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'A Woman Of No Importance' Finally Gets Her Due: NPR



Virginia Hall was born to Baltimore family in 1906. She was raised to marry her privileged class, but wanted a life of adventure. She became one of the most successful spies in World War II, first for the British and then for the Americans. Her story was long hidden, but is now being filled in.
                
                
                    
                    Courtesy of CIA
                    
                

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Virginia Hall was born to Baltimore family in 1906. She was raised to marry her privileged class, but wanted a life of adventure. She became one of the most successful spies in World War II, first for the British and then for the Americans. Her story was long hidden, but is now being sworn in.

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

Sonia Purnell's book on Virginia Hall is one of three that have all been published this year. The others are Hall of Mirrors, a novel by Craig Gralley, and The Lady Is A Spy, a young adult book by Don Mitchell.
                
                
                    
                    Courtesy of Viking
                    
                

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Courtesy of Viking
        
    

Sonia Purnell's book on Virginia Hall is one of three that have been published this year. The others are Hall of Mirrors, a novel by Craig Gralley, and The Lady Is A Spy, a young adult book by Don Mitchell.

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.

This mannequin of World War II spy Virginia Hall is on display at the CIA Museum at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va. While the story is well known inside the intelligence community, it is only now coming to a wider audience in a series of books and planned movies.
                
                
                    
                    Courtesy of CIA
                    
                

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Courtesy of CIA
        
    

This mannequin of World War II spy Virginia Hall is on display at the CIA Museum at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va. While the story is well known inside the intelligence community, it is only now coming to a wider audience in a series of books and planned movies.

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
                    
                

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Courtesy of CIA
        
    

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
            
        

Back to France

However, the Americans were ramping up their own intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, which had virtually no presence in France.

The Americans needed Hall. "Still the Nazis were everywhere, making it even more difficult for her to operate," said Purnell. "She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face," she said. "She also got a fierce, rather of scary London dentist to grind down her lovely, white American teeth so that she looked like a French milkmaid."

Hall's second tour in France, in 1944 and 1945, was just as much successful than the first. She called in airdrops for the resistance fighters, who stayed up bridges and sabotaged trains.

Hall's network consisted of some 1,500 people, including a French-American soldier, Paul Goillot – who would later become her husband.

Hall's niece, Lorna Catling, is now 89 and lives in Baltimore. She recalls meeting her aunt after the war.

"She came home when I was 16, and she was pale and had white hair and crappy clothes," Catling said.

And what did Hall say about the war? 19659008] "She never talked about it," Catling added.

This painting of Virginia Hall is in one of the main hallways near the entrance of CIA headquarters. The painting shows her making radio contact with London from an old child in France to request supplies and personnel. Power for this radio was provided by a bicycle rigged to power an electric generator.
                
                
                    
                    Courtesy of CIA
                    
                

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Courtesy of CIA
        
    

The British and the French both recognized Hall's contributions – in private. President Harry Truman wanted to honor Hall at a public White House ceremony. Hall declined, saying she wanted to remain undercover.

William Donovan, the OSS chief, gave Hall the Distinguished Service Cross – making her the only civilian woman to receive one in World War II. Hall's mother was the only outsider present at the ceremony.

"I think that she became America's greatest spy of World War II," Gralley said of Hall.

Hall then joined the newly formed CIA, which succeeded the OSS , and worked there for 15 years, mostly at headquarters. These were not happiest days here. She thrived on the adrenaline of acting independently in the field during wartime. Now she was largely confined to a desk.

"As you get higher in rank, now it's all about money and personnel and plans and policy of bureaucratic stuff," said Randy Burkett, a historian at the CIA. 19659008] And Hall faced discrimination as a woman

"Was she treated properly? Well, by today's standards, absolutely not," said Burkett.

Hall retired in 1966 and never spoke publicly. She died in 1982 in Maryland, her story still confined to the intelligence community.

Purnell said it was a challenge piecing together Hall's story.

"It was detective work," she said. "So many files, papers, documents have been lost, destroyed or misfiled. She operated under so many different code names that people really didnt pull together together."

Now the books are on the shelves. The movies are coming. And at the CIA, recruits train in a building recently named The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.

Greg Myre is a national security reporter. Follow him @ gregmyre1 .


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