Everyone's familiar with Julia Child the chef, but not all of her admirers know that prior to her cooking career, she dabbled in World War II espionage, stationed in far-flung locales developing black propaganda for America's Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Those chapters of the well-to-do California native's life — they preceded her revelatory postwar stint in Paris, where the well-to-do California native discovered her vocation and began “trilling her words in her extraordinarily operatic, unique accented French" — have been captured with three-dimensional zeal in Jennet Conant's A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS (Simon & Schuster, April 5).
The urbane Conant (The Irregulars, Tuxedo Park), is a wry student of history whose research helps wrangle in the complex story of Child and her husband, Paul. They met stationed in Sri Lanka while they worked for the OSS, which employed so many colorful, off-center creatives that it carried "the lenient, idiosyncratic atmosphere of a small college." Drawing from Child’s own diaries, as well as the countless letters ("Homeric offerings") Paul penned to his twin brother back in the States, Affair provides a meticulous glimpse into the couple's stutter-stop courtship, with the Second Red Scare serving as the oft-stultifying backdrop.
Paul, who from his writings comes off as a self-involved, overeducated hand-wringer who often analyzes himself into states of temporary misery, was not immediately taken with the co-worker he knew as Julia McWilliams — she was "a warm and witty girl with long legs," but did not fit his romantic ideal.
In part, a love of food — Paul is characterized as coaxing it out of Julia, encouraging her to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris — helped them come together, but this is not a food book. It's a war buff's book with food on the side, as evidenced by the pages Conant (who's at the Free Library tonight) dedicates to the screaming bureaucracy of the OSS, its kooky employees and the scary moments brought on by anti-Commie mania. (In 1955, Paul was dragged to D.C. by two of McCarthy's agents, in connection with Jane Foster — perhaps the primary focus of this book, but by no means a household name — an OSS friend and suspected Soviet mole.)
Those fascinated exclusively by Child's culinary accomplishments will not take to Affair, but her truest fans will nonetheless appreciate the insights into her unflappable character. A born tomboy, the the "6'2" bien-jambee" held her own in the outdoors; "she had thought nothing of bagging sixteen ducks and bringing them home with just as many friends for dinner." And in China, it’s said Child quickly took to the practice of bribing snitches with opium (hunks of “what looked like a loaf of Boston brown bread”) in exchange for information. That’s right: You can technically call Julia Child an ex-drug slinger.
Jennet Conant, Thu., May 5, 7:30 p.m., free, Free Library, Central Branch, 1901 Vine St., 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.