Excerpt from 'A Covert Affair

Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS'

by Jennet Connat

22 April 2011

Photo credit: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.  

Situation Here Like Kafka Story

By Wednesday morning, Paul had begun to work out that the thirty-six hours of bureaucratic confusion were not simply a matter of crossed signals, but were part of a convoluted procedure conveying him toward some kind of “security investigation.” By then it was also apparent that the cable demanding his presence in Washington had nothing whatsoever to do with his career advancement but had been part of a clumsy effort to provide him with a cover story. Although the “how” and “why” of it were still beyond him, Paul wrote Julia, “It appears to be (if the above assumption is correct) that they are actually trying to protect my reputation (and their own too, of course!) by all this secrecy—having, perhaps, learned from the public blare of the McCarthy proceedings, and the consequent adverse criticism of his methods, that unremovable smirches can be rubbed onto innocent persons.” The labyrinthine maneuvering, he theorized in a later letter to his superior in Bonn, was in case they had uncovered a mess: “It would have served the Agency’s interests not to have it bruited about. The investigation hinged on the standard guilt-by-association gambit, with all the potentialities that could spring from such a situation.”

“If you want to have some verbal fun,” Paul later wrote Julia, “try to prove sometime to two FBI guys that you aren’t a Lesbian. How do you prove it?”

Before facing the inquisition, Paul telegraphed Julia, summing up his predicament: SITUATION HERE LIKE KAFKA STORY. He was being drawn inexorably into a drama not of his devising, one from which there seemed to be no way out. All the time, in the back of his mind, he could not stop searching his memory for a name, an assignment, even the most “tenuous connection,” that might have inspired enough suspicion to warrant bringing him back from Germany for a security inquest. Nothing made any sense. “Why in Hell am I here at all?” he worried in a frantic note dashed off at 10:00 a.m. that morning. “This is curiously fantastic, unreal, frightening, and preposterous; and I couldn’t wish more that you were here to give me your invaluable moral support.”

Resigned to the fact that he would have to “walk the plank alone,” Paul reported to the Office of Security, where he spent the better part of the afternoon and evening being interrogated by two special agents, W. H. Sullivan and A. W. Sanders. A secretary, silent as the grave, took down a complete transcript of everything said. The two agents sat across the table from him, staring over a four-inch-thick dossier that had evidently been assembled with great care over a considerable period of time. Paul was informed that he was the subject of a State Department Special Inquiry, an official investigation into his character, reputation, and loyalty. Friends, relations, employers, and associates—from the distant past to the present—had been tracked down and interviewed.

As it turned out, the association that seemed to most interest the FBI was with one Jane Foster, a former OSS colleague with whom he had served in Ceylon during the war. This assumption was based on the fact that “a number of relentless and tricky hours” were spent in grilling him about Jane. They had wanted to know where, when, and how he had met her. How well had he known her? How often had he seen her? What had they talked about when they were together? Who were her friends? Where had she lived? What were her interests? After an exhaustive examination of that relationship, the interrogators had moved on, questioning him about other friends in the OSS and the Foreign Service, only to return to the subject of Jane Foster again and again in the course of the night. “I gather from the way they talked about her that she had fallen under suspicion of a connection with Communism,” he later confided to a close colleague, Joe Phillips, the director of public affairs for Germany. “So they investigated all Her friends and acquaintances. My name appeared among the latter.”

The “second suspicious thing” from his past, he wrote Julia, appeared to be the fact that he had at one time given the name of Morris Llewellyn Cooke as a reference. An old friend of his brother’s, Cooke was an eighty-five-year-old liberal Democrat who had been a dollar-a-year man during FDR’s administration. As far as Paul could tell, Cooke appeared to be in “bad odor” with the authorities and a suspect in some kind of right-wing “Republican-brand investigation.” (Cooke was a member of the board of directors of the Independent Citizens’ Committee for the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, an organization that the FBI listed as “Communist-controlled.”) Paul told them that while he was acquainted with Cooke, he did not consider him “an intimate friend” and knew nothing about his political ideology. They worked away at Paul’s connection to Cooke for at least an hour, asking about anything the two might have in common, including residences, work, ideas, projects, and travel. They asked if he was familiar with other colleagues of his brother and sister-in-law, and the FBI agents mentioned several names that meant nothing to him.

The third allegation Sullivan and Sanders had confronted Paul with was that he was “a homosexual.” The minute the word was spoken, one of them rounded on him: “So, how about it?”

This caught Paul completely off guard. At first it had struck him as so absurd that he burst out laughing. Then he got angry. He demanded to know the name of his accuser. It was written in the Constitution, he argued indignantly, that he had a right to confront his accuser. The two special agents, whom Paul dubbed “the ultimate Kafkas,” allowed as how they were not permitted to reveal anything. Paul was stymied. He had been a bachelor (more by circumstance than by choice, he liked to think) until the age of forty-four. Directly after the war, he and Julia, then thirty-four, had decided to throw caution to the wind and get married. As it turned out, their nine years of marriage did not amount to proof of anything. “Male homosexuals often have wives and children,” the agents had demurred. Paul was dumbfounded. He found himself struggling to remain serious in what could only be described as a surreal situation. Finally, his voice heavy with sarcasm, he suggested that since he had a wife but no child, perhaps that let him “off the hook.” The two agents remained stony faced. “If you want to have some verbal fun,” he later wrote Julia, “try to prove sometime to two FBI guys that you aren’t a Lesbian. How do you prove it?”

