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War and Intrigue Before the Feast: Author Jennet Conant on Julia Child and Company in the OSS

Before Julia Child became the beloved star of television’s The French Chef, and before her debut cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and before her worldly husband Paul Child introduced her to gourmet cooking—she served during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Author Jennet Conant chronicles the exploits of Julia Child and her colleagues in the intelligence service during the war and into the years of the McCarthy era in her new book, A Covert Affair: Julia and Paul Child in the OSS (Simon & Schuster].       

Ms. Conant traces Julia Child’s wartime service in Ceylon, India and China with a close-knit group of bright and quirky idealists including her future husband Paul, a talented artist she met in Ceylon; Betty MacDonald, a fearless former reporter and field agent; and the pivotal figure in this tale: Jane Foster, a free-spirited artist fluent in several languages and a superb counterintelligence agent. 

After the war, as Ms. Conant writes, Julia and Paul Child were swept up in the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s because of their friendship with the openly left-wing Jane Foster who was eventually accused of spying for the Russians.  In this uncertain time, the Childs stood up for Foster and remained her friend.

In addition to this story of adventure, friendship and romance, Ms. Conant depicts the nascent OSS under the brilliant First World War hero, Col. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who assembled an unlikely organization of intellectuals and eccentrics with expertise from anthropology and ornithology to linguistics and psychology.  The OSS strategies used by the colleagues of Julia Child in the Far East to demoralize Japanese troops and mobilize opposition in occupied nations ranged from the ingenious to the absurd, as Ms. Conant vividly describes. She also captures the tension and paranoia of the post-war Red scare, and its effect on the Childs and their OSS colleagues.

A Covert Affair has been praised for Ms. Conant’s compelling storytelling and her prodigious original research.  From Publisher’s Weekly: “Conant's vivid tapestry of the 1940s skillfully interweaves interviews, oral histories, memoirs, and recently unclassified OSS and FBI documents with unpublished diaries and letters. The adventurous young OSS recruits spring to life throughout this meticulously researched, authoritative history.”

Jennet Conant has written extensively on World War II and the intelligence community in her previous books:  The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington; Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II; and 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.   Her articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times.  She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband and son.

Ms. Conant spoke about A Covert Affair by phone from her home in New York.

Lindley:  You’re an expert on intelligence during World War II with three previous books.  Did A Covert Affair grow out of that work?

Conant:  A little bit.   I was actually on a book tour for my previous book, The Irregulars, which was about British spies in Washington in World War II and the early days of the OSS, when the National Archives released a huge cache of classified documents in the fall of 2008.  Among these classified documents were names of individuals who made up this civilian and military network of operatives for the OSS like Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, Jr., Moe Berg—the White Sox catcher, and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  The name that got the most attention was Julia Child.  Everywhere on the book tour, people asked me about Julia Child and her espionage career.  I started looking into it, and what I found intrigued me.

Lindley:  Did you set out to tell a story about World War II intelligence and the Red-baiting McCarthy era through the careers of Julia and Paul Child and their friend Jane Foster?

Conant:  I was interested in chronicling what happens to a group of people.  I was lucky that one of their colleagues, Elizabeth McIntosh [Betty MacDonald] is still alive.  She later had a career with the CIA.  Like Jane Foster, she was a counter-espionage agent and a very intelligent.  I had her on hand as a narrator from the Washington years through Ceylon and China, and through the Paris years and the [government] investigations.   I naturally included her story because she could give me a first-hand account of everything that happened. 

Then I had Julia and Paul’s diaries.  But the person that got them in all in trouble in the McCarthy era was their OSS colleague Jane Foster, so I had to tell her story as well or you wouldn’t understand how she got them into trouble and why they would stick by her and defend her. 

I decided to tell the story of this group of four people who were in some ways very similar: privileged, well-educated, liberal.  They were recruited by the OSS and served their country during the war but then got caught up in trouble during the McCarthy era.  They stayed life-long friends, so it made sense to tell their story together.

Lindley:  And these friends, including Julia, served in exotic and trying locales during the war: Ceylon and India and China.

