BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Covert Affair’

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A COVERT AFFAIR: JULIA CHILD AND PAUL CHILD IN THE OSS
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster, $28 395 pages

At hand is a book that is a classic - and blatantly egregious - instance of a publisher pulling a bait-and-switch sting on an unwary reader. Judging from the title, one would assume it deals with the famed food maven and her husband. Well, one would be wrong: Julia Child is but a bit player in the volume, which is essentially the story of her Office of Strategic Services (OSS) colleague and longtime friend Jane Foster, a California socialite whose appetite for far-left causes led her to the fringes of - if not total immersion into - Soviet espionage.

That Child served in the OSS has long been known; indeed, her OSS years are recounted in the opening chapter of Noel Riley Fitch’s 1997 biography. The exact nature of what she did while stationed in China and Ceylon did not become known until the declassification of a batch of OSS documents in 2010.

Unfortunately, these OSS documents provided little fodder for Jennet Conant. Of the 22 chapter notes citing OSS, only two refer to Child - an assessment from her recruitment interview, and a citation for a postwar commendation. Sixteen refer to work by Foster. (In fairness, people in OSS clerical jobs, as was Julia Child, leave scant paper trails.) The bulk of Ms. Conant’s OSS material is drawn from Foster’s memoir, “An UnAmerican Lady,” published in London in 1980 after her death (a work of dubious reliability); and a 1947 memoir, “Government Girl,” by Elizabeth “Betty” MacDonald (now Elizabeth McIntosh, long a stalwart of the OSS Society), who served in the OSS with Child and Foster.

The ostensible core of the book is the love story between Julia McWilliams, a gangly 6-foot, 2-inch tomboyish social misfit, and Paul Child, 10 years her senior, a sometime artist and full-time intellectual. They met while serving the OSS in Asia. The daughter of a wealthy family in Pasadena, Calif., Julia at age 30 had found neither romantic nor professional happiness. Ventures into publishing and advertising failed. Spinsterhood loomed. Then came the war. Rejected by the Women’s Army Corps because she was too tall, she entered the OSS and worked her way to a Washington position supervising 40 clerical workers. When word spread that the OSS wanted people to staff offices in the Far East, she leapt at the opportunity. She served first at an OSS post in Kandy, Ceylon, then at a station in Kunming, China, at the foot of the Burma Road.

But for much of the OSS section, Julia is overshadowed by Jane Foster, whose innovative wit made her a natural for the OSS branch known as “Morale Operations,” a euphemism for propaganda aimed at undermining Japanese morale and inciting the local populace to help repel the invader. She was the station bon vivante, quick to organize gin-soaked parties and to play pranks - “a wild, messy girl, always in trouble,” Paul Child would say of her.

The shy and withdrawn Julia, by contrast, at first went unnoticed by Child, who had an ample supply of bedmates. When he finally took an interest in her, he flooded her with his favorite novels and books of poetry. Betty McDonald commented, “He sort of took her on like the trainees in his design section.”

Julia returned to the United States nine months in advance of Paul. His pursuit became serious, and he inundated her with love letters that included the occasional sonnet. (These letters, along with a lifelong correspondence between Paul and a brother, provided a treasure trove for Ms. Conant.) They wed, and Paul continued in government with the United States Information Service. It was in Paris where Julia’s nascent interest in cooking blossomed. She eventually published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” that ultimately sold 30 million copies; she also did a decade-long PBS run with “The French Chef.”

Then, major trouble. Intercepts of Soviet intelligence cables from Washington to Moscow revealed that Foster had been recruited for service by an American communist named Martha Dodd Stern, daughter of a former U.S. ambassador to Berlin. She was assigned the code name “Slang.” Unbeknownst to the Childs and others, she had joined the Communist Party in the late 1930s, and she had an early secret marriage to a Russian-born man named George Zlatovski, who spent the war years in the U.S. Army. A longtime FBI undercover agent named Boris Morros was among several people, including Myra and Jack Soble, who fingered the couple as Soviet agents. A federal grand jury indicted them on 38 counts of espionage in 1957. Immune from extradition, they stayed in Paris.

However Paul Child’s long association with Jane Foster, plus his openly liberal views, made him a target of investigators. In letters to Julia, he complained of Kafkaesque interrogation and bullying questions about his sexuality. (I read his accounts of these sessions with some skepticism.)

In the last paragraph of her book, Ms. Conant rather grudgingly concludes that Foster and her husband “were deeply enmeshed, in the Soble espionage ring.” I conclude that Foster’s story alone did not warrant a book; roping in the famed Julia Child seems a ploy, but one that falls flat.

Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on espionage.

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