Such is the interest in Julia Child and her devoted husband, Paul, sparked by Nora Ephron’s film Julie & Julia, that a prequel to the couple’s boeuf bourguignon days was inevitable. Now it’s here, sort of, with A Covert Affair, Jennet Conant’s fascinating chronicle of life inside the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War and the anti-Communist hysteria that followed. Drawing upon previously unpublished letters and recently unclassified documents, Conant creates a vivid portrait of the era that often reads like fiction.
Later in her life, Julia Child liked to say, “The war made me.” This book explains why. Julia McWilliams was an inexperienced 30-year-old when she joined the OSS in 1942. Her first assignment, assisting with an ambitious plan to develop a secret intelligence network across Southeast Asia, transported her to exotic locales, gave her lifelong friendships and, most significantly, put her in the orbit of the older, more worldly Paul Child, an artist who built war rooms. Julia was smitten from the get-go, but it took Paul time to see the unsophisticated late bloomer as a worthy soulmate. He detailed his doubts in often snotty letters home to his brother. Still, he played the friendly Svengali when they were stationed in China, introducing her to sex and Asian cuisine. By 1946, he’d come to his senses and they wed.
Though charmingly rendered, the Childs are secondary characters here, dangled as a lure, which makes A Covert Affair and its misleading subtitle something of a covert operation itself. Conant’s real mission is to tell the tale of the Childs’ OSS friend Jane Foster, a flamboyant American artist charged with being a Soviet spy in the 1950s, allegations that were never resolved and put Paul under investigation. Conant is clearly sympathetic to Foster’s plight, using it to place a lens on the dark days of McCarthyism. Yet by book’s end the reader will nod in agreement with Julia’s sage assessment of Foster as a “fascinating and amusing girl…who turned out to be a Russian agent,” and wish Conant had provided a lot less Jane and a lot more Julia.