Thursday, August 20, 2009

Julie, Julia, & the Red Scare

My wife and I saw the movie Julie & Julia last night, which has some interesting biographical details about Julia Child. I was already aware that Julia Child had worked for the OSS, the World War II spy agency and precursor to the CIA, but I was not aware about how her personal history intersected with McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States. I have not yet had a chance to read the Julia Child book, My Life in France, but the blog Strange Culture has a post summarizing how the Cold War, the Red Scare, and the later development of McCarthyism shaped Julia Child's life:
1. The historical story that is nestled into this book is fascinating. It's certainly interesting to see how America's foreign policy following WWII changes and adapts through the administrations of Harry S Truman and Eisenhower through the eyes of Paul and Julia Child. Paul Child's diplomatic role in furthering a presentation of American culture and art through ECA (Economic Cooperation Administration) is interesting as a direct arm of the Marshall plan, yet the lack of promotional opportunities for Paul, the increased emphasis on military expansion, as well as the growing fear that was associated with McCarthyism in the United States really was shown through the life of Paul and Julia and their experiences in Europe as American citizens, especially when Paul gets a surprise trip to Washington DC were he is interrogated.

In addition, the movie Julie & Julia depicts Julia Child and her husband as staunch anti-McCarthyite Democrats who occasionally had disagreements with Julia's father about Joseph McCarthy. Paul Child was even questioned by federal investigators about whether he was a homosexual, a common practice during the McCarthy era, as depicted in the book The Lavender Scare. According to My Life in France, Julia Child's father wrote her a letter that said, "I think it's time you two [Julia Child and her husband] had a vacation at home and got the American idea and forget what the Socialistic element of Europe are trying to sell you."

Another hidden connection between the Red Scare and Julie & Julia can be found in the character of Avis DeVoto, Julia's pen pal who helps get publishers interested in Julia's cookbook. The movie does not emphasize this much, but Avis DeVoto was the wife of the writer, Bernard DeVoto, a New Deal liberal who ran afoul of the FBI before Joseph McCarthy was even elected to the Senate. (It is a point that doesn't get emphasized enough that anti-Communist witch hunts were in effect in the 1940s during the Truman Administration, a few years before Joseph McCarthy got to federal office.) Bernard DeVoto attracted the FBI's attention, because he wrote a column in October 1949 in Harper's Magazine mocking the FBI, titled "Due Notice to the FBI." I highly recommend reading the column, because it has just the right mixture of outrage over the violation of civil liberties lightened with humor and bemusement.

Even more interesting, when you consider Bernard DeVoto's connection to the movie Julie & Julia, is his depiction of how "foodie" behavior used to be viewed as a sign of Communist sympathies by J. Edgar Hoover's agents. In the column "Due Notice to the FBI," DeVoto depicts some of the ridiculous questions FBI agents would ask about their target's food preferences:
Does Harry S. Dewey belong to the Wine and Food Society? The Friends of Escoffier? Has he ever attended a meeting of either group? Does he associate with members of either? Has he even been present at a meeting of any kind, or at a party, at which a member of either was also present? Has he ever read Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste? Does he associate with people who have read it? Has he ever been present at a meeting or a party at which anyone who has read it was also present?

DeVoto also describes how the FBI used nosy neighbors to get information:
But Mr. Craig goes a few doors down the street and interviews Frances Perkins Green, who is a prohibitionist and has suffered from nervous indigestion for many years. She has seen truffles and artichokes and caviar in the Dewey garbage. The Deweys' maid has told Mrs. Green that they have porterhouses much oftener than frankforts, that they always have cocktails and frequently have wine, that sometimes cherries and peaches come all the way from Oregon by mail.

Cherries and peaches from Oregon, oh my! The right wing and its obsession with "latte liberalism" and the food preferences of its ideological opponents will never change, I suppose. Anyhow, the more I read about Bernard DeVoto, the more I like him. For his very funny column about the FBI, the FBI compiled a massive FBI file about him for his trouble. And all this happened, not because DeVoto was a Communist agent or any threat to national security, but because DeVoto simply believed in an America where people should mind their own business about their neighbors. As Devoto said,
I like a country where it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California.

It's a message we could do well to listen to today.

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