Woody Allen once wrote a short story about an elderly scientist who, despite his advanced years, maintained a full schedule. In fact, he was busy revising his autobiography -- to include himself.

It's something Jennet Conant might have considered when deciding on the subtitle of "A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS." Paul and Julia Child are merely supporting players in this book about the Office of Strategic Services in World War II and the McCarthy witch hunts that followed. Despite this blatant marketing ploy, the book is a well-researched and well-written account of this period in U.S. history.

The Childs met while working for the OSS (the precursor for the CIA) in Ceylon in 1944. Paul's partner in a long-term relationship had recently died, and he was searching for the perfect woman. But those who fit his ideal proffered friendship, not romance.

At first, Julia seemed more taken with Paul than vice versa. She grew up in a wealthy household with a chef preparing family meals, and took her first cooking lessons to impress him. Eventually they formed a loving and respectful union that became the envy of their friends.

The book opens in 1955 in Bonn. Paul, who worked for the U.S. Information Service at the time, was called to Washington; Julia thought he was finally going to get a long-deserved promotion. But he had been summoned to answer questions about Jane Foster, a friend and fellow OSS employee thought to be a communist.

It is Foster who is at the book's center. She was an impetuous iconoclast, never afraid to air her sometimes controversial views.

Among her post-war duties was a tour of Southeast Asia, where she concluded that the nascent independence movements in Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere were anti-colonialist, not pro-communist. She said as much in her reports, but that was out of step with government policy: "American interest lay in the maintenance of British, French and Dutch colonial regimes," Conant writes. Foster was, of course, correct, and had we listened we might have avoided missteps such as the Vietnam War.

Not surprisingly, Foster got caught up in the McCarthy hysteria. It wasn't as though she were entirely blameless; she put up what were, for the time, a number of -- pardon the expression -- red flags. The outspoken Foster aired her views in an interview with a communist newspaper, she had friends who were communists and she lived a bohemian life in Paris.

Despite the potential career dangers involved, both Paul and Julia stood up for her. Though Foster denied the charges and the FBI concluded it could not secure a conviction, her passport was lifted and she was denied re-entry into the United States.

Conant, a terrific writer, conducted voluminous research and crafted a fascinating story that reads as though she were actually there.

  • Curt Schleier is a writer and critic in New Jersey.