Courtesy of CIA
Virginia Hall is one of the most important American spies most people have never heard of.
Her story is on display at the CIA Museum inside the spy agency headquarters in Langley, Va.
"She was the most highly rated female civilian during World War II," said
Janelle Neises, the museum's deputy director, who's providing a tour.
So why haven't more people heard about Hall? A quote from Hall on the agency display offers an explanation: "Many of my friends were killed for talking too much."
But now – more than 70 years after her wartime exploits in France, and almost 40 years after her death – Virginia Hall is having a moment. Three books have just come out. Two movies are in the works.
British author Sonia Purnell wrote one of the books, A Woman of No Importance, and she explains the irony in the biography's title:
"Through a lot of her life, the early life, she was constantly rejected and belittled, "said Purnell. "She was just being dismissed as someone not very important or of importance."
Hall was born to Baltimore family in 1906, and was raised to marry into her own privileged circle. But she wanted adventure. She called herself "capricious and cantankerous." She liked to hunt.
College in France
Courtesy of Viking
Hall briefly attended Radcliffe and Barnard colleges. Then she went to study in Paris and fell in love with France. She decided to become a diplomat, said Purnell.
"She wanted to be an ambassador. She got pushed back by the State Department. She applied several times," Purnell said, noting that women only accounted for six of the 1,500 U.S. diplomats at the time
Hall did land at clerical job at consulate in Turkey. But while hunting birds, she accidentally shot herself in the foot. The gangrene set, and left leg was amputated below the knee.
Recovery was long and painful, as she learned to use a clunky wooden leg. "It was also a turning point," said Craig Gralley, a retired CIA officer who has written his own book on Hall – a novel, Hall of Mirrors.
"She had been given a second chance at Life and wasn't going to waste it, and, in fact, might have been harassed or resurrected, so that she was in fact able to do great things, "he said.
When World War II erupted and Nazi Germany invaded France, Hall volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French. But France was soon overrun, forcing her to flee to Britain. A chance meeting with a spy put in touch with British intelligence.
After limited training, this one-legged American woman was among the first British spies sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1941. She posed as a reporter for the New York Post
Chased by the Gestapo
There were failures, especially in early days when members of her network were arrested and killed.
But Hall was a natural spy, keeping one step ahead of the German secret police, the Gestapo. 19659008] "Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible," Gralley said. "She was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time. None of the Germans early in the war was thought to be capable of being a spy."
Hall operated in the eastern French city of Lyon. She initially stayed at a convent and persuaded nuns to help her. She befriended a female brother and received information that French prostitutes gathered from German troops.
Hall organized French resistance fighters, providing them with safehouses and intelligence. This didn't go unnoticed, said Purnell. "The Germans came to realize that they were after a limping lady," she said.
Hall constantly changed her appearance.
"She could be four different women In the space of an afternoon, with four different code names, "said Purnell.
Courtesy of CIA
The man in hot pursuit was none other than the Gestapo's infamous Klaus Barbie, known as "the Butcher of Lyon" for the thousands in France tortured and killed by his forces.
Barbie ordered "wanted" posters of Hall that featured a drawing of her above the words: "The Enemy's Most Dangerous Spy – We Must Find And Destroy Here!"
The Nazis appeared to be closing in on Hall around the end of 1942. She narrowly escaped to Spain, embarking on
While researching his book, Gralley, a marathon runner, made a part of that walk and found it exhausting.
could only imagine the child of perseverance that Virginia Hall had by making this trek, "he says," not on a beautiful day, but in the dead of winter and with a prosthetic leg she had to drag behind here. "
When Hall reached Spain, she was arrested because she didn't have an entrance stamp in her passport. But she was released after six weeks and made her way back to Britain.
She soon became restless and wanted to return to France. William Donovan, Head of the Office of Strategic Services, presents Virginia Hall with the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945. She was the only civilian woman so honored in World War II. President Harry Truman proposed a public ceremony at the White House, but Hall declined because she wanted to stay undercover. The event with Donovan was private. The only outsider attending was Hall's mother.
Courtesy of CIA