In 2008, the National Archives released 750,000 pages of previously classified personnel files from WWII, including 24,000 employees of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today’s CIA. Julia McWilliams Child was on that list. Newspapers across America ran deliciously intriguing headlines such as “The Spy That Fed Me” and “Julia Child Cooked Up Double Life as a Spy.”
Well, she was a spy….sort of.
Yes, she did work for the premiere intelligence agency, that part is true. But, Julia was a spy in the way that a school secretary is an educator. That’s not to say her work wasn’t critical. Any administrator will tell you that the secretary is the backbone of the office and the most important person there. And, by the end of the war, Julia had worked her way up to a senior civilian intelligence officer and, more importantly, the “keeper of the secrets,” according to her biographer Bob Spitz.
But, she did begin her work with the OSS in the capacity of a secretary. Not just any secretary, according to Spitz, she was a junior assistant to Wild Bill Donovan himself, the colorful character who created the OSS. Initially, Spitz says it was organizing and filing and filing and organizing. But she was diligent and responsible and, a year later, was promoted to Senior Clerk in Donovan’s office. Six months later she was promoted again to work on a hands-on, experimental program to prepare fliers who were downed at sea.
But, when a chance to work overseas came, Julia jumped at the chance for adventure. She was sent to Ceylon to work for General Mountbatten where she would be head of the Registry, the nerve center of the OSS that stored all of the top-secret cables, war plans and code names of their agents, as Jennet Connant described in her book, A Covert Affair, about Julia and Paul Child’s work in the OSS. “They were not spies in the sense that people think of operational agents dropping behind enemy lines, they were intelligence officers,” Conant said. “(Still,) Julia had a very responsible job — she handled top-secret material.”
It was Elizabeth McIntosh, her colleague in the OSS that stated Julia was the “keeper of secrets,” in her book Sisterhood of Spies. McIntosh says that Julia had “a sense of responsibility, executive know-how and a trained and imaginative mind, [for Julia] a sense of humor was also obligatory.” McIntosh relates several stories of Julia’s humorous approach to boring filing work including sending tongue-in-cheek instructions that everyone had to initial and threatening Washington with ridiculous consequences if information was not returned promptly.
Apparently, Julia did deal with most situations with humor and aplomb. McIntosh also relates a story about their transfer from Ceylon to China. The plane they took had to fly over the dreaded “hump of the Himalayas,” a particularly high and dangerous mountain peak that had caused quite a number of fatal crashes. McIntosh stated, “ I flew over the Hump in a storm-tossed flight with imperturbable Julia McWilliams, who calmly read a book while all the rest of us were preparing to die.”
Julia handled her work with the OSS with diligence, humor and grace. But, regardless, the work was not that of a spy but administrative work. Her OSS file is easily obtainable on line. Nowhere ever does it state “absent with leave, “ a euphemism for the time a spy spends undercover. But, despite the facts, people will insist that Julia Child was a spy in the war. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call her – spy or administrator – what she was above all else was an innovative, creative person that conquered life with humor and ebullience.
Child, Julia and Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. NY: Knopf, 1990, 2006.
Connant, Jennet. A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS
WBUR, Radio Boston. Julia Child, OSS Intelligence Officer. https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2011/04/07/julia-child
Come see Julia Child portrayed by Karen Vuranch at our History Alive! Colorado West Chautauqua on September 13 and 14. Find out more here.
For more information on Karen Vuranch and Julia Child, go here.