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 …