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Cooking Up a Storm

Susan Tenenbaum
The artist Jane Foster, who served in the OSS in Ceylon with Paul and Julia Child

During the spring of 1945, while her friends were serving in China, Jane Foster divided her time between Kandy and Calcutta, and then, when Japan surrendered on August 14, she was asked if she would stay on in the OSS and go to Java to help get American POWs out of Indonesia and to report on Sukarno’s nationalist rebellion against the Dutch. Since she was fluent in Malay and ardent in her anticolonialism, she found the offer too tempting to refuse. By the end of October, however, the revolutionary situation had become so threatening that she was, to her great annoyance, ordered out of Batavia (as Jakarta was then called) for her own safety and sent instead to Saigon. The situation in Vietnam, where the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh were in rebellion against France’s colonial domination, had similarities to that in Indonesia. Anticolonialist nationalism and the quest for independence were, in fact, rampant throughout postwar Southeast Asia from India to the Philippines.

In both cases, the Dutch in Java and the British troops supporting the French in Vietnam were crassly using defeated Japanese soldiers to help them maintain order, which offended not only the native population but the American military command as well. Yet American foreign policy supported the Europeans rather than the natives, “acting,” as Conant puts it, “as a handmaiden to the mercenary colonial powers.” That, of course, offended Jane deeply and only intensified the sympathies for the native aspirations that were reflected in her reports. In angry disillusionment, she resigned from the OSS at the end of 1945.

The postwar America to which the four friends returned was becoming prodigiously anti-Communist. The Soviet domination of Eastern Europe after Yalta, the Alger Hiss controversy beginning in 1948, the fall of China to the Communists, and Russia’s successful test of an atom bomb in 1949 all contributed to a growing paranoia, and the transposed Puritanism that is so endemic to the American character expressed itself in a new form of witch-hunt. In February 1950, McCarthy began his infamous, unprincipled attacks on the State Department.

In 1946, Julia and Paul had finally got married, and Paul had joined the State Department, the OSS having been terminated (only to reappear a few years later in the form of the CIA). That same year, Jane and Betty, “severed” from the OSS, were sharing an apartment in New York. Betty was planning to marry Dick Heppner as soon as their respective divorces came through, and Jane had renewed her relationship with George Zlatovski, a Russian Jew who fought with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain in 1937 and whom she had impetuously married in secret just before his US regiment went off to fight in Germany in 1942. George also had become a member of the Communist Party before the war, but neither he nor Jane, who quickly got bored selling the Daily Worker in Union Square, seemed very subservient to Party doctrine or discipline. During the war, Jane, who had never told anyone of their marriage, informed George that she wanted out of it, but he successfully wooed her again in New York, and they went through another, redundant but public, marriage ceremony in September 1946.

In the autumn of 1948, the Childs, who by then had completely lost touch with Jane, were sent by the State Department to Paris and began the chapters of their life together that have by now been extensively chronicled in numerous biographical and historical accounts. Julia took lessons at the Cordon Bleu, cooked on a tiny stove in their Paris flat, and began work on the book of French recipes that launched her career. Late in 1952, quite by accident, they discovered that Jane and George had also been living in Paris, only a few blocks away from them, since 1949. The two couples subsequently saw each other frequently, and their conversations often deplored the political situation in the US, the disgraceful persecutions of McCarthyism, and McCarthy’s success in drumming many of their old friends, the so-called China hands, out of the State Department.

The opening chapter of Conant’s book gives a flash-forward account of the telegram that summoned Paul back to Washington on April 7, 1955, leading to his bizarre interrogation by the FBI, during which he was asked repeatedly about Jane, accused of being a homosexual, and actually ordered to “Drop your pants,” as if that would confirm the accusation; in outrage, he challenged the agents to take down their own pants. It’s important to get the dates and their significance right concerning this and subsequent events, because Conant is frustratingly vague or downright uninformative about dates, and the reader is often confused or misled. (She can also be frustratingly cryptic. For example, she three times refers to the significant importance of the “Mocase” investigation, without ever explaining what it was about or why it is relevant.) By April 1955, when Paul received his telegram, McCarthy was already finished: the decisive Army hearings had taken place a year before, in April through June 1954, and earlier, in March, Edward R. Murrow’s devastating exposé, which Conant doesn’t mention, had been broadcast; on December 2, 1954, McCarthy was officially censured by a very large majority in the Senate, and his day was effectively over. But McCarthyism continued for some years to hang like a mephitic miasma over American political life.

Paul was eventually exonerated, but Jane appears to have been for years a spy for Stalin’s USSR. She was involved with the absurd double agent Boris Morros, whose misfortunes and protestations of innocence are painstakingly recounted by Conant in the final chapter of her book. Much more seriously, she and George were accused of taking part in an espionage network run by Jack Soble and his wife Myra, who confessed at length to being Soviet spies and went to prison. The French refused to extradite Jane and George and they were never brought to trial in the US.

It’s unclear whether Julia believed that Jane worked for the Soviets. “Julia and Paul did not know what to believe,” Conant writes; and even her own opinion on the matter is unclear. She explicitly says “there was never any definitive evidence that Jane knowingly crossed from ordinary Communist Party work to outright espionage…other than the word of Morros and Soble,” neither of them, in her view, reliable witnesses. But drawing on the Venona decrypts of coded Soviet intelligence reports, she also writes that “the existence of multiple documentary sources describing Jane Foster and George Zlatovski as Soviet assets establishes that they were deeply enmeshed in the Soble espionage ring.” She concludes:

In her eagerness to devote herself to the cause of the downtrodden, she blithely put her faith in the hands of a group of Communist Party activists, even when their ideological fervor and conspiratorial arrangements caused her to have doubts. She was so determined to prove her commitment—to prove she was not just another wealthy dilettante who had latched onto the proletariat cause—and so eager for their acceptance and approval that she turned a blind eye to what was going on until it was too late to turn back.

Such reflections have become characteristic in writing about the postwar years dominated by McCarthyist anticommunism, when truth was, to put it mildly, elusive. Although many of the innocent people McCarthy viciously attacked have long since been absolved of his mendacities, very few would still deny that Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg worked for the Soviet underground.

Jennet Conant has not tried to write a history either of the OSS or of McCarthyism; her ambitions have been more modest. What she has provided us with are evocative vignettes of the lives and professional preoccupations of a small group of OSS members in Southeast Asia and a haunting reminder of the injustices and vicissitudes of life in the days of McCarthy. Whatever Jane Foster’s connection with an “espionage ring,” it’s unlikely she had information of any great value to purvey; but her story becomes a cautionary tale. For one imagines that she may well have been like many young people whose innocent, humanitarian goodness and self-satisfying philanthropy led them, however unwittingly, to espouse causes whose evil reality they didn’t comprehend.

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