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a covert affair
by hilary parkinson
Until recently, Julia Child was best known for her television show on cooking and her love of french food. But recent declassification of documents revealed that Julia mcWilliams had been a member of the office of Strategic Services (oSS) and worked with a high security clearance during World War II. along with exposure to espionage, Julia’s time in the oSS meant new adventures traveling in the far East and serving in Kandy and Kunming. She was in the company of the many colorful, intelligent, and unusual characters that oSS chief William donovan hired. She met her future husband, Paul Child—and a woman named Jane foster, whose free spirit and sense of mischief would come back to haunt the couple. during the mcCarthy years, foster was accused of spying for the Communists, and her wartime friends were investigated by the fBI, nearly ruining Paul Child’s career. Jennet Conant is a journalist who has written four books on World War II, including The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington about British espionage in the United States before and after World War II.
You have written books about spies and secrets before, but what prompted you to look into the wartime lives of Paul and Julia Child? I was on a book tour in 2008 for The Irregulars when the national archives released a cache of documents that included the oSS personnel files. Everywhere I went on the book tour, people asked me about it. I found two spy stories—the Childs’ involvement with the oSS and then the fBI communist witch hunt—and I thought this could be an interesting book. You visited two National Archives facilities: the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, and the National Archives at College Park in Maryland. Did you have a different research experience at these two places, or did it feel much the same? They are great places—very professional. They make my job easy. This is my fourth book on World War II, and I have been to several presidential libraries. I had never been to College Park before. They found all kinds of stuff. What made the book possible—and much more complete—was being able to get the wartime reports and diaries of the Childs’ colleagues and superiors. You were able to have a much fuller picture of what was happening. Cables, telegrams—all kinds of things—allowed me to write in much more detail. Cross-referencing with letters and diaries from their colleagues filled in details such as the weather and incidents that happened that day. It’s a writer’s dream.
In this book, you tell personal stories based on letters and interviews that intertwine with bureaucratic stories of government orders and investigation. Did you prefer one kind of record to the other, or did they both fascinate you? You need both. When you do interviews with people who served in World War II, you are talking to them 50 years later. as a writer, I never feel comfortable without a second source that lets me doublecheck the stories to ensure that nothing my subject said has been altered by time or emotions like sadness and guilt and nostalgia. It’s absolutely vital for any historian to work with contemporaneous records—you’ve got to have both. Paul Child’s career was nearly scuttled by the McCarthyites who were investigating him. Were you surprised at the extent of the investigation to which he was subjected? Was there any particular record that you felt summarized the feeling of fear during that time? I first had the oSS story, and then I discovered the second story of Jane foster’s fBI investigation, which is what tainted Paul’s career. Some of the fBI interrogation of Paul was just astounding in their nastiness. Clearly the fBI thought he was subversive, and because he was eccentric, they were prepared to see him as a homosexual or even a pedophile. It had to be a harrowing experience for him on the receiving end of these interviews. In his letters to Julia, he says he is suffering from nightmares, and he is taking medications for his nerves, for sleep, for his ulcer. He’s convinced it’s the end of his career. The letters are really filled
with anguish, and you can’t read them without feeling sympathy for what he went through.
At the beginning of the war, Julia McWilliams is a very different person from the Julia Child that the world knows. Were you expecting to see how much she changed during the war and afterwards? Do you think Paul changed as much during this time as his future wife did? I don’t think Paul changed much at all. He was much older—in his early 40s—and fully formed. The war didn’t change him, but it did affect his health. If anything, Paul’s personality was set in stone before he joined the oSS. He spoke several languages, had worked all kinds of jobs, and had lived overseas. Julia was the opposite. She was a California girl, sheltered and privileged, and had spent most of time playing golf and tennis. She didn’t speak any languages and hadn’t been anywhere outside of the United States further than Tijuana, mexico. She changed dramatically and over a short time. With the oSS, she traveled extensively, and spent much of her time with brilliant people—these weren’t everyday people. She understood how limited her worldview was, and she desperately wanted to move forward and stay in intellectual company. Paul was already friends with artists and writers, and later in life much of their close circle were his friends. You dedicated your book to Betty (MacDonald) McIntosh, who was in the OSS with Julia Child. (Betty recently spoke at the National Archives about her book Sisterhood of Spies.) You interviewed her extensively for A Covert Affair. Was it strange to speak with a living person about events that you were reading about in research rooms 60 years later? not at all—this is what I do for a living. In my other books,
I talked to dozens of scientists who built atomic bombs while I was doing research! So it was not a problem interviewing Betty. But what is fantastic about Betty is that she knew them for such a long time. She met Julia in Washington, d.C., and served with her in Ceylon. She visited Julia and Paul during the tumultuous times described in the book. and her own husband had battled fBI investigators as well. She has a reporter’s instincts. She had written things down and is sharp, acute, and thoughtful, and she has written two books of her own.
Did you feel additional pressure to tell the story as both Betty related it and as you felt the records showed it? I am telling the story as I see fit to tell it. But I don’t necessarily agree with Betty’s accounts. She’s a generous and warm woman and inclined to believe Jane wasn’t a spy. But in the book I make it clear that I think it’s more complicated. Paul and Julia were more nervous about Jane. and I had access to records that of course Betty wouldn’t have. I have to take a step back—I can’t be so close to one person that I lose sight of history. There are several strong female characters—Jane Foster, Betty McIntyre, and Julia Child. After spending so much time researching them, did you have a favorite? no, I didn’t have favorites. I liked them all for different reasons. I adored Jane foster for her mischief and her energy and her spirit. But by the end of the book you are impatient with her sloppiness and her drinking. It was easier to bond with Betty. I am closer to her in my career—she was also a journalist. She had travelled a great deal and so did I, and so she was more worldly than Julia. as for Julia, it was breathtaking to watch someone so determined to change her life actually do it. It was fun to track all three woman through their friendship and their lives.
A Covert Affair
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