Virginia Hall: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy

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Judy Pearson: Virginia Hall was once asked why she never told her story. She replied that no one had ever asked her. In 2003, I began asking. My quest took me to her niece in Baltimore, newly declassified intelligence records in the National Archives, then to London, Paris and across the French countryside. I conducted countless interviews in English and in French and read dozens of personal accounts. What ultimately unfolded was the story of an incredible woman. She was intelligent, brave, and outspoken. She was loyal, daring, and stubborn, but as a young woman, all of Virginia Hall's energies were directed at becoming a foreign service officer. At high school graduation, while her chums were thinking of marriage and families, Virginia announced that the only way for a woman to get ahead in the world was with an education. After several undistinguished years at Radcliffe and Barnard, she went to the Sorbonne in Paris and then the Konsularakademie in Vienna from which she graduated in 1929.

Judy Pearson: Back in the States, now fluent in French and German, she applied to take the foreign service exam. The exam consisted of three parts. The first was written covering all manner of topics including world history, geography, and sociology. The second tested the applicant's knowledge of a foreign language. Virginia opted for French. And the third part of the exam, far more subjective, gave the examiner the power to judge what kind of officer the applicant would make. Virginia failed the exam, took it again and was failed again. It was 1930. Women had only had the right to vote for 10 years and the number of female foreign service officers could be counted on one hand. Gender discrimination was hard at work. She told a family friend that if she couldn't get into the foreign service through the front door, she'd try going in through the back door and landed a job as clerk at the American Embassy in Poland.

Judy Pearson: She once again applied for the exam, but before she completed it, she was transferred to the American Consulate in Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey. Here her life changed forever. On a December, Saturday afternoon hunting expedition with some friends in 1933, Virginia's gun accidentally discharged into our left foot. Despite doctor's best efforts, gangrene set in and to save her life, they removed her leg from the knee down. What might have been considered by some as a life ending event, Virginia saw as merely a delay in plans. When she was well enough to travel, she returned home to Baltimore to recuperate and be fitted with a seven pound wooden prosthesis and a year later she was back at work, this time at the American Consulate in Venice from which she requested to take the foreign service exam yet again. But this time rather than test questions, a letter arrived informing her that according to an obscure statute, amputees were not accepted in the foreign service.

Judy Pearson: The letter concluded by politely asking Virginia not to apply again. She simply wouldn't fit in. As Hitler began blazing across Europe, a discouraged Virginia Hall left her consulate job and went to France. Here her leg was not an issue. She was gratefully accepted as a volunteer ambulance driver for the French army, nor was her leg an issue several months later when in London she was approached by a Special Operations Executive employee, the SOE. This undercover paramilitary organization had been created by Winston Churchill to, as he said, "Set Europe ablaze." The current war was unlike any other. The allies needed extraordinary warfare in the form of espionage and sabotage. Escaping French military had told the British that there were many in France who would be willing to rise up against the Nazis given enough organization and arms. Leaders who could be infiltrated into the country were needed and Virginia fit the bill.

Judy Pearson: The Brits didn't give a hoot about her gender. In fact, it was believed that women would make the best spies. This doesn't surprise those of us who are women, but it was a revelation to the men. Furthermore, men were being whisked to Germany as laborers. A man on the streets in France needed reasons for being there, but a woman didn't and could travel about more easily. Nor did the Brits care how many limbs Virginia had lost. Her disability was unknown to most. She walked only with a slight limp. At the SOE's training camps Virginia learned things her Baltimore contemporaries would never have imagined. I had the good fortune to interview one of the instructors while I was in London. Leslie Fernandez taught SOE recruits, including Virginia, physical combat, in other words, how to kill. And Virginia wasn't shown any favoritism because of her missing leg.

Judy Pearson: She wouldn't have accepted it anyway. The only training she didn't receive was in parachuting, the primary means by which agents were infiltrated. It was 1941 and America had not yet entered the war. Virginia would be free to enter France as a non-combatant, which she did using journalism as her cover. I spent hours digging through the British National Archives at Kew and the Imperial War Museum Archives in London, both of which were rich in material. I heard the oral histories of those recruited agents who had daringly dropped into occupied France where Virginia and others awaited them. When I arrived in France, after spending several days digging through the archives in Paris, I rented a car and took off across the country to visit firsthand all of the cities Virginia had worked from. She was ultimately sent to Lyon, the center of resistance activities in unoccupied France, so I went to Lyon as well.

