The Luncheon Society/Jennet Conant on her book, A Covert Affair, Julia and Paul Child in the OSS/San Francisco—Palio D’Asti, April 13, 2011/Los Angeles—Napa Valley Grille, April 14, 2011

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Before Julia Child became the eponymous French Chef and the mainstay of PBS cooking shows, she was merely Julia, a large woman in search of an equally large destiny.

Best selling author Jennet Conant joined The Luncheon Society in San Franciscoand Los Angeles for a dinner conversation about her latest book, A Covert Affair Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS.  In it, Jennet discussed their World War II adventures but also took both Paul and Julia Child through the stain of McCarthyism, where they and their friends found their loyalty questioned and careers ruined. Through it all, The Childs demonstrated a great deal of courage under a constant barrage of duress.

 

Conant has written prodigiously about the Second World War. The first, “Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II,” focused on financier Alfred Loomis and a collection of scientists that created the first radar systems and began work on the first atomic bomb. Her follow up, “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” dove deep into how the partnership between Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer built the first nuclear weapon at the secretLos Alamos facility.  In her third book, “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington,” Conant followed the intelligence efforts of Roald Dahl, David Ogilvy, and Ian Fleming as they fought the Nazis and broke hearts in the nation’s capitol during wartime.  

In all three cases, Conant had a family connection.  Her grandfather, former Harvard President James Conant, played a high profile role in The Manhattan Project. While growing up, she often found herself at her grandfather’s house with a number of Manhattan Project alumni. For example, George Kistiakowsky, who built the first nuclear triggers, taught her how to sail. 

A Life Not Yet Realized. While heard to believe today, but the life of Julia McWilliams until Pearl Harbor was wholly unremarkable. She wanted to write but collected nothing but rejection notices.  Her initial foray into advertising ended with her being fired from her job.  At 30, she was a tall and lived her life caring for her father, a wealthy Pasadena land owner.

However, the war changed all of that. She joined the staff of “Will Bill” Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and quickly worked her way up the food chain. Within a year, she found herself working for the OSS in South East Asia, helping to build the network of spies who fought the Japanese.  Donovan built an organization of lawyers, Irish Catholics and the wealthy, thinking that would not fall victim to financial blackmail.  

While overseas she met and gradually wore down the worldly and much older, Paul Child. Rebuffed romantically, a platonic friendship soon developed and Julia reinvented herself into something worthy of his affection. Years passed and Julia could never seem to get Paul to see her as something more than a friend, but her determination carried the day. Her politics shifted leftward. She blossomed culturally. She took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu while stationed in Paris at Paul’s insistence and within a short period of time became the Julia Child we all know.  The film Julie & Julia captured their affection and they remained committed partners until he died in 1992. Julia died in 2004.

 

Cold War and McCarthyism. The book opens with Paul Child returning toWashington for what his wife thinks will be a promotion. However, it was far from it; Paul Child found himself in the middle of the Communist Witch Hunts of the 1950s.  Between the expansion into Eastern Europe after the war, the Soviet access to the bomb, and the fall of China, the world was changing and people like Senator Joe McCarthy were more than willing to shovel coal on the fire.  Wartime cables and correspondence that suggested that Chiang Kai-shek was a war profiteer or willing to defend China to the last dead US soldier were now reframed as examples of American naïveté on Communism.  One by one, friends of Julia and Paul were hauled before closed door committees and asked about long-ago events. Throughout it all, they remained steadfastly loyal to their friends.

Joining us around the table in San Francisco was Stewart Alsop II, whose father and uncle wrote “The Matter of Fact” column for the New York Herald Tribune before finishing his career on the back page of Newsweek.  The senior Alsop served with both Childs in the Pacific. Also joining us in Los Angeles was presidential historian Richard Reeves, who turned out to be a neighbor of Julia and Paul at their summer home in the South of France. Reeves recalled an evening at the Woody Creek Tavern , a long time hangout of Hunter Thompson, which would throw out anybody who came from the East Coast, which in their minds started at the Denver city limits. Worried that they would be tossed when they showed up at the front door, the owner’s eyes bulged realized that Julia Child was in their midst. A huge table was bought into the center of the restaurant and the owners threw a bunch of other patrons out the door to make room.

The book jacket reads, “Bestselling author Jennet Conant brings us a stunning account of Julia and Paul Child’s experiences as members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in theFar Eastduring World War II and the tumultuous years when they were caught up in the McCarthy Red spy hunt in the 1950s and behaved with bravery and honor. It is the fascinating portrait of a group of idealistic men and women who were recruited by the citizen spy service, slapped into uniform, and dispatched to wage political warfare in remote outposts in Ceylon, India, and China.

 

The eager, inexperienced 6 foot 2 inch Julia springs to life in these pages, a gangly golf-playing California girl who had never been farther abroad than Tijuana. Single and thirty years old when she joined the staff of Colonel William Donovan, Julia volunteered to be part of the OSS’s ambitious mission to develop a secret intelligence network across Southeast Asia. Her first post took her to the mountaintop idyll of Kandy, the headquarters of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of combined operations. Julia reveled in the glamour and intrigue of her overseas assignment and life altering romance with the much older and more sophisticated Paul Child, who took her on trips into the jungle, introduced her to the joys of curry, and insisted on educating both her mind and palate. A painter drafted to build war rooms, Paul was a colorful, complex personality. Conant uses extracts from his letters in which his sharp eye and droll wit capture the day-to-day confusion, excitement, and improbability of being part of a cloak- and-dagger operation.

When Julia and Paul were transferred to Kunming, a rugged outpost at the foot of the Burma Road, they witnessed the chaotic end of the war in China and the beginnings of the Communist revolution that would shake the world. A Covert Affair chronicles their friendship with a brilliant and eccentric array of OSS agents, including Jane Foster, a wealthy, free-spirited artist, and Elizabeth MacDonald, an adventurous young reporter. InParis after the war, Julia and Paul remained close to their intelligence colleagues as they struggled to start new lives, only to find themselves drawn into a far more terrifying spy drama. Relying on recently unclassified OSS and FBI documents, as well as previously unpublished letters and diaries, Conant vividly depicts a dangerous time in American history, when those who served their country suddenly found themselves called to account for their unpopular opinions and personal relationships.”

For a sample of the first chapter, please link to her publisher’s site.  To listen to Jennet read from her book at The Vanity Fair site, link here.

The Luncheon Society is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and now Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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