A Covert Affair: An Interview with Jennet Conant

By Betsy Burton

Betsy Burton: Although A Covert Affair details the lives of Julia and Paul Child, it is in some ways as much about their fellow OSS compatriot Jane Foster. Jane’s life twines through theirs from the time they join the OSS where Paul is first attracted to her, through their years in Paris. And it is Jane’s past that makes Paul of interest to the FBI during the McCarthy years. Was the idea for this book generated by all three friends or did you begin researching the Childs and discover Jane’s impact on their lives along the way?

Jennet Conant: From the start I was fascinated by what happened to the three friends. From the time they all joined the OSS to the dawning of the Cold War and rise of McCarthyism, the world they inhabited was fissured by divides. I wanted to explore the nature of friendship and loyalty and honor in those fraught times, and to be able to have two such trusted narrators as Julia and Paul made the story all the more compelling. The frenzied Communist witch hunts of the 1950s literally turned their world upside down. Many of their closest friends and colleagues– loyal OSS and State Department officers—suddenly found themselves accused of being Red spies. That two people as good, and decent and altogether unimpeachable as Julia and Paul somehow got entangled in a major spy scandal seems incredible today, but they were both thoroughly investigated and Paul came perilously close to having his career ruined. I wanted to unravel the whole complicated story, beginning with their volunteering for the OSS all the way through their time in Ceylon and China, so readers could judge for themselves what really happened: whether or not Julia and Paul were duped by Jane Foster (had she really crossed over and was leading a clandestinely divided life all along?) or whether they were all victims of a poisonous time in American politics.

BB: Julia sprang from a right-wing California family, as did Jane. War taught them both to question their parents’ politics, to think for themselves, and to view Asia through the lens of their hard-won experience. Yet as the U. S. broke promises and bungled policy, Jane was radicalized in a way that Julia never was. After your research, do you think Julia might have ended up more radicalized herself had she not met Paul and discovered her passion for food? I guess I’m asking if the differences in their responses to history can be explained more by the differences in their characters or their differing experiences?

JC: I would have to say character is destiny in this case. Jane was radicalized well before the war began. Although she and Julia were both bright girls from conservative, well-to-do California families, the similarity really ends there. Julia was very close to both her parents and basically enjoyed her “social butterfly” years before the war in Pasadena.  Jane, by contrast, was a restless malcontent and in full rebellion by her late teens. Raised in convent schools by very controlling parents, Jane went out of her way to provoke them: taking up abstract painting, joining San Francisco’s avant garde art scene, adopting a bohemian lifestyle—lovers, liquor, late nights, etc.– spouting utopian ideals, supporting socialist and Communist causes… She finally rejected her parents’ lifestyle completely by running off to Java with a Dutch diplomat. Jane wanted a life of excitement and high drama and in the end got all that she asked for and more. Julia never felt the need to rebel in the same way. She came into her own during the war, but I would say she emerged a more educated and independent thinker rather than radicalized. Her politics were shaped by her romance with the very liberal Paul and reaction against the right wing extremism and demagoguery of the post-war era. By the late 1950s she was a committed Democrat and would remain one the rest of her days.

BB: Julia, Paul, Jane, and their sidekicks in and out of the OSS are fascinating characters, but it seems as if history itself is the true protagonist in A Covert Affair. As your cast of then-young characters open their eyes and their hearts to the cultures they’re working in, we see the Indonesia of the 40s and watch the machinations of the Allies as the war winds down fueling the nationalist movements throughout Asia. As readers, we marvel at our own bumbling State Department, exasperated and amused—until the creep of suspicion and distrust that marked the 50s begins to take on the un-amusing shape of McCarthyism. The true narrative arc of the book might well be the mistakes we made as a government back then, and its theme the consequences of those long ago decisions. Despite your eye for the fascinating, quirky characters and the details that bring history to life and keep the reader riveted to the page, do you see A Covert Affair as an historical cautionary tale at its heart?

