The Biography of Virginia Hall
A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
You’ve heard of the French Resistance during the German occupation of France in World War II. You might have read books about the efforts of ordinary people in the French countryside to subvert the German forces, but did you ever stop to wonder how the courageous Resistance movement was organized?
The existence and success of the French Resistance network was due to Virginia Hall, a spy also known as Marie, Germaine, Philomène, Nicolas, Diane, Diana, Marcelle, Brigitte, Isabelle, Camille, Artemis, or DFV. She was an American woman who wanted so badly to serve her country and defeat Hitler that she joined government service, enlisted in the British Special Operations Executive, SOE, and went undercover. She became the SOE’s first female agent. She eventually enrolled in the newly formed American OSS division created by Roosevelt as the United States’ equivalent to SOE and MI6.
No one believed that Virginia Hall, a disabled woman, would be of any help in the spy world, but they were desperate for help and she was determined to serve. She was written off as “a woman of no importance.”
No laughing matter
The plot of A Woman of No Importance sounds like the set-up of a joke:
“An amputee, a gynecologist, and a prostitute meet in a bar…”
Believe me, it is no joke. Virginia Hall was an intelligent, willful young woman whose ambition was to serve her country in diplomatic service. Despite intense discrimination against women, Virginia landed a clerical job at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, and from there transferred to the embassy in Turkey. Her post in Turkey appealed to her outdoorsy nature. The region was famous for lagoons, marshes, and birdlife. It was here that her life was dramatically altered.
During a hunting party, her gun got caught in her coat as she was rushing over a wire fence, exploding — point-blank — into her foot. A severe infection set in, and her leg had to be amputated below the knee. For the rest of her life, she wore a wooden prosthetic leg which she nicknamed “Cuthbert.”
Obviously, that’s no laughing matter. Neither is the rest of the phrase, “an amputee, a gynecologist, and a prostitute…”
The gynecologist was Dr. Jean Rousset who became Virginia’s chief lieutenant in what would become the French Resistance. The prostitute was the wealthy, well-connected Madame of a Lyon brothel, Germaine Guérin. These two people — along with Virginia — were heroes. Hundreds of Jews, pilots, spies, radio operators, and refugees were sheltered, shuffled, and supplied because of their efforts.
Ordinary people. Extraordinary heroes
A Woman of No Importance is filled with page after page of true stories of heroism. Townspeople who risked their lives to give shelter to others. Citizens who performed small and large acts of sabotage. People who daily tempted death-by-Gestapo so Germany could be defeated.
Virginia Hall utilized her charisma, her language skills, her intuition, and her resourcefulness to build networks starting in Lyon and expanding outward throughout the French countryside. She recruited and developed hundreds of people, helped train them, taught them sabotage techniques. She smuggled goods in, met planes dropping supplies in the dark of night, and spent endless hours traveling and coordinating helpers across France.
How often have you heard the phrase, “risking their lives?” This book makes that phrase REAL. In case after case, people who helped the Resistance are captured by the Germans. Whole blocks of people are shot. Homes and farms are burned. They are brutalized. Tortured. Sent to concentration camps. Many did not just risk their lives; they LOST their lives in the fight for freedom and righteousness.
“One in five of the women who took in people or supplies (for Virginia) were executed for her trouble.”
The good and faithful Dr. Rousset spent eighteen months in Buchenwald. Germaine Guérin went to Ravensbruck, and many of Virginia’s helpers died after being caught in acts of espionage.
The title of Sonia Purnell’s book, A Woman of No Importance is verbal irony at its best. This book chronicles the life of Virginia Hall, a woman who fought prejudice and discrimination while she simultaneously helped to
“pioneer a daredevil role of espionage, sabotage, and subversion behind enemy lines in an era when women barely featured in the prism of heroism, when their role in combat was confined to the supportive and palliative. When they were just expected to look nice and act obedient and let the men do the heavy lifting. When disabled women –or men — were confined to staying at home and leading often narrow, unsatisfying lives.”
Virginia Hall’s feats were bigger than life. She organized a daring prison break of twelve men leaders who had been captured. She saved and sheltered dozens of people in her own home. She trudged through a mountain pass in the Pyrenees, climbing 8000 feet through massive snowdrifts and icy slopes, on a crumbling wooden leg. One of the most dangerous jobs in German-occupied France was that of a radio operator, yet Virginia had no problems learning and mastering that skill.
“A woman of no importance”?
Without Virginia, the Resistance would not have been organized and efficient — as evidenced by the failure of so many of her male bosses to recruit volunteers. She could intuit which people would help and her organizational skills that grew the Resistance network. It was Virginia who observed, listened, and uncovered information that helped the British fight the Germans in France. Virginia Hall trained recruits in the art of espionage and sabotage.
Her OSS evaluation acknowledged Virginia Hall as
“the most successful Allied female secret agent of the European conflict and one of the chief pioneers in the field of clandestine warefare.”
Virginia Hall’s role in helping the liberation of France was the precursor to the admittance of women agents in the CIA. Infiltrating the male-dominated organizations and fighting for jobs that would utilize her massive skill set was never easy, but Virginia never ceased wanting to serve. After the war, she was one of the first five women to join the organization that would become the CIA.
Acknowledging a female spy
Even though she shied away from any kind of recognition of her incredible accomplishments, many of the people she worked with nominated her for awards. Sadly, in the minds of male officials, her gender made her “unworthy” of commendations and powerful assignments. But a few people persevered in their drive to honor this amazing woman. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the OSS, the only civilian woman of the war to receive the award.
Forty years later, posthumously, her name was added to the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1988. In 2016, the CIA recognized her extraordinary contribution by naming a building for her, the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.
France recognized its debt to her and awarded Hall the Croix de Guerre with Palm on March 16, 1946. Unfortunately, the records of the award were destroyed in a fire in 1973, and her name and the name of other recipients were lost.
You may not have heard of Virginia Hall before, but you’ll never forget her after reading this nonfiction book.
A Woman of No Importance was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award It was longlisted for the 2020 PEN/Jacquelin Bograd Weld Award for Biography. It was selected as the Best Book of The Year by a long list of publications including The Times (London), National Public Radio, The Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and the New York Public Library.
NPR declared the book was:
“A gripping take…A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people — and little resistance.”
In her book, Sonia Purnell, the author, declares of Hall,
“She helped to change espionage and the views of women in warfare forever — and the course of the fighting in France.”
Virginia Hall was — without a doubt — A “woman of no importance” who helped win the war and change the world.