Imagine this delicious stew of a tale: The backdrop? France, Germany, Norway, Indonesia, Ceylon, China — to name-drop just a few of the countries featured in this book. The characters? A tall, gawky woman (6 feet 2 inches) with a rather peculiar voice, a snobby, dour, clothes-obsessed government servant, and a beautiful, madcap heiress. Those three are only a few of the large network of friends that Jennet Conant documents in “A Covert Affair,” her tale of the Office of Strategic Services and what was happening to this coterie surrounding Julia Child (née McWilliams) and her soon-to-be husband, Paul.
Although much has been made in reviews about the fact that despite the “Julia Child and Paul Child in the O.S.S.” subtitle, the book focuses much more on Jane Foster, the rich trust fund baby who may or may not have been a double agent, there are plenty of stories about the couple to satisfy Julia Child devotees.
Take, for example, the romance between Paul and Julia. For a long time while in China, Paul was smitten by “the bold, spirited Rosie Frame. She was a most alluring spy, with her pert nose, dark glossy hair, and inviting smile. He felt her to be a natural sensualist, ‘with an eager mind and an eager body.’ ” Ms. Conant goes on to write that Paul “filled pages and pages with rhapsodic descriptions of her ‘Junoesque figure’ and ‘wonderful and complex personality.’ ” Rosie, however, was seeing a Frenchman who was often behind Japanese lines, giving Paul the chance to try to keep her company while her beau was away. Ms. Conant writes that finally Rosie “spurned his advances,” and at that point Julia, who had just arrived in Chungking, was “ ‘a great solace.’ ”
Ms. Conant points out that before their marriage, others often thought that Paul was not always “nice” to Julia, although she was smitten with him for a very long time. He considered her a little girl rather than a woman. (There was a 10-year age difference.) They had met in Ceylon, courted in China, but he refused to marry her until he’d seen her in “civilian clothes.”
But it is the horrors of McCarthyism that are at the heart of this book. Along the way, Roy Cohn makes a guest appearance, as, of course, does Joseph McCarthy. And plenty of lives are ruined.
The book opens with Paul receiving a telegram urgently summoning him from Europe to Washington, D.C. Julia excitedly assumes it’s in order to be given a promotion. Alas, when Paul arrives, he discovers he is in the midst of a Kafkaesque situation. He is being grilled because of his friendship with Jane Foster. Jane, who had been a Communist Party member before World War II, had turned over a report to Dean Acheson, as well as Jack Soble, who, it turns out, was a Communist spy.
The F.B.I. interrogates Paul not only about Jane, but also about his friendship with a liberal Democrat who’d been a dollar-a-year man under F.D.R. And then there are the F.B.I. agents’ allegations that he is a homosexual. Paul points out that he’d been married for nine years. “Male homosexuals often have wives and children,” one agent tells him. Paul later writes to Julia: “If you want to have some verbal fun, try to prove sometime to two F.B.I. guys that you aren’t a Lesbian. How do you prove it?”
“A Covert Affair”
Simon and Schuster, $28
Nonetheless, there are plenty of entertaining details throughout, including the story of Jane Foster and the giant panda. A wealthy American man had captured the panda in western Szechuan province and wanted to sell it to a Chicago zoo for a hefty sum. He died and his wife, Ruth Harkness, became sick. The panda, illegal to export even in 1936, was kept in a laundry basket in her hotel room while Jane “babysat.”
“Jane volunteered to give the baby panda its bottle and burp it by walking up and down the hotel room and repeatedly slapping it on the back. Every time the cub belched, Jane recalled, ‘Mrs. Harkness would emit a croak, “Thank God,” and fall back on her pillows.’ Eventually the lady was well enough to travel, and with the help of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who, in return for what Jane suspected was a hefty commission, helped smuggle the small creature out of the country.” It was the first giant panda ever brought to the U.S.
Ms. Conant is a rare combination, an extraordinarily thorough researcher whose writing is lively and extremely well paced. The World War II and postwar eras have been rich sources for Ms. Conant, whose previous books have wonderfully evocative titles: “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington,” “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” and “Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II.”
After their last posting in Norway, Paul and Julia returned to the U.S. and became an indefatigable, truly devoted team. He called the elaborate kitchen he designed for Julia her “war room.”
But Julia also said that it was the war that “made” her. Ironically, it wasn’t French food that initially made the woman who wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” passionate about kitchen creations. Julia “was very nostalgic about her years overseas with the O.S.S., when she finally came into her own, fell in love, and first tasted the spicy Indian curries and savory Chinese dishes that awakened her senses and her deep affinity for food,” Ms. Conant writes. But then she goes on to point out that Julia never “romanticized” the past and that she remained “characteristically clear-eyed and forthright about the demagoguery that had blighted the postwar period.”
Jennet Conant has a house in Sag Harbor.
Laura Wells, a freelance writer and editor, regularly contributes book reviews to The Star. She lives in Sag Harbor.