Jennet Conant, granddaughter of the former president of Harvard, has made a specialty of the World War II period. Her first book, Tuxedo Park (2002), gives an engrossing account of the brilliant amateur scientist and millionaire Alfred Lee Loomis, who was one of the inventors of radar, helped found the important Rad Lab at MIT, and attracted to his estate in Tuxedo Park distinguished scientists, including Vannevar Bush, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and Albert Einstein. In 109 East Palace (2005), Conant insightfully describes the very human dynamics of the community Robert Oppenheimer gathered around him at Los Alamos. And in The Irregulars (2008), she recounts the clandestine activities of libidinous Roald Dahl and the ring of British spies in Washington during the early 1940s, who strove to advance England’s cause.
In each of these works, Conant concentrates on a prominent person in order to evoke an entire group and its role in history. In her new book, however, Julia and Paul Child are tangential rather than central to the story she wishes to tell about the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war and about the postwar scourge of McCarthyism. Both of the Childs served in the OSS, and Paul was investigated by the FBI in the mid-1950s; yet despite her book’s title, they are not its chief characters but have essentially ancillary though important parts. The figure at the center of A Covert Affair—a leftist socialite from San Francisco—is much less well known and far less likely to sell books.
The OSS was established by President Roosevelt in June 1942, at the urging of his friend the New York lawyer William J. Donovan, who was appointed as its chief after he persuaded FDR that the United States needed a spy organization like England’s. Handsome, self-assured, and a decorated hero from World War I, Bill Donovan staffed the new agency with intellectuals, high-powered New York lawyers, attractive, socialite young women, and people with artistic or other creative talents; Ivy League graduates were favored, and Harvard professors seemed to have a special entrée. (When I arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1950, a number of professors had recently returned from the war, and I was intrigued to learn that they almost invariably had served in the OSS.) Both Paul Child and Julia McWilliams joined the OSS very early on, Paul as a designer of maps, charts, diagrams, and war rooms, and Julia as a lowly file clerk. After a brief initial period in Washington they were each assigned to posts in Southeast Asia, where they both ended up in what was then called Ceylon.
Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of the South East Asia Command, had established his headquarters in the elegant King’s Pavilion high in the Ceylonese hill town of Kandy, almost half a kilometer above steamy sea level, and the OSS contingent assigned to his cadre, including Paul and Julia, happily followed him there. Paul Child was a college dropout who had aimlessly wandered about the world in his twenties, working on tankers and freighters, tutoring and teaching a bit in Italy and France, later teaching, variously, French, English, photography, and judo, first at the Cranbrook School in Michigan, then at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then at Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut; in the years just before the war, he had lived in Paris studying art. The OSS recruited him because of his expertise in judo but decided they preferred his artistic skills.
Julia McWilliams was a provincial California girl who had grown up in an affluent Pasadena family and had never traveled outside the United States. After a disappointed attempt to become a “lady novelist” living in New York City, she docilely returned to take care of her widowed father until Pearl Harbor, when patriotic fervor caused her to rush to Washington to be of service. Deemed too tall for the WACs or the WAVES, she found secretarial work at the Office of War Information; four months later, she transferred to Donovan’s staff at OSS and, like Paul, was sent to Kandy, where the future husband and wife first met.
The OSS community at Kandy was made up of an unlikely assortment of people from unlikely walks of life—as well as from all positions on the political spectrum—who were expected, Conant writes, to
come up with countless possible ways to confound the enemy. They were constrained only by the limits of their imagination and any vestigial sense of decency…. There was an ivory-tower unreality to it all. It had the lenient, idiosyncratic atmosphere of a small college, with the same tolerance for campus radicals, zealots, and oddballs. The OSS, for all its selectivity, embraced right-wing conservatives and Communists alike…. Every conceivable language echoed in the hallways. To find an adequate number of linguists, the agency recruited from strange corners of civilian life: missionaries were sought after for their language skills, specialized knowledge of remote regions, and network of personal contacts; explorers because they had traveled extensively and were self-reliant; exporters, traders, and journalists because they were men of initiative who felt comfortable in foreign environments.
Much of Conant’s account of life up at Kandy is derived from the memoirs later published by two colleagues of Paul and Julia, Elizabeth MacDonald’s Undercover Girl (1947) and Jane Foster’s An UnAmerican Lady (1980), and also from extensive conversations with MacDonald, to whom this book is dedicated in gratitude “for all her stories.” All of them worked in the section of OSS called “Morale Operations,” where the four became friends. Jane Foster was assigned to the Southeast Asia desk and Betty MacDonald to the Japan desk; Julia, who had a gift for the detailed organization, cataloging, and safeguarding of material that was later to prove indispensable to her career as a writer of cookbooks, became the closemouthed curator of the most secret documents, reports, names, and plans of operations. Paul, who in comparison to the others had an office so grand he called it his “palazzo,” made maps, charts, and models, provided cartographic decoration for his hero Mountbatten’s private office, and designed a war room for the South East Asia Command.
