To meet Virginia was clearly never to forget her… She was a woman ahead of her time who has much to say to us now.
American spy Virginia Hall is one of the many heroes whose contribution to history has gone unsung, despite hers being extraordinary almost beyond belief. Historian Sonia Purnell’s new biography, primarily focused on Virginia’s six years in Europe coinciding with the Second World War and work with the French Resistance, rights that wrong and tells a number of incredible stories in the process.
Born in Maryland to a fairly wealthy family, Virginia never fit the mold of the Baltimore society ladies of her day. She veered instead towards adventure, and her father wholeheartedly supported her, although her mother never lost hope that she would marry well and settle into tradition.
Virginia began working in the US Foreign Service, no small feat considering how few women were accepted then. Still, despite her energy and desire for field work, she was stuck in secretarial roles. She found adventure where she could, and it was at a posting in Turkey that she lost her leg in a hunting accident. The disability was a serious setback, but she refused to let it hamper her, especially as the situation in Europe deteriorated.
France was falling. Burned-out cars, once strapped high with treasured possessions, were nosed crazily into ditches. Their beloved cargoes of dolls, clocks, and mirrors lay smashed around them and along mile upon mile of unfriendly road…
The French heat wave of May 1940 was witness to this, the largest refugee exodus of all time.
She joined Winston Churchill’s spy network, the Special Operations Executive, becoming involved with the French Resistance. Her brave work here made such a great impact on history — she enjoys near-legendary status in the Haute-Loire department — that it’s hard to believe that some of the information in the book is unearthed from the archives for the first time.
Virginia had fallen in love with France while studying in Paris in the 1920s, the heady, artistic time of the Années Folles. Perhaps it was the independence, or the atmosphere, but it was France where she felt freedom and a sense of belonging missing elsewhere. She would always call it her second country, and her unflagging dedication to the country even awed the natives she would later work alongside. She made a soon-to-be very important detour in her European travels before the war, studying at the Konsular Akademie in Vienna, where she acquired German — a skill she’d later employ invaluably.
As a spy, Virginia quickly learned that she had to abandon any semblance of vulnerability and did it with little afterthought (although it did warm my heart to know she eventually had a partner who shared and understood her wartime experiences, and who her niece describes as having “lightened her life”). But in war, she was single-minded in her dedication, so thorough that when returning to France to aid in post D-Day operations, in secret since the “limping lady” was firmly on the Nazis’ radar by then, she disguised herself as an old French countrywoman and went so far as enlisting a London dentist to grind her cared-for teeth down to play the part.
With her work in occupied and Vichy France, notably in Lyon, the book quickly became one of the best examples I know of truth telling a story that surpasses any fiction. Virginia’s endeavours were classic spy stuff, almost to the point of being cliched if they weren’t true, and reality makes them all the more impressive, chilling, and tense. She organized prison breakouts, participated in D-Day liberations across France, and escaped over the Pyrenees from France to Spain, among other feats (let’s remind ourselves that she did all this with a painful-sounding, 1940s-state-of-technology wooden leg.)
Many important, but generally lesser known, figures flit through Virginia’s life story, making this not only biography but an exceptional piece of Second World War history celebrating more than one unsung hero. Purnell’s writing is gripping and exciting, and told in well crafted narrative, which, again, would border on the cliche if it wasn’t true: “Back in the Hotel Terminus in Lyon, Klaus Barbie was stroking his beloved pet cat and seething with rage.” Yes, that’s hilarious, but the villains here are more menacing than whatever Bond characters they might inspire. They include a double agent who tricked Virginia into making what seems to be her only significant blunder, one that seemingly haunted her despite all the good she did otherwise.
“I don’t want people to talk about what I did. Everything I did was for love of France, my second country.”
Despite a multitude of setbacks, rejections, and disappointments, Virginia Hall quietly triumphed. She never sought fame, quite the opposite, but what a shame it would’ve been for this story to remain in the dark. “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should,” the author observes, and Virginia knew that better than most. This story of a remarkable person rising to the occasion at a much loved land’s hour of need, without thought for reward or glory, makes for a real-life spy thriller that reads better than anything fictional.
A Woman of No Importance:
The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped World War II
by Sonia Purnell
published April 9, 2019 by Viking