Book of the week
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
Now that her story is finally getting out, Virginia Hall is “bound to be everyone’s new favorite World War II hero,” said A.J. Willingham in CNN.com. A spy like no other, the Baltimore native was a 35-year-old frustrated desk clerk with a wooden leg when she talked her way into an undercover gig in 1941 Vichy France and surprised her British handlers by not just surviving but also organizing a network of 1,500 resistance fighters that would prove crucial to Allied victory. And that’s only the start. In Sonia Purnell’s electrifying new biography, we learn that Hall became the most wanted spy in France, and when the Gestapo got too close, she fled on foot over the snow-covered Pyrenees and sent a telegram that jokingly referred to the troublesomeness of her prosthetic, which she’d nicknamed Cuthbert. Then she begged back into France to do more.
“From the outset,” said The Economist, Hall “seemed to have known she was different.” Though her mother only hoped her daughter would maintain her social standing by marrying well, Virginia insisted on an education at Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, plus a stint in 1920s Paris that allowed her to pick up three languages and fall in love with France. Stymied in her bid to forge a path as a diplomat, she was working a dull State Department job in Turkey at 27 when she shot herself in the foot during a hunting outing, leading to an infection and amputation. By 35, she was a woman with a limp and more ambition than résumé, but when Germany invaded France, she eagerly put her life on the line to help turn back the Nazi advance.
“James Bond had nothing on Hall,” said David Holahan in USA Today. Licensed to kill and capable of assuming four different identities in the same day, she cultivated sources among madams and prostitutes, found and trained saboteurs, and even organized spectacular jailbreaks for fellow spies. She eventually married a spy she met late in the war, yet there was also a “decided lack of glamour” to her MO: For her 1944 return to France, she had her teeth ground down so she could pass as a peasant, and when the war was over, she all but refused to be celebrated, preferring to quietly carry on for 15 years as a CIA officer. When she died in 1982, her legacy was secure inside the agency but little known outside it. Two books and a movie this year should change that. “Her work will be remembered.” ■