Judy Pearson: There under her journalism cover while ostensibly collecting information for newspaper articles, Virginia was also collecting information about Nazi activities. Her flat innocently appearing as that of a hardworking writer was the clearing house for every British agent who was sent to central France in 1941. Through Virginia they were able to connect with fellow agents and contact others to help them. They collected counterfeited money and wireless radios needed to perform their work. When they were captured and imprisoned, Virginia worked on their escapes. She organized her own group of resistance members in Lyon and had contacts in Marseille and at the Spanish border, two places from which people could disappear should the need arise. She and her group saved innumerable lives of both downed allied pilots needing passage out of France and agents who were being hunted by the Gestapo. But it wasn't long before Virginia herself became hunted. Klaus Barbie later known as the Butcher of Lyon, spread the word that a lady with a limp, an Englishman or a Canadian, was wanted in connection with espionage activities.

Judy Pearson: His posters announced that Virginia was “the most dangerous of all allied spies” and that everyone should help him find and destroy her. Virginia's exodus across the Pyrenees Mountains, the rugged chain that separates France from Spain, was in November, 1942. The cold and rigorous march would have been exhausting for anyone but dragging a seven-pound wooden leg through the snow made it all the more difficult for Virginia. She hadn't dared tell the guide about her leg. He was already grumbling because she was a woman. At one point, she was able to radio London to tell them she was on her way out of France. She mentioned that Cuthbert, her clever nickname for her leg, had become quite tiresome. The recipient of the message, ignorant of the leg's name wired back that if Cuthbert had become tiresome, she should have him eliminated. At the end of the grueling 30 mile journey, Virginia was arrested in Spain for not having papers.

Judy Pearson: She was in prison for six weeks, released only after her former cellmate, a Barcelona prostitute, was able to get word to the British Consulate that she was being held. By the time Virginia had returned to England in early 1943, a new intelligence organization had been born. Its name was the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS. It was patterned after the SOE with one exception, it was purebred American led by a hero from World War I named General Wild Bill Donovan. Virginia was desperate to get back into the fight and transferring to the OSS made sense since she was an American, but there was a concern. She was now a hunted woman whose sketched picture had been spread throughout France. A return could only be facilitated if she were disguised. That of an old peasant woman fit the bill.

Judy Pearson: On her second trip to occupied France, Virginia's intelligence and ingenuity served her and saved her many times. This time she acted as their own radio operator setting up numerous resistance cells. Three months after returning to France, the greatest armada the world had ever seen crossed the channel for the D-Day landings. When the signal was given, her resistance cell went into action, cutting off Nazi supply lines and disrupting their communications all in a successful effort to aid the Allied invasion of Europe. By the fall of 1944 all of France was liberated. During Virginia's second stint in the country she had had the pleasure of leading 1,500 resistance volunteers who killed 150 Nazis and captured 500 more. Her team had sabotaged numerous transportation and communication links. Virginia's leadership and sangfroid was not only admired, it became legendary. They called her “La Madonne.” Virginia was awarded the Member of The British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre, and the American Distinguished Service Cross, the only woman in World War II to receive that American distinction.

Judy Pearson: But Virginia wasn't interested in accolades. She wanted to continue her work in espionage. Although the OSS had been dissolved, Virginia was one of the first women on board the new intelligence agency known as the Central Intelligence Group. It became the Central Intelligence Agency in December, 1947, but the new world of intelligence was very different from the one Virginia had previously been a part of. Communism was the enemy now, and as one observer put it, Joseph Stalin made Hitler look like a Boy Scout. Virginia wanted desperately to become an operative again, willing to undergo whatever training was necessary. But at the advanced age of 41, she was looked upon as old school.

Judy Pearson: Her skills were outdated, and her aggressiveness was offensive to the younger men who were her superiors. Her experience was dismissed as not pertinent. After all she'd been through and all the sacrifices she'd gladly made, once again, Virginia Hall didn't fit in. Virginia had married Paul Goillot in 1950, a French American she had met toward the end of the war. She accepted mandatory retirement from the CIA in 1966 and she and Paul moved to a farm in Barnstown, Maryland. They raised poodles, gardened, and grew old together. Virginia died in 1982, and Goillot followed five years later. She was never bitter about the fact that her career hadn't begun or ended as she would've liked. Rather, Virginia chose to remember the magnificent days in the middle, the days when her clever mind and brave heart helped defeat fascists bent on world domination.

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