Conant:  And the difficulties can’t be overstated, particularly in China.  [Julia] was assigned to a remote outpost in Kunming, and it couldn’t have been more primitive.  If you read the accounts, and the diaries of Paul Child in particular, people were desperately sick from dysentery.  They also endured a historic flood in that region in 1945 that destroyed the neighboring villages and submerged their headquarters in three or four feet of water.  They used life rafts they pulled off Army planes to salvage all the documents they could.  All the rats from the surrounding countryside sought high ground and brought with them a deadly cholera epidemic.  People were dropping like flies.  They saw the bodies floating down the river. And everything was tainted:  the water, the fresh vegetables.  They couldn’t eat anything that didn’t come out of a can.  People got very sick and it was very stressful.  

A lot of young men who worked with Paul Child cracked under the strain.  They got ill and were sent home as nervous basket cases.  And he chronicles how Julia thrived under the pressure.  He called her a “really good scout.”  She could deal with these difficulties and discomfort, and she was very cheerful.  The wartime citation she won afterwards said that morale in her unit was extremely high.  She was very good at keeping up people’s spirits.

Lindley:  Your description of the conditions during the war and the excerpts you include from Paul’s diaries are very vivid. 

Conant:  The real revelations for me, and what made the book such fun to do, were the letters and diaries.  These individuals were extremely good writers, but more than that, they were very colorful, quirky.  Their description is very vivid, and individualistic and impressionistic.  These diaries and letters give you a feeling of being right there with them.

Lindley:  And the papers of Julia and Paul are part of a collection at Harvard?

Conant:  Yes.  They gave an enormous gift to the public.  They organized and collected all of their letters in this wonderful archive that is the Julia Child Archive of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.  It’s a wonderful resource [with] all of Paul Child’s diaries: thousands of pages of his chicken scrawl that he wrote to his twin brother that start in the thirties and go all the way through their lives.  I don’t know if anyone read them in detail before because everyone focused on her stuff.  But I found his diaries were remarkable [with] his impressions starting when he was not interested in her [as] more than a friend and colleague to go on adventures with in China, and then tracking the development of their romance.

Lindley:  What did Julia and Paul Child and Jane Foster do before the war?

Conant:  Before the war Julia was very different than what people think of her today.   In 1942, when she volunteered to join the OSS, she was a little bit lost.  She was 30, unmarried and unemployed.  She was tending house for her widowed father, a wealthy Pasadena farmer who owned quite a bit of land.  She grew up with a household cook, so she couldn’t boil water.  Her mother had died when she was very young. 

After college at Smith, as she put it herself, she spent her time as a social butterfly playing a lot of golf and tennis.  She had a couple attempts at a career.  She tried to be a writer.  She moved to New York, and The New Yorker rejected all of her submissions, so she felt defeated.  She also tried an advertising career in Los Angeles and got fired.  She wrote in her diary that she was a big person and thought she’d have a big destiny, and she was disappointed in herself.

When the war broke out, it gave her a chance to make something of herself again, and she seized the opportunity.

Paul Child was an odd person for her to fall in love with.  He was absolutely as different from her as he could have been.  He was ten years older and a head shorter than her.  She came from a right-wing California family.  He came from a left-wing Boston family.  He hadn’t gone to college and was a self-taught artist and sculptor.  He had lived in Europe for years doing odd jobs: tutoring and teaching.  He spoke fluent French and was a sophisticate and Bohemian character.  I doubt he ever lifted a golf club. 

He was recruited by the Allies to build war rooms for generals.  He was brilliant with visual displays and topographical maps of modeling clay.  He was so adept that all the generals demanded his services, so he went all around the China-Burma Theater designing war rooms.  But he was a difficult, prickly character.              By then, he was a confirmed bachelor, and a very strange person for Julia to fall in love with and not an easy man, as she wrote in her diary.  But she loved him.

Lindley:  Paul wrote about his ideal woman and he was smitten by younger, attractive women.  And Jane Foster fascinated him.

Conant:  Jane Foster interested me because she was a mirror image of Julia.  She was another wealthy California girl from a conservative family.  She was well educated at a woman’s college, Mills College.  And she was adventurous, as Julia was, so she joined the OSS.  But that’s where the similarities ended. 

