Jennet Conant is the perfect person to chronicle the weird, wacky world of World War II's Office of Strategic Services. Her eminently readable, though slightly florid, style matches perfectly the derring-do of the OSS in Ceylon, today's Sri Lanka; and her three earlier World War II books bolster her expertise on the era.
Despite its subtitle, A Covert Affair is more about Jane Foster than Julia and Paul Child. Foster was an OSS artist in Ceylon, who was accused after the war of being a spy and avoided prosecution by moving to Paris. Food queen Julia Child and her husband, Paul, were also stationed in Ceylon, and then China, so Conant had a known name for her subtitle and material to match.
Many of those in A Covert Affair were enmeshed in the dragnets of McCarthyism and "Who lost China?" Sprinkled through Conant's improbable, nearly impossible and delightful stories of how OSS operatives fought the war is her lavish use of first names, which require either a chart or a peek at the epilogue to sort out.
She starts in 1950s Paris, with Paul Child being recalled to Washington to face loyalty board questioning. It is a harrowing tale in which accusers are never identified, and no apology accompanied the clearing of his name.
During World War II, Julia McWilliams and eight other OSS "girls" shipped overseas with 3,000 GIs. When Julia and Paul met a few weeks later he was not impressed — at that time, Paul was spending a great deal of time with Foster — but eventually he switched to Julia. After their marriage, Paul was posted to Paris. Julia, hardly a cook then, took Cordon Bleu courses and began working on her cookbook. The rest is history.
While there is plenty about Julia and Paul Child in A Covert Affair, there is even more about the OSS, its strange ways and its strange people. Conant cooked up a good book on the Childs without much cooking.
Jules Wagman, last book editor of the old Cleveland (Ohio) Press, reviews books in Jacksonville.