The Exceptional Child

Janet Conant’s A Covert Affair Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS tells, among other things, how Julia Child got to know her future husband when they were working for America’s wartime intelligence and covert ops organization.  Their romance has the halting and tortuous quality one associates with sitcom couples, and this fits in with Conant’s portrait of the OSS as an outfit   much closer to  Get Smart than to Smiley’s People.   Nitwit schemes like terrorizing Japanese soldiers by releasing foxes in their vicinity and convincing people in Burma to rebel by dyeing their river yellow were occasionally interrupted by attempts to gather actual information, and Julia (a civilian, since neither WACs nor WAVEs would admit a six-foot-two woman) acted as a kind of field librarian.

The story is a familiar one: our heroine, a charming, lovable tomboy, adores our hero, but he sees her only as a buddy, someone to hang out with while he pursues his ideal woman.  And as often happens in Hollywood, by the time he comes to his senses (in the movies, she takes off her glasses and turns out to be Anne Hathaway), we have come to feel that she could really do better than a dweeb like him.

It’s 1944, and Paul, who is doing design work for the OSS, is stationed far from the front lines.  In fact, he is living in a colonial hotel on a tropical island (Sri Lanka), along with about a hundred young women.  You’re thinking that sounds like a pretty sweet gig, compared to,say, Omaha Beach or an Iwo Jima foxhole.  But you don’t  understand, the service at the hotel is terrible.  And the girls…well, they’re not up to Paul’s standards either.  He writes home that such uncultivated women,  “with their uncomprehending sex appeal and limited understandings, have almost no magnetism for me, except in a very surface fashion.”

You see, Paul has his ideal woman, his femme intégrale, all mapped out—she even has a name, Zorina, after a ballerina that you would have heard of if you were truly educated.  She would of course be a beauty with  a ballerina’s body, a woman of the world, a modern woman and yet one who keeps house (he has been promised this last by an astrologer).  Certainly Zorina is not the towering Smith girl from Pasadena who heads the Registry section.

A woman I know once showed me a list of requirements she was working up as she looked for her second husband.  Some of J’s criteria struck me as odd (he must not salt his food before tasting, for example), but mostly it was the whole concept of such a list that seemed alien.  Husband #2 despite satisfying specifications, didn’t work out; finally, J. figured out that she really prefers women, and has been happily partnered for years.  I don’t necessarily think that Paul would have been happier with a posting to Fire Island (though that’s possible), and J.’s list didn’t ooze arrogance as Paul’s does, but both lists are signs of someone who is barking up the wrong tree.

In any case, Julia  thought Paul, with his fluent French and his painting and his silk scarves tucked into his open-necked shirts, was Mr. Dashing.  The results, at least at first, were predictable and painful:

She gave Paul a photo of herself posing on her cot in an elegant dress and pearls, smiling up into the camera, one bare leg coquettishly crossed over the other.  If there was any  implied invitation in the photo, Paul missed it.  He sent the picture straight on to his brother with the explanation that it was an interesting interior shot of their quarters…

Ouch.  He briefly identifies the female figure before moving on to a detailed account of the furnishings and décor.  Gradually, as he recognizes how much he enjoys being with Julia and as his comination of Mata Hari and Betty Crocker fails to materialize, he considers her more carefully:

Julia had potential, he continued, but was in need of training and molding and informing.  She enjoyed good food, music,  art and literature, and would doubtless develop a taste for the finer things if they were in her orbit; she was eager and pliable, but just thinking about all the work it would take made him tired.


Plus, he found her virginity off-putting…more work, I guess.  Julia, meanwhile, was thriving on the opportunities for freedom and autonomy that wartime offered women.  Perhaps especially after Paul was transferred to China, people were impressed with her boldness and confidence, her self-conscious giggle replaced with a booming laugh.  Her messages to OSS HQ show a mocking wit, as when she requested a code book to decipher their instructions, “one of those little black books that list the strange names you give everybody, such as Fruitcake #382.”

In China, Paul finally meets  his Zorina, the lovely and brilliant 25-year-old Marjorie; what has never occurred to him, though, is that a little balding middle-aged hypochondriacal snob might not be her Zorino.  (I am living proof that a beautiful woman may fall for an unbeautiful man, but it doesn’t do to take it for granted.)  He is reduced to writing bad poetry, sort of TS Eliot dipped in Tennyson:

Wasteland!  Wasteland!  Never a bush.
No gushing coolness under the rock,
Devoid of butterfly and buttercup.


He decides that young women are not for him: “I know too much and they don’t know enough.”  Yeah, that’s probably it.    Fortunately, Julia arrives in China, so he has a shoulder to cry on, and now he has more enthusiasm for the project of educating her.  One evening, friends notice that he’s heading to her room with books about sex under his arm, instead of the usual literature, and sure enough, in the pandemonium of the war’s end, they finally hook up.  Sadly, he fails to live up to his self-image as a “randy old goat,” but Julia is charitable, speculating in her diary that “Perhaps it is his artistic-ness that makes him seem to lack a male drive.”

They do, of course, end up getting married, and it must be conceded that Paul was very helpful in some ways: it was to impress him that she learned to cook, and it was his job that took them to Paris, where she fell in love with French food.  And she really did seem to love him—I guess, as Elizabeth Bishop says in “Filling Station,” somebody loves us all.  Or perhaps the moral is that lots of guys have nasty shit going on in their heads, and we should be thankful that we usually can’t tell.

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