It was an interesting study in character and destiny because Jane was politicized at a young age, whereas Julia was not political early on.  Jane had seen the Depression and had traveled all over Europe and Asia, and became politically aware.  She was angry about oppression and poverty, and anti-Hitler early when she saw fascism rise in Europe.  She was very sophisticated, outspoken and passionate about politics, and very bold and adventurous.  So she was trained by the OSS as a real counterespionage operative.

 And Julia was intimidated and awestruck by Jane Foster, but Paul Child adored her. They had a lot in common. Jane also was an artist by training.  Both were fluent in French and had traveled all over.  They hit it off immediately and were inseparable during the first year they were together in Ceylon. 

Lindley:  What were Julia’s OSS duties?

Conant:  She wasn’t a spy.  She would have loved to have been a spy, but what qualified women to be trained as spies was languages.  Otherwise men did the dangerous work behind lines.  

They needed people with languages, so if you were a woman like Betty MacDonald who spoke Japanese or Jane who was fluent in European languages and Malayan and Indonesian dialects, [you were] tapped to do behind the lines work.  But if you didn’t have any languages, you didn’t qualify [as a spy].  And Julia, who had seven years of high school and college French, admitted she really didn’t speak a word, so she couldn’t qualify.

But Julia desperately wanted to go overseas and she volunteered and was sent to some exotic places.  And she was very efficient and organized, and ended up with a lot of responsibility.  She ran the OSS Registry, the nerve center of their detachment [that] contained all the classified documents: the cables from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the coded messages, plans for upcoming invasions, the “eyes only” reports on troop movements and the names of agents behind enemy lines.  She had to be absolutely discreet and trustworthy.  She held the keys to safe with all of the codebooks.   No one else had the keys except the commander.  She decoded most of the important telegrams.  She became a highly respected member of their detachment, and a very capable intelligence officer.

And you cannot stress how difficult and demoralizing their work was.  They worked around the clock and the work was grueling.  It was very hot.   A lot of them were sick.  Paul Child lost 30 pounds.  They all came out of India desperately ill with dysentery and amoebic infections that they suffered all the years they were abroad. 

That could wear people down.  But Julia was such a good trouper, and so sturdy and so unflappable and so cheerful, she kept people perked up.   She worked very hard and was very disciplined. 

Lindley:  And Betty MacDonald is also figures prominently in this story.

Conant:  Betty was a young reporter who happened to be at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack.  She studied Japanese and did a lot of reporting in what was America’s first war zone in Hawaii.  The OSS found out about her language skills and she was recruited.  She was very tough with a war-zone heart, and had seen a lot of bloodshed first hand.  They knew they had in her someone who could withstand being in the field and coping.  She’d already been taught how to shoot a pistol in Pearl Harbor in the weeks following the bombing because the Japanese [could] land an invasion force, so they gave everyone small arms training. 

Betty was sturdy and bright and did a lot of counterespionage work like Jane Foster.  She did black propaganda to demoralize Japanese troops in Burma and China—anywhere in occupied territory they tried to give the [nationals] leaflets and letters that would make them think the war was going very badly for the Japanese: they were running out of food; their food was tainted.

Lindley:  You vividly describe the quirky members of the OSS.

Conant:  It was really an eccentric group of people.  If you were an ornithologist at Harvard and you had chased a rare bird across Burma, you were made the Burma section chief.  Gregory Bateson, the husband of Margaret Meade and a leading anthropologist, was sent off on all kinds of missions and he was very eccentric.

Lindley:  He came up with the idea of turning the Irrawaddy River yellow to anger 
the Burmese locals and turn them against the Japanese.

Conant:  You can’t make this stuff up.  The OSS certainly did some good, but the also came up with some of the most harebrained schemes you’ve ever heard of.  There’s no doubt it had appeal for the people who worked for it. It was like a liberal arts college.  It had brilliant people but it had fruitcakes and a couple criminals as well that Donovan brought in. 

Lindley:  And OSS Director Col. William J. Donovan was responsible for putting together this quirky group?

Conant:  He was, and you have to give him credit.  He had to find talent in unusual places and build this operation virtually overnight.   There’s no doubt we needed an OSS, a foreign intelligence service, and we didn’t have one.  A lot of what he did was very important as shown when it was later institutionalized as the CIA.

Lindley:  You recount some outrageous schemes like putting explosives in cans of pork and beans disguised as American supplies, and dropping the cans behind Japanese lines?

