“A Covert Affair” – about Julia Child, yes, but Much More

Jennet Conant’s fascinating 2011 book, “A Covert Affair” is subtitled “Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS”, and in fact Julia and Paul are central characters in the book.  But they are not the only central characters, so the subtitle was obviously written in an attempt to attract sales and readers, but not to comprehensively reflect the contents of the book.

“A Covert Affair” (by the way, there was nothing covert about Paul and Julia’s relationship) tells the story of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, created by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II to obtain intelligence overseas and to spread disinformation behind embassy lines in an attempt to turn the people against the occupying powers.  Specifically, “A Covert Affair” follows OSS activities in Asia (China, India, Ceylon, Burma), through the eyes of several young women (including Julia McWilliams, who was not yet Julia Child) recruited to help our newly established intelligence efforts.

In fact, the trail of Julia Child is, in some ways, less interesting than that of some of the others.  Child, from a wealthy California family and a recent graduate of Smith College, was never involved in dangerous espionage activity, but was basically a file clerk, although a very diligent, hard working file clerk.  While there is a lot in this book about the social lives of many of the young OSS women, Julia McWilliams, tall and awkward, was not a very socially active individual.  She did develop a crush on Paul Child, over ten years her senior, an artist and graphic designer in the OSS, and somewhat of a ladies man, who was beginning to believe that the girl of his dreams would not choose him as her beau.  He and Julia developed a close friendship, which it seems remained very platonic, and spent a lot of time together.  He was much shorter than she, from a different generation, balding and not particularly attractive to the ladies.  He was also interested in a lot of subjects, and they turned out to be subjects that McWilliams found fascinating as well.  And she became a good sounding block for his frustration, as she held in her feelings for him.

Jane Foster and Betty MacDonald were much more interesting.  They were given assignments that had a little more glamor.  They were given free reign to develop their own disinformation programs (most of which, of course, accomplished nothing), and they also had a good time with their fellow spies – male and female.

MacDonald (who may still be alive – she was alive a few years ago at 97) married Dick Heppner, who was a civilian law partner of William Donovan, the OSS boss, and lived, after a war, a fairly normal (and very prosperous life) after the war until Heppner died of a heart attack at 49.  MacDonald remarried and lived in Leesburg VA (she may still be there, for all I can tell).

Foster was the most fascinating figure.  Like Julia McWilliams, she was the daughter of wealthy conservative Californians.  She was an attractive and lively young woman, in her mid-twenties and already married to and divorced from a Dutch diplomat with whom she had spent several years in the Dutch East Indies, she was an artist, and she was looking for adventure and some good times.  She found them.

The OSS story of course has been told in many books, but this one presents a very human face, not only on the women who are the central characters, but through many of the people with whom they come in contact.  Wild Bill Donovan, to be sure, and Dick Heppner, but also S. Dillon Ripley (later of Smithsonian fame) and Lord Mountbatten.  This is certainly a welcome addition to writings on this interesting period in American military history.

But equal to the description of OSS activities, are the book’s chapters on the aftermath, on what happened to the young cadre of OSS officials after the war ended and the OSS dismembered.  We pretty much know what happened to Julia and Paul – they kept up their correspondence after they got back to the United States, eventually got together and traveled across the country together, decided that they were a couple, married and went back to Europe (Paul joined the United States Information Service – they lived in Paris, Marseilles and Bonn) and Julia got interested in food.  They stayed in Europe for about 15 years, moved back to the US, decided on Boston, and the rest is history.

Jane Foster’s story is very different.  After her return from the East Indies in the late 1930s, she married a Russian-Jewish leftist and herself became involved in the American Communist Party (although she did not like the Communist Party discipline and was clearly not a doctrinaire Communist).  Nevertheless, she was able to get a position with the OSS (she was estranged from her husband) and by all accounts performed well and became a leader of her colleagues.  As the war ended, she realized that Asian society had changed.  It seemed to her that the western powers expected things to revert to what they were before the war, that the European colonial powers would return to Asia.  But throughout Asia, and especially in the Indonesia where she had been recently assigned and where she had lived with her first husband before the war, there were growing revolutionary movements.  Sukarno in Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.  She believed that the revolutionary movements should be supported by the United States, but this was not to be.  The immediate position of all of the winning powers was anti-Communist and the feeling was that all of these native movements were Communist inspired.  She was frustrated, and when she came back to the United States, she reunited with her husband, and became involved in leftist activities.

She was no longer a member of the Communist Party (in fact, it is unclear if she ever was officially a party member), but this was time of McCarthy and the HUAC, and it became clear that she was being watched.  In fact, it turned out that many OSS officials were leftist oriented, and the McCarthy campaign focused on many of them, including so many “China hands” – Teddy White, Owen Lattimore, Edward Snow,  others.  Foster and her husband George Zlatovski moved to France, but she returned to the United States to care for her ill father and found that her passport was cancelled.  It took quite a bit of legal action (her lawyer was Leonard Boudin) to get her passport back.  She was able to get to France, and afraid to return to the United States.  Her husband also was afraid to come back.

So Jane Foster and Julia Child were both living in Paris, and eventually they did reconnect on a social basis.  In 1955, Child was brought back to the United States.  He hoped it would mean that he was going to get a promotion, but in fact he was to be grilled about possible left wing activity.  He was cleared of suspicion and allowed to return to his job.  And he did not know why he had been recalled.  But,in 1957, Foster and Zlatovski were indicted for espionage in the United States.  The Childs began to put two and two together.  They no longer associated with Jane and George.

The indictment never resulted in a trial, largely because France refused to extradite the Zlatowskis.  So, some facts are still quite unclear.  The United States maintained that George and Jane were part of a larger group of spies, led by Jack and Myra Soble, and uncovered by double agent Boris Morros.  The Zlatowskis did have a lot of connections with the Sobles and Morros (and with Martha Dodd and her husband Alfred K. Stern (remember “In the Garden of Beasts”, which detailed Dodd, the daughter of the American Ambassador to Nazi Germany, and her connections, first with Nazis and then with Bolsheviks), but whether she was an active participant in espionage, a naive, or a dupe, is not clear.

A fascinating book, well written, and worth reading.




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