Before Julia Child could write Mastering the Art of French Cooking she had to master the art of espionage. During World War II the future television chef joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Asia, where she met her husband Paul Child and served her country faithfully, or so she thought, until Paul became a suspect a McCarthy-era investigation. Jennet Conant was on a book tour for the New York Times bestseller The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008) when the National Archives released the classified personnel files of Julia and Paul Child. In her latest biography, A Covert Affair, Conant shares the remarkable adventures that preceded Julia’s legendary career.
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Why did you decide to focus your book on Julia Child’s time in the OSS?
I’m never one of those writers who are interested in doing the 100th biography of Roosevelt. I always look for a story that hasn’t been told. Julia Child lived to be in her 90s, and she spent more than 40 years of that as a television chef. When that happens, people essentially get locked into a famous persona, and then they do the same thing every day. So from a writer’s perspective, those 40 years weren’t that interesting to me.
But when I read that she credited her war experience with really being the formative experience that allowed her to eventually become who she was, that interested me. She was really a very sheltered, privileged girl. She had never left the United States except for a weekend trip to Tijuana. She had no interest in art or foreign cultures or foreign cuisines. She knew nothing about cooking—she couldn’t even fry chicken. She was really a golf- and tennis-playing country club kind of girl before the war broke out…Her overseas experience with the OSS was completely life altering.
How were you able to extract so many personal details about her life from government documents?
The OSS released a 130-page file [on Julia Child]. I then pursued her FBI file. She met her husband Paul Child in the OSS, so I got his OSS file and his FBI file. That released an incredible story of his entanglement in the espionage case that I talk about in the book and how he was persecuted during the McCarthy era because of what went on during the OSS years that they were in China.
The story became much more complicated and interesting than I ever imaged when I started. I basically hunted down every name, and in the course of doing that, I not only found people who were still alive that were there in China and India with them that could talk to me, but I also found relatives that would give me diaries and letters…I had an incredible amount of information by the time I was ready to sit down and write.
Did you get a chance to travel to China or India?
I have a lot of parallels to this story in that I was born in Asia. Having been to Hong Kong and Taiwan as a child, I know firsthand what it’s like to be a tall American woman in an Asian country, particularly before there were a lot of Americans in these countries. I had the experience of waiters who dropped trays of food when they saw blue eyes for the first time. I have really vivid memories of standing around with my brothers signing autographs. This dates me terribly, but Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway were huge stars at the time, and we would sign their names. They just assumed if you were tall Americans that you were movie stars. So, I could really identify with Julia Child’s experience.