'A Woman Of No Importance' Finally Gets Her Due | KERA News

'A Woman Of No Importance' Finally Gets Her Due

Apr 18, 2019
Originally published on April 22, 2019 10:13 am

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. — but this is off-limits to the public.

"She was the most highly decorated 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 constantly just being dismissed as someone not very important or of no importance."

Hall was born to a wealthy Baltimore family in 1906, and she was raised to marry into her own privileged circle. But she wanted adventure. She called herself "capricious and cantankerous." She liked to hunt. She once went to school wearing a bracelet made of live snakes.

College in France

Sonia Purnell's book about 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 accounted for only six of the 1,500 U.S. diplomats at the time.

Hall did land a clerical job at a U.S. consulate in Turkey. But while hunting birds, she accidentally shot herself in the foot. Gangrene set in, and her left leg was amputated below the knee.

Recovery was long and painful, as she learned to use a clunky wooden leg. Yet it was also a turning point, said Craig Gralley, a retired CIA officer who has written his own book about Hall — a novel, Hall of Mirrors.

"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," he said.

When World War II erupted and Nazi Germany invaded France, Hall volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French. France was soon overrun, forcing her to flee to Britain. A chance meeting with a spy put her in contact 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 the early days, when members of her network were arrested and killed.

The Germans came to realize that they were after a limping lady. - Sonia Purnell, author of 'A Woman of No Importance'

But Hall was a natural spy, keeping one step ahead of the German secret police, the Gestapo.

"Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible," said 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 in the eastern French city of Lyon. She initially stayed at a convent and persuaded nuns to help her. She befriended a female brothel owner and received information that French prostitutes gathered from German troops.

Hall organized French resistance fighters, providing them with safe houses 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 her story is well recognized 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 Her!"

The Nazis appeared to be closing in on Hall around the end of 1942. She narrowly escaped to Spain, embarking on a harrowing journey that included walking three days for 50 miles in heavy snow over the forbidding Pyrenees Mountains.

While researching his book, Gralley, a marathon runner, made a part of that walk 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," he says, "not on a beautiful day, but in the dead of winter and with a prosthetic leg she had to drag behind her."

When Hall reached Spain, she was arrested because she didn't have an entrance stamp in her passport. She was released after six weeks and made her way back to Britain.

She soon grew restless and wanted to return to France. The British refused, fearing it was too dangerous.

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, yet 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, a rather sort 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 even more successful than the first. She called in airdrops for the resistance fighters, who blew up bridges and sabotaged trains. They reclaimed villages well before Allied troops advanced deep into France.

At its peak, Hall's network consisted of some 1,500 people, including a French-American soldier, Paul Goillot — who would later became 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?

"She never talked about it," Catling added.

This painting of Virginia Hall hangs in one of the main hallways near the entrance of CIA headquarters. The painting shows her making radio contact with London from an old barn in France to request supplies and personnel. Power for her radio was provided by a bicycle rigged to power an electric generator.
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 do 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 her happiest days. 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 and that sort of bureaucratic stuff," said Randy Burkett, a historian at the CIA.

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 hadn't really pulled together all the strands."

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.

Editor's note on April 22: The audio file on this page has been updated to fully identify Janelle Neises, deputy director of the CIA Museum, and Randy Burkett, a CIA historian. Earlier, they had been identified by their first names only. The CIA initially said that was necessary to protect their identities. Later — but not in time to make the change before broadcast — the CIA agreed they could be fully identified.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Virginia Hall is one of the most important American spies people have never heard of. Now more than 70 years after her World War II exploits, she's having a moment. Her long-hidden story is being told in several books and movies. Here's NPR's Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: A great place to learn about Virginia Hall is, unfortunately, off-limits to the public - the CIA Museum inside the spy agency headquarters in Langley, Va.

JANELLE: One of the things that we're looking at is a case that's devoted to Virginia Hall. She was the most highly decorated female civilian during World War II.

MYRE: Janelle, the museum's deputy director, shows us around. Like many who work at the CIA, she's not allowed to give her last name to the media. So why haven't we heard more about Hall? Janelle answers with a quote from Hall on her display.

JANELLE: It says, many of my friends were killed for talking too much.

MYRE: Yet finally, for no obvious reason, Hall's story is resonating outside the walls of the CIA. Three books have just come out. Two movies are in the works. British author Sonia Purnell wrote one of the books, called "A Woman Of No Importance."

SONIA PURNELL: Through a lot of her life - the early life - she was constantly rejected and belittled.