Life in Kandy alternated between the extravagant luxuriousness of Mountbatten’s enclave of handsome, aristocratic men and beautiful women in the King’s Pavilion and the badly faded, threadbare elegance of the antiquated and ill-functioning Queen’s Hotel, where the OSS staff were lodged and soon smitten with dengue fever, because the hotel drains were thronged with mosquitoes. The tropical shacks in which the OSS employees worked, called “cadjans,” were, like their hotel, infested with insects, tarantulas, giant lizards, and the occasional cobra.
Despite all their hard work and the urgency of their mission, there was also a quality of boarding school slapstick in their plots to win the war. Jane Foster, who kept a misbehaving chipmunk as a pet, developed a plan to float thousands of messages to the Indonesians enclosed in inflated condoms. Gregory Bateson, the famous anthropologist who was then married to Margaret Mead and who had developed a passion for crocodile hunting, contrived an unsuccessful plot to turn the Irrawaddy River yellow, which he imagined would cause the Burmese to rebel against their Japanese occupiers. Another project that humiliatingly failed involved dumping hundreds of foxes into the sea in the hope that they would swim ashore and terrify the Japanese troops; a trial of the idea was performed off the shores of Long Island, but the bewildered foxes swam not in to land but out to sea. Still another was designed to kill off the enemy with exploding tins of pork and beans.
In the chapters about life in Kandy, the artist Jane Foster begins to emerge as the dominant figure in Conant’s narrative. The only child of a wealthy, right-wing San Francisco doctor (who was the medical director of the Cutter Laboratories at Berkeley) and his fashionable, self-indulgent wife, Jane was a graduate of Mills College. Immediately after graduation, she escaped from her possessive parents by traveling first to Berlin, then to Moscow, then to Paris, and finally to the Dutch East Indies, where she married a stuffy Dutch diplomat whom she divorced in less than two years. While briefly back in San Francisco in 1938, she along with other antifascist artists joined the Communist Party in the Bay Area. Since in order to obtain her divorce she was legally obliged to reside for five months in the Dutch East Indies, she returned to live in Bali, which she considered paradise and where she might well have stayed indefinitely had World War II not broken out and her father insisted that she return home. Lively, pretty, artistic, effervescent, mischievous, irreverent, whimsical, refractory, and wanton, Jane once again escaped home by moving in 1941 to the East Coast, where, longing to get back to Southeast Asia, she soon joined the OSS and was sent to Ceylon.
From the very first days of her OSS training, Jane had become a good friend of Betty MacDonald, and in Kandy she soon became an especially close friend—but surprisingly, never a lover—of Paul Child, with whom she had breakfast in the hotel dining room every morning. (Jane was, in fact, having a prolonged affair at the time with a married naval officer named Manly Fleischmann, who, although Conant doesn’t mention it, was later to hold important posts under Harry Truman and Nelson Rockefeller.) Her undisciplined vivacity bemused and enticed Paul, who was by nature reserved and punctilious, fastidious and methodical. His finicky precision, both as a person and as an artist, served as a protective carapace for his sensitive feelings of inferiority to his twin brother, Charles; and he intuitively recognized that he and Jane were far too much opposites ever to form a couple.
Jane became immensely popular in Kandy, not only in the ranks of the OSS but also, despite her clamorous anti-imperialism, in Mountbatten’s entourage, because, as Julia once said, “All kinds of ridiculous things would happen to her. Everyone adored her because she was just so amusing.” Another member of the OSS team, Guy Martin, described her as “the jolliest girl on land and sea” and “the only Communist with a sense of humor.”
Early in 1945 Paul was transferred from Kandy to China: first to Chungking, then to Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan, just above Laos and Vietnam. Julia and Betty were also sent there, where the OSS station supporting Chiang Kai-shek was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Heppner, who married Betty after the war. It was there, in that dreariest of dreary provincial towns, that Julia and Paul became closer and closer, fell in love, and eventually began a sexual affair.
One of the most interesting parts of Conant’s book is the extended account of the different stages of the Childs’ courtship, which she has derived chiefly from their correspondence with each other, from Paul’s with his twin brother, and from Julia’s with her sister. Conant has achieved a quite accurate understanding of the very different, very idiosyncratic personalities of Paul and Julia, whom I came to know years later. Her portrait of Julia is somewhat more nuanced than the depictions in the film Julie and Julia, which Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, and Stanley Tucci were obliged to base chiefly on the public persona presented in Julia’s television performances. In August, the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, bringing the war to an end; the Kunming headquarters were soon disbanded; and everyone went slowly home, Paul to Washington, D.C., and Julia to California.