Even though she’s one of the most important spies in American history, and even though she’s the most highly decorated female civilian of WWII, you’ve probably never heard of Virginia Hall.
I mean, if you’re a history buff or a WWII aficionado or a member of the CIA (her story is on display at the museum inside Langley), maybe you have. But that’s not most of us.
Today, that changes, though Virginia herself might not be too happy about becoming a household name. As she liked to say, “Many of my friends were killed for talking too much.”
Since it’s been over 70 years since she worked as a wartime spy, and she’s no longer living, it’s probably safe – and high time – to talk about her contributions.
Hall was born in 1906 to a wealthy Baltimore family who expected her to educate herself and then marry into more money. She had other ideas, wearing bracelets of (live) snakes to school, becoming an avid hunter, and taking pride in being “capricious and cantankerous.”
She was educated at Radcliffe and Barnard before traveling to Paris and falling in love with France, a love that would change the course of her life. Once she’d gone overseas, Hall became set on becoming a diplomat, said Sonia Purnell, the author of a forthcoming book on Hall.
“She wanted to be an ambassador. She got pushed back by the State Department. She applied several times.”
While working in a secretarial capacity at a U.S. consulate in Turkey, Hall had a hunting accident that cost her her left leg below the knee. She persevered through a long and painful recovery, and learned to maneuver on a wooden leg.
Another Hall biographer and ex-CIA officer, Craig Gralley, believes that losing her leg was a turning point in her life.
“She had been given a second chance at life and wasn’t going to waste it. And her injury, in fact, might have kind of bolstered her or reawakened her resilience so that she was in fact able to do great things.”
She was living in France when WWII broke out, and immediately jumped into the fray, volunteering to drive a French ambulance. As her beloved France was overrun, Hall fled to Britain and quickly fell in with British intelligence. After a bit of training, she found herself back on French soil and working as a British spy in 1941 for the French Resistance.
Hall posed as a reporter for The New York Post and saw many in her network arrested and even killed. The Gestapo had her number and knew they were in search of a woman with a limp, but Hall was a natural at the spy game – like many women who were an active part of the resistance, she exploited her female-ness and her “cripple-ness” to fly under the radar.
“Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible,” says Gralley. “She was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time. None of the Germans early in the war necessarily thought that a woman was capable of being a spy.”
Hall operated largely in Lyon, which put her in the path of Klaus Barbie, otherwise known as “the Butcher of Lyon,” but thankfully she was never counted among the thousands tortured and killed by his forces. He was aware of her, however, posting signs around the city that featured a drawing of her and the words “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy – We Must Find And Destroy Her!”
While there, she recruited everyone she could, from nuns at the convent where she was staying to a local brothel owner who helped by passing along information the prostitutes gathered from German troops. She organized the resistance in Lyon, providing safe houses and intelligence that altered the course of the war on French soil.
Even though she constantly changed her appearance, the Nazis got close enough in 1942 to send her into hiding in Spain. To get there, she walked 50 miles a day for 3 days in heavy snow, over the Pyrenees Mountains.
With a wooden leg. Remember?
Gralley, who considers himself in good shape, tried making the trek and found it exhausting.
“I could only imagine the kind of will and the kind of perseverance that Virginia Hall had by making this trek. Not on a beautiful day, but in the dead of winter and with a prosthetic leg she had to drag behind her.”
A snafu with her passport had her wasting 6 weeks in a Spanish jail before being released back to Britain. All Virginia wanted to do was to return to her work in France but the British refused her request, fearing her life.
The American OSS, however, had no such qualms – though Purnell points out that Hall did take precautions before returning to occupied soil.
“She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face. She also got a fierce, a rather sort of scary London dentist to grind down her lovely, white American teeth so that she looked like a French milkmaid.”
Back in France, she worked with resistance fighters to blow up bridges, sabotage trains, and reclaim villages ahead of advancing Allied troops.
The war ended and Virginia Hall, like all of the fighters abroad, returned home. She brought with her a French-American soldier (now her husband) and a penchant for keeping her mouth shut.
Her niece, Lorna Catling, recalled meeting her aunt after the war in a conversation with NPR.
“She came home when I was 16, and she was pale and had white hair and crappy clothes.”
And as for the war?
“She never talked about it.”
Both the British and the French recognize Hall’s contributions, though only in private. She declined public accolades in the States, too, claiming she’d rather remain undercover.
William Donovan, the OSS chief, bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross on Hall – the only civilian to receive such an honor during WWII – and only her mother witnessed the ceremony.
She joined the CIA and worked there for 15 years, though she did not thrive and wasn’t happy being stuck behind a desk, CIA historian Randy Burkett tells NPR.
“As you get higher in rank, now it’s all about money and personnel and plans and policy and that sort of bureaucratic stuff. …Was she treated properly? Well, by today’s standards, absolutely not.”
She retired in 1966 without ever having spoken publicly about her experiences as a WWII spy, and died in 1982 without the public realizing who she was or what she had contributed to the successful war effort.
Recently, her public moment has arrived: three books have been published and two movies are in the works, so Americans are finally going to know Virginia Hall in the way she deserves (if not the way she would have wanted).
As Sonia Purnell muses, “Through a lot of her life, the early life, she was constantly rejected and belittled. She was constantly just being dismissed as someone not very important of of no importance.”
Just one more example of “a woman of no importance” putting her head down and managing to change the world for the better, anyway.
Nevertheless, she persisted.