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From spy to star chef: Julia Child’s adventures

In "A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS," Jennet Conant tells the story of the couple's adventures in the spy agency and as diplomats in the y ears that followed. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Long before she was “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” iconic chef Julia Child was Julia McWilliams, an awkward, tall young woman from Pasadena who wanted to be well informed and well traveled. She tried her hand at a few jobs, none successful, and finally got her chance to do something worthwhile when World War II broke out. In “A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS,” Jennet Conant tells the story of the couple’s adventures. Read an excerpt.

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It started with the arrival of a telegram. Ever since the war, the thin slip of a letter had become permanently fixed in people’s minds as a harbinger of death and disaster. Why Julia believed for one moment that it would be good news she could not recall — just that she had been so sure. The cable, which reached them in Bonn on Thursday, April 7, 1955, was addressed to her husband, Paul Child. The cursory message took the form of an urgent summons to Washington: REPORT SOONEST FOR CONSULTATION.

Julia had been over the moon. She knew exactly why Paul was being called stateside. They were going to make him “head of the department.” She had even told him as much, her voice brimming with confidence and pride. Incapable of containing her excitement, she had been ready to celebrate then and there. It was silly of her, but characteristic, too. She had gone on happily speculating about the telegram the rest of the evening. Paul had eventually gotten caught up in her mood, his reluctant, mock impatience giving way to anticipation. This, at last, was his promotion, long deserved and long overdue. Then again, when had the State Department ever done anything in a timely fashion?

She supposed they should be grateful. Paul had never been particularly ambitious and because he had little patience with bureaucracy had remained mired in the middle ranks of the Foreign Service. He had never intended to pursue a diplomatic career and lacked the necessary instincts. He had simply been rolled into the State Department after the war and eventually found himself, along with most of his old department, reorganized into the newly formed United States Information Service (USIS). His particular field, “visual presentation,” which had once involved designing and running war rooms in such exotic locales as India and China, now encompassed such mundane matters as arranging press and special events for the agency’s European missions. As Foreign Service jobs went, it was a somewhat unglamorous backwater, and it was unlikely he would rise very far. That suited Paul just fine, Julia knew. It meant he would have more time to devote to his artistic sidelines—the writing, painting, and photography that he found infinitely more satisfying. The job was just something he got on with, did well, and left on Fridays at five. Still, it was only right that after years of toiling under a succession of bores and simpletons (his current superiors were known to the staff as “Woodenhead the First” and “Woodenhead the Second,” or WH1 and WH2 for short) Paul was finally going to get his due. Perhaps he would get to run his own show or, at the very least, be allowed to pick the members of his own team. There were few things more demoralizing, in Julia’s opinion, than “working for people you don’t admire.”

It was just the morale boost they both needed. Six months earlier, Julia and Paul had been forced to leave their beloved France and, crueler still, an adorable apartment in the old port city of Marseille, because of an inane government decree that a diplomatic post in any given country could not exceed a period of four years. The three years they had spent in Paris directly after the war, followed by a fifteen-month stint on the southern coast, meant they had exceeded the limit. They had no choice but to pack up and go where they were told.

The transfer to Bonn could not have come at a worse time. Julia had been in the midst of testing recipes for a French cookbook she was contracted to write for the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin with two fellow gourmands she had met in Paris. She knew that the new assignment for Paul not only would take her farther from her collaborators, but would remove her from the country in whose cuisine she should be immersing herself. As difficult as it had been for her to box up her kitchen in Marseille, Julia understood that the move was infinitely harder on Paul. He had spent his formative years in France, and the language had become second nature to him, as had the internecine squabbling of the locals. The country had captured his heart long before it had taken hold of hers.

Leaving Paris for Marseille had been a wrenching experience, but it was nothing compared to the jolt that Julia and Paul experienced upon learning they were being posted to Bonn. Paul was fluent in a number of languages, but German was not one of them. It was a poor use of his skills, and he was beside himself. While he had long since reconciled himself to the fact that few things in their government agency followed the dictates of logic, this yank of the chain was particularly galling. Julia could think of nothing to say to cheer him up. She had never set foot in Germany and was “horrified” at the thought. Her memories of World War II were too fresh for her not to dread the idea of settling in Bonn, which had temporarily replaced Berlin as the official seat of the government because it reportedly had less historical baggage. She could only hope she would think better of the new West German capital for having escaped the brunt of the Nazi boot. “To think of living in Germany,” she grimly wrote Paul’s family. “Will I ever get over the imagined smell of the gas chambers and the rotting bodies of the Concentration camps. Will we ever be able to learn the language in a couple of months?”*

* The eccentric capitalization and punctuation in all the letters are as they appear in the originals.

Their first glimpse of their new home did nothing to lift their spirits. “Woe — how did we get here!” Julia scribbled in her diary on October 24, 1954, the day they arrived in Bad Godesberg, a drab residential district just south of Bonn. Flush with dollars from the Marshall Plan, the entire Rhine Valley had been rapidly rebuilt as part of the country’s economic and industrial redevelopment, and it was full of blocky concrete office buildings and bristling with American soldiers. Julia and Paul were dismayed to find themselves back in the familiar embrace of the U.S. military, assigned to live in a segregated (“no Germans allowed!”) compound called Plittersdorf on the Rhine, which its unfortunate occupants had dubbed “the Golden Ghetto on the Rhine.” They had never cared for this part of army life — the rows of anonymous housing, streets crawling with jeeps and military policemen, and bars crowded with drunken young men in ill-fitting uniforms who wanted to be anywhere but there. Writing to her sister, Julia griped that she had “had enough of that meat-ballery during the war to last her a lifetime.” Still, there were plenty of opportunities for escape. Paul’s Foreign Service salary enabled them to live well, especially as the dollar was strong against the mark. Whenever possible, they fled across the river to Bonn, a picturesque university town that had been occupied by American troops toward the end of the war and had somehow managed to survive relatively unscathed, its medieval battlements and grand boulevards still redolent of Old World charm. There they could sample the solid regional fare, the sauerbratens and sausages, inevitably served with groaning plates of potato pancakes. Afterward, too full to go far, they would stop to recover at one of the pavement cafés along the banks of the river.

Julia and Paul, like most in their seasoned diplomatic circle, had always been guilty of a certain disdain for GI culture, but what had once been mild distaste had over time developed into a visceral aversion. They wanted no part of the martial fervor that arose in the shadow of the Soviet threat in East Germany. Bonn, the makeshift capital, seemed by virtue of its very impermanence to bring out the worst in its American occupiers, who were so conflicted about their objectives in the divided region that they appeared to be almost paralyzed. Caught between the menacing Soviet Union and Western Europe’s fears of military vulnerability, Bonn was emblematic of the tenuous peace, and of the uncertain prospects for American forces and American dollars to achieve a united capitalist postwar Europe to deter the spread of Communism. Writing in The New York Times, Julia and Paul’s friend Stewart Alsop observed that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Germany was “a peculiarly depressing place for a peculiarly American reason” and, in its confusion and excess of caution, was substituting “dogma for policy and the official line for serious thought.”

Within weeks of their arrival in Germany, Julia and Paul had picked up on the atmosphere of distrust and unease. The place was rife with closed-door meetings, simmering tensions, and subterranean plots. They were on the front lines of the Cold War in Europe, though Julia could not help feeling that the chill in the air had its origin in the “rampant right wingery” that had seized their own country in recent years. In Washington, the mood was so changed that on her last visit home she had scarcely recognized the city as the same place she and Paul had lived in those first happy postwar years.

From “ by Jennet Conant. Copyright © 2011 by Jennet Conant. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.