If you need a shot of adrenaline, here’s the book to do it: “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II,”
Written with precision and pace by journalist Sonia Purnell, the untold story of Virginia Hall delivers action and history in one fast-moving package.
Born in 1906, Hall was groomed by her mother to marry well and settle into one of Baltimore’s “fashionable households.” Early on, Hall made it clear that she was not in on that plan. She dressed as a tomboy, hunted, and showed an aptitude for leadership that was recognized by classmates.
After stints at Radcliffe and Barnard, Hall enrolled in college in Paris in 1926. It was there that she felt free to emulate the young women who were embracing female independence in work and in love.
Back in the U.S., Hall pursued graduate studies with the goal of becoming a diplomat in the state department (6 out of 1,500 applicants were women). Promptly rejected, she vowed to “enter by the back door.”
In 1933, Hall got a job as a secretary in the American Embassy in Turkey (hardly the type of job she wanted.). It would be a pivotal time in her life. During a hunting expedition, she fell and accidentally shot her left foot. In a race to save her life, her left leg was amputated below the knee. The resilience she demonstrated would be the model for how she survived the challenges of organizing and leading French Resistance fighters.
On the Gestapo’s Most-Wanted List
In 1940, Hall became a SOE operative in Britain – a group that specialized in espionage. In Purnell’s engaging account, we learn that Hall refused to let sexism and the male hierarchy diminish her. Creatively enlisting nuns and brothel owners, she was the linchpin of operations based in Lyon. Hall was an innovator in the style of sabotage and guerilla-warfare cells that are used by intelligence agencies today.
Klaus Barbie, the infamous Gestapo commander, had thousands of posters with Hall’s image disseminated throughout France with the words, “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy. We Must Find and Destroy Her.” Hall shifted to the American OSS to complete her work, commanding 400 men in southern France. It took 44 years before the magnitude of her actions, and their impact in liberating Paris, were recognized. Hall was the only civilian woman to receive the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross. Word has it that her life story is being made into a movie; we certainly see why.
Biographer Purnell captures this inspiring story. As she put it, “Virginia never, ever gave up…She sets for us all an example of courage, fortitude, and the understanding that we should all try to play our part to the very best of our abilities.” –Marcia G. Yerman
Virginia Hall Photo Credit: Lorna Catling Collection