JC: I do see it as a cautionary tale. Exploiting the public’s fear –either of war, enemy infiltration or terrorist attack–is a dangerous business. Episodes of demagoguery—along with the accompanying domestic repression and censorship and detainment—have occurred periodically throughout history. Just think of the discreditable acts committed in this country in the summer of 1798, when the Federalists passed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts and condoned waves of searches and arrests of anyone critical of the government. The Federalists were absolutely paranoid about the inroads being made by Jefferson’s Republican Party and more or less suspended the First Amendment in their efforts to defeat the opposition.  I am always interested in that kind of official hypocrisy—the gap between this country’s professed ideals and rhetoric and actual behavior. I think any student of human affairs can detect the parallels between the McCarthy era and some disturbing political trends we see today. The same motifs repeat—smug ideologues, unswerving fanatics, accusations of disloyalty and guilt by association. And it’s important to remember that the abuse of power is not particular to the Right or Left, both sides have pursued such tactics when it suited them.

BB: Your tales of derring-do and of the ever-changing relationships among your characters are so vivid that sometimes it seems as if you were there. I know Paul’s often revealing letters to his brother provided a good deal of insight into their lives, but there were obviously other first-hand sources. Can you talk about them?

JC: I wanted the book to have a very intimate tone so that readers could experience the characters’ growing anxiety about their situation, and understand what it was really like to live in fear that even the slightest rumor about Communist sympathies could stop their chances of getting a promotion or a new passport, let alone trigger an investigation that could end in disgrace and ruin. What made it possible to maintain that tone was the huge number of first-hand sources.  Paul Child’s diaries and Julia’s letters provided me with their intimate commentary on events from the beginning of the war all the way through to the end of the 1950s. I was able to weave in Jane’s thoughts and reactions throughout, based on her memoir, letters and personal papers, as well as interviews with her family. Above all, I had a built-in narrator in the person of on Elizabeth McIntosh. She was an invaluable source: not only did I have her wartime memoir as a contemporaneous chronicle of day-to-day events, but I had her at the other end of a phone every time I had a question or needed help with a scene. I would call her to ask about the weather—I’m not kidding. Elizabeth was close to Julia, Paul and Jane, entered the OSS at the same time and was with them every step of the way, so she was my touchstone. I dedicated the book to her out of gratitude for the many hours she gave to this project, and the wealth of insight and emotional truth she provided.

BB: Your portrayal of the relationship between Paul and Julia themselves is moving—its tentative nature at first, the growing attachment, the eventual bonding that seemed to grow stronger and stronger. What struck you, as you were doing your research, as the true cement that held them together? The most moving and perhaps romantic thing about them?

JC: What struck me most forcefully was that these were two very different people who were both profoundly lonely. Their romance was built, very hesitantly and over many months, on the foundation of their friendship– on their basic need for human warmth and companionship. Paul did not believe they had much in common and worried endlessly about their disparate family backgrounds, but in the end he missed Julia’s company so much he allowed his heart to overrule his head. I thought it was very touching that as the years went by they never forgot how miserable they were when they were single, and never stopped being grateful that they had found love. What made them seem like such a romantic pair was that they were always celebrating their relationship, and toasting their togetherness.

BB: If, indeed what you have written is a cautionary tale, can you talk about the lessons from history we ought to have learned and whether or not we’ve learned them? If we haven’t, can you talk about consequences in today’s world? Or is that another book?

JC: Surely the answer to those questions could fill another book! There are so many worrying trends, not the least of which is our old habit of promising democracy to people in distant corners of the globe and then failing to deliver it.  To me it seems a naïve, dangerous and delusional style of leadership. But enough said. The point I’d like to emphasize is that the reason for writing history is that there is always a chance we will learn from our past mistakes. I have enormous faith in our resilience as a country, in the strength of our Constitution, and in the ability of future generations to chart a better course.

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