Conant:  That was one of many of the nefarious schemes from the OSS.  These were attempts to demoralize Japanese troops.  They would leave satchels of food that looked abandoned, and the Japanese troops were so hungry they would seize on it and the food would be booby-trapped or poisoned. 

Lindley:  And someone proposed dropping devices that sounded like hissing snakes in the belief that the Japanese had a deadly fear of snakes.

Conant:  That was a cultural expert on China.  I thought that Jane Foster’s scheme to stuff condoms with propaganda materials and malaria pills and set them afloat on the shores of Indonesia was hilarious.  They actually did that one.  That Donovan was briefed and signed off on it tells you something.

Lindley:  They also did radio broadcasts to set nationals against the Japanese.

Conant:  That actually worked.  They had done this successfully in Europe.  They picked up German radio stations and set up a shadow station in which they broadcast exactly the same material then would introduce sly material that would sound exactly like a German broadcast and talk about huge losses and defeats, poverty at home, government bankruptcy, and political disarray.  Those [messages] would be subtly woven into the broadcast so the troops would think it was real, and it was just a hair’s breadth over the dial so if you were trying to reach the German station at 98.6, their [signal] would be at 98.4, so you could easily confuse listeners.

They had such success in the European war that they continued in the Pacific.  They’d pick up these Japanese stations and set up shadow stations that broadcast from behind the lines in Thailand and Burma. They’d send broadcasts out to the Japanese that were full of depressing news about losses at the front and political disarray at home [with] material to politically alienate and offend the local Thai or Burmese population so they’d want to rise up against the Japanese occupying force and help the Allies.

Lindley:  After the war, the OSS group disperses.  Before they married in 1946, Paul and Julia test their relationship with a romantic drive across the United States. 

Conant:  Right. 

Lindley:  But Jane Foster continued with the OSS after the war in Indonesia, and she was concerned about U.S. support of the colonial powers.

Conant:  She was very angry.  Her job was to recruit and train native agents.  She had followed the Roosevelt line of promising to support flourishing democracy if they would help us fight the Japanese.  She was bitterly disappointed and she felt she had betrayed these people.    She had made promises based on what the Roosevelt Administration had said, then the Truman Administration abandoned these territories and gave them back to our European allies. 

Lindley:  And Jane Foster later became a target of the McCarthy probes.

Conant:  She had been outspoken and her criticism was public.  And she was left wing and open about that.  She didn’t hide the fact that she had been a member of the Communist Party. 

The OSS was full of people with left-wing views, but that was dangerous in the McCarthy era.  And McCarthy tried to embarrass Donovan and expose the left-wing people in the OSS as a way of destroying Donovan’s intelligence apparatus when [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover wanted all the power to himself.    So McCarthy went after these people, and Jane was a sitting duck because she was openly left wing and critical of our government.

Lindley:  And, with the investigation of Jane, her colleague Paul Child became a target too when he and Julia are living in Paris.

Conant:  Yes.  It was called guilt by association.  They were the closest of friends during the war, and then again in Paris.  So the FBI began investigating Paul as a possible member of [Jane’s] communist circle.  He got into a lot of trouble and was subjected to a full loyalty inquiry because, unlike Jane, he was still a government employee [with] the propaganda arm [United States Information Service].

Lindley:  Paul was even accused of homosexuality despite his marriage to Julia.  It seems they ignored Julia Child when she had the same associations as Paul.

Conant:  They did investigate her.  The way they investigated was looking for dirt, and when they poked around Julia’s background, she didn’t have any dirt because she came from such a right-wing family.  And her father was one of Nixon’s earliest supporters and had given a lot of money to Nixon’s secret slush fund. 

They couldn’t really go after Julia.  I fully believe that it was Julia’s political contacts and family that allowed Pauwl to skate by.  If it had not been for the fact that she had been from such a conservative, wealthy, well-connected family, they would have destroyed Paul Child as well.

Lindley:  What do hope readers will take from the book?        

Conant:  I hope people will see some of the similarities between that time and our time and how fragile democracy can be—that even someone as beloved and as American as Julia Child is to us now could have been caught up with her husband in such a dangerous time.  That wasn’t very long ago, and that kind of demagoguery is always a danger.