Unbeknown to Paul, a State Department investigation into his background in 1946, triggered by his application to work at the Pentagon designing intelligence installations, had raised questions about his sexual orientation. The report advised that at times in the past Paul had “given the impression of being bisexual,” and the charge was noted in his file, cataloged along with countless others that raised questions about his character, politics, and patriotism. The records indicate that he was one of identical twin sons born to Bertha Cushing Child, a singer from Boston, and Charles Triplet Child, a scientist from Virginia who worked at the Astrophysical Observatory in the Smithsonian. Three weeks after the twins were born, Charles Triplet Child died of typhoid fever, leaving their mother as their sole means of support. She resumed her career as a singer, and the twins and their older sister were raised in a musical environment: little Charles played the violin, Paul the cello, and Mary (Meeda) the piano. Money was tight, so they were soon earning their way as the “Mrs. Child and the Children” quartet. The boys attended the Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts, Boston Latin High School, and then the Park Lodge School in Paris. After high school, Charles attended Harvard while Paul tried an extension course at Columbia College before taking off for Europe. In France, both during his school years and later, Paul studied art, sculpture, and woodcarving and, according to the report, followed a “bohemian mode of life.” As a result of his many years in Paris, he was thought to have “a free and easy approach to morals.” He and Charles worked for a time as freelance artists and were characterized as intellectuals, “exceedingly left-wing,” and allied to people of similar beliefs. One former neighbor described Paul as a socialist of the French school, “personified by the beliefs and teachings of Léon Blum.”

When the war broke out, Paul tried to get into intelligence work but claimed he was disqualified because of a partly blind left eye, the result of a boyhood accident. Then came a call from Washington that he might be of use to the government because of “certain abilities,” which he later learned referred to judo, which he had been studying since the age of twelve. (He was a third-degree black belt.) Ultimately it was his talent as an artist that attracted the attention of the OSS, which hired him in 1943 to make situation maps, charts, and diagrams. While there were countless references from friends attesting to Paul’s loyalty and integrity, describing him as a “solid citizen” and person of “high caliber,” there were an equal number of reports expressing hesitancy about his brother, a painter, who was generally viewed as less stable, prone to sympathizing with the “underdog,” and someone who could become receptive “to movements of a disloyal nature.” Some of those interviewed maintained that Charles Child and his wealthy wife, Fredericka (Freddie), were “Communist sympathizers,” although the record states there was “no actual proof ” of any such activities.

Furthermore, Leslie Brady, Paul’s superior at the American Embassy in Paris, while stating that he knew nothing derogatory about his moral character, indicated that he did not think he had “the proper temperament” to make a good public affairs officer with the USIA and considered him better suited to behind-the-scenes exhibit work. Brady explained that Paul found it difficult to deal with people who did not share his opinions, adding that Paul would become discouraged when he had to deal with foreign nationals who were not pro-American and “would make little attempt to influence these people to the American viewpoint.” Brady described Paul as “moody” and “eccentric” and indicated that he thought he suffered from a “definite inferiority complex,” apparently the result of having a twin brother who was a talented painter while he was “a frustrated artist.”

As a result of lingering doubts about Paul’s leanings, both political and sexual, it was recommended that his wife be investigated for anything of “a derogatory nature.” According to her confidential file, Julia (or Julie, as she was known then) McWilliams was from a socially prominent Pasadena family, had attended school in California followed by Smith College in the East, and enjoyed an “excellent reputation.” Her record was unblemished. Furthermore, she was known to be a close friend of the third Mrs. Harry Hopkins, formerly Mrs. Louise Macy, a fellow alumna of Smith College. Julia had been briefly employed at Coast magazine in San Francisco, and in the advertising department of W. & J. Sloane in New York, before going to work as a file clerk for the Office of War Information in 1942. Her father, John McWilliams, recently remarried, was known to be a Republican, very active in civic affairs, and on the board of education. Overall, the family was considered to be “above reproach.” A longtime neighbor testified that Julia; her sister, Dorothy; and their father were “as fine loyal Americans as possible.” Investigators in Bonn turned up a coworker who reported that at times Julia could be more outspoken than her husband and had once referred to her father as a “Black Republican” and to members of her family as “stuffy middle class.” The implication was that she felt her family had had “everything handed to them on a silver platter,” had never done anything for themselves, and were therefore dull and uninteresting. However, the source did not consider her to be “left wing” and said he would classify her as a “Truman Democrat.” As part of a routine “neighborhood check” in Paris, the concierge of the building where the Childs had rented an apartment was interviewed, and she reportedly stated that Paul and his wife appeared “devoted to each other and were always together.” The concierge concluded by stating that she could furnish only favorable information about the couple.

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