Most readers will recognize the famous television host and chef Julia Child. Anyone who saw the recent movie about her life will know that she was married to the charming Paul Child. A very select few may even be aware that the two of them first met in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in the Far East during World War II. Paul, an artist and architect, was employed by the military to design war rooms all over the Pacific region. Julia modestly called herself a glorified file clerk when in fact she designed and organized a model filing system for top-secret documents gathered from field agents in India, China and Indonesia that proved invaluable to the Allied forces.
The story begins in 1953 when Paul is called back to Washington from Paris where he and Julia, now married, are living. He works for the State Department, and Julia is teaching cooking and writing a book. Thinking that he is about to be interviewed for a promotion, he finds instead that he is subjected to answering "a few questions about his involvement in Southeast Asia." He is questioned at length and for weeks about his interests in communism, his associations with former OSS workers (OSS was disbanded after WWII), and particularly grilled about a friendship with Jane Foster, a fellow OSS employee and personal friend of his and Julia's. He is especially startled when asked if he is a homosexual.
This meticulously researched book focuses on Miss Foster, a wealthy, free-spirited adventurer whose fluency in languages, brilliant mind and fearless (many would say reckless) lifestyle led her eventually to career-damaging escapades. Jane had joined the OSS to find her ex-husband, who was missing in action in western China. She held out hope that he was still alive in a Japanese POW camp. Not only did her charm and language fluency allow her access in areas where American and Allied military prisoners were held, her diplomatic skills succeeded in freeing many of the men she found. Along the way, she picked up crucial bits of intelligence that made her a valuable asset to the OSS and the war effort. Her insider associations and facility with the Malay language, the Lingua Franka of Southeast Asia and Indochina, also led her to becoming acquainted with many of the local native leaders struggling for independence after the war. They had been promised by the United States and their allies that in exchange for their assistance against the Japanese, they would be allowed to form independent governments, free from the colonialism of Holland, France and England.
When Jane discovered that these leaders had been deceived and that America was siding with their allies in forcing the countries back into colonialism, she wrote a report that contradicted current U.S. policy. She circulated the document to fellow OSS officers before filing it as her final field report upon separation from the OSS at the end of the war. Instead of being boxed and sent to gather dust in a storeroom, it landed on the desk of Pentagon officials, only to resurface many years later and wreak havoc on her life and that of her husband.
We also learn that Julia McWilliams, the 32-year-old single daughter of a wealthy California rancher, could barely put together a decent breakfast before she met Paul Child in China. There, the two were colleagues and friends, and while Paul searched for the perfect woman, Julia read, hiked and stuck to her job. They often dined out with co-workers, and she later credits Paul with introducing her taste buds to Asian cuisine and encouraging her to broaden her insular world. A COVERT AFFAIR is an improbable love story between two very unlikely lovers, but more than that, it is a scrupulously researched moment in time.
The book is more about the historical events and Janet Foster's involvement than it is about Julia and Paul Child skulking about Southeast Asia spying on the enemy between romantic encounters. It is also a brilliant treatise on just how wide the nets of the Army-McCarthy anti-Communist fiasco were cast. The grueling inquiries that would follow Paul's inquisition and those of many others by the State Department in 1953 would come to light in the spring of 1954 when the infamous Senate hearings were broadcast to the world, disrupting and even destroying the lives of many innocent people. The paranoid doctrine of "fellow travelers" and "a commie on every corner" turned trusted friends into informants and drove innocent people into exile to escape the madness that overcame Washington in those dark months.
In the epilogue, Jennet Conant, an award-winning journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, GQ, Newsweek and The New York Times, declares: "The wrong done by the McCarthy lancers, under McCarthy leadership, was to poke out the eyes and ears of the State Department on Asian affairs, to blind American foreign policy. And thus flying blind into the murk of Asian politics, American diplomacy carried America's honor, resources, and lives into the triple-canopied jungles and green-carpeted hills of Vietnam, where all crashed."
Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 31, 2011