."
Conant's book is also absurdly cinematic, all jungles and cities and intrigue and risk, with an exquisite attention to detail that illuminates the OSS and its players, people of privilege who, for a short and critical period (the OSS stopped functioning as its own entity in 1945, when it essentially transformed into the CIA) believed it their provenance to save the world and after doing so, to slip back to lives of comfort. Here is Julia and OSS friend Rosy Frame sailing home after the war, on a troop ship packed with thousands of men:
"By the time they reached New York, she and Rosy were 'tired and bedraggled' and smelled like they had come by 'cattle boat.' Thibaut de Saint Phalle, who was waiting on the pier to meet his fiancee (Rosy), took one look at them and stopped by the nearest phone, called the Elizabeth Arden salon, and took them directly there for a thorough beauty treatment."
Books mentioned in this post