MYRE: Hall was born to a wealthy 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. And she once went to school wearing a bracelet made of live snakes. In college, Hall studied in Paris and fell in love with France. She decided to become a diplomat, says Purnell.

PURNELL: She wanted to be an ambassador. She got pushed back by the State Department. She applied several times.

MYRE: The diplomatic ranks were all but closed to women. Hall did land a clerical job at a U.S. consulate in Turkey. But while hunting birds, she accidentally shot herself in the foot. Gangrene set in, and her left leg was amputated below the knee. Recovery was long and painful as she learned to use a clunky, wooden leg. Yet it was also a turning point, says Craig Gralley, a retired CIA officer who's written his own book on Hall called "Hall Of Mirrors."

CRAIG GRALLEY: She had been given a second chance at life and wasn't going to waste it. And her injury, in fact, might have bolstered her or reawakened her resilience so that she was, in fact, able to do great things.

MYRE: 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 her in contact with British intelligence. After limited training, this one-legged American woman was among the first British spy sent into Nazi-occupied France. She posed as a reporter for The New York Post. Hall was a natural spy, keeping one step ahead of the German secret police - the Gestapo. Again, Craig Gralley.

GRALLEY: Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible. She was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time. And none of the Germans early in the war necessarily thought that a woman was capable of being a spy.

MYRE: Hall operated in the eastern city of Lyon. She stayed at a convent and persuaded nuns to help her. She befriended a female brothel owner and received information that French prostitutes gathered from German troops. Hall organized French Resistance fighters, giving them safe houses and intelligence. This didn't go unnoticed, says Sonia Purnell.

PURNELL: The Germans came to realize that they were after a limping lady.

MYRE: Hall constantly changed her appearance.

PURNELL: She could be four different women in the space of an afternoon with four different code names.

MYRE: The man in hot pursuit was the Gestapo's infamous Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon for the thousands his forces tortured and killed. Barbie ordered wanted posters of Hall that featured a drawing of her above the words, the enemy's most dangerous spy. The Nazis were on her trail in late 1942. Hall narrowly escaped to Spain, walking three days and 50 miles over the forbidding Pyrenees Mountains. While researching his book, Craig Gralley made part of that walk and found it exhausting.

GRALLEY: I could only imagine the kind of will and perseverance that Virginia Hall had by making this track not on a beautiful day but in the dead of winter and with a prosthetic leg that she had to drag behind her through snow.

MYRE: Hall was safe, but she grew restless and wanted to return to France. The British refused, fearing it was too dangerous. However, the Americans were ramping up their own intelligence service - the Office of Strategic Services. They needed Hall. Yet the Nazis were everywhere, making it even more difficult for her to operate, says Sonia Purnell.

PURNELL: She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw in 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.

MYRE: Hall's second tour in France was even more successful than the first. She called in air drops for the resistance fighters, who blew up bridges and sabotaged trains. They reclaimed villages well before Allied troops advanced that deep into France. Hall's network consisted of some 1,500 people, including a French-American soldier who later became her husband. Hall's niece, Lorna Catling, is now 89. She recalls meeting her aunt after the war.

LORNA CATLING: She came home in 1946, when I was 16. She was pale and had white hair and crappy clothes.

MYRE: And what did Hall say about the war?

CATLING: She never talked about it.

MYRE: President Harry Truman wanted to honor Hall at the White House. Hall declined, saying she wanted to remain undercover. She did receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the only one given to a civilian woman in World War II. No outsiders attended the ceremony except Hall's mother. Craig Gralley puts it this way.

GRALLEY: I do think that she became America's greatest spy of World War II.

MYRE: Hall then joined the newly formed CIA and worked there 15 years, mostly at headquarters. They were not her happiest days. She missed the adrenaline of war. Here's Randy, a CIA historian. And we can only use his first name

RANDY: Because as you get higher in rank, now it's all about money and personnel and plans and policy and, you know, that sort of bureaucratic stuff.

MYRE: And she faced discrimination as a woman.

RANDY: Was she treated properly? Well, in today's standards, absolutely not.

MYRE: Hall retired in 1966 and never spoke publicly. She died in 1982, her story still confined to the intelligence community. Now the books are on the shelves. The movies are coming. And at the CIA, recruits train in a building called The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Langley, Va.

[Editor's note on April 22, 2019:The audio file on this page has been updated to fully identify Janelle Neises, deputy director of the CIA Museum, and Randy Burkett, a CIA historian. Earlier, they had been identified by their first names only. The CIA initially said that was necessary to protect their identities. Later - but not in time to make the change before broadcast - the CIA agreed they could be fully identified.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.