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April 2021: A Woman of No Importance (Purnell)

posted May 13, 2021, 7:57 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Virginia Hall has been described as “the most important American spy that you have never heard of;” however, that last part is fast changing.  In the past couple of years, three new books about her life have been published.  One film about her was recently released and another is in the works.  A lot of this renewed interest is inspired by the 2019 release of Purnell’s vigorously researched biography “A Woman of No Importance.”

 

Born into a wealthy family in Baltimore, Hall was an adventurous, free thinking child, who bounced from school to school and rebelled against her mother’s desire that she secure the financial future of the family by marrying well.  Travelling to Paris in the 1920’s at the height of the “Années folles,” Hall developed a deep love of France that would dramatically shape her life.  Desiring to stay in Europe, she got a series of jobs with the State Department.  However, her career in the diplomatic service was constrained by the fact that she was female.  Things became even worse after she lost the bottom half of her left leg after a hunting accident.  Labelled a “cripple,” Hall was turned down for promotions and relegated to menial secretarial tasks. 

 

When France was invaded by Germany at the beginning of WWII, Hall joined the French Ambulance Service and came under fire numerous times while driving back and forth to the front.   After six weeks, France capitulated, and Hall made the dangerous journey through France and Spain to Portugal, where she could get a boat to Britain.  A chance encounter with a man on this journey provided her with a contact in London that led to her recruitment by Britain’s newly formed Special Operation Executive (SOE), nicknamed “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” 

 

The spy and sabotage agency had big plans to disrupt the Nazi war machine from within its occupied territories.  However, much of the Continent had gone “dark” to them, and they had yet to successfully place any agents in France.  Given her status as an American, Hall was able to enter Vichy France under the guise of a reporter for the New York Post.  Settling in Lyon, she became one of the SOE’s most successful agents: providing valuable intelligence, recruiting and supplying resistance networks, and staging operations.  After months of activity, “the woman who limps” became the Nazi’s most wanted spy.  When a double agent brought the Gestapo uncomfortably close, she barely escaped and had to walk 50 miles over the Pyrenees in the depths of winter.

 

Once back in Britain, the SOE refused to send her back to France, considering her notoriety too much of a security threat.  Hall responded by joining America’s newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was also struggling to get a foothold in France and which was glad of Hall’s experience.  Heavily disguised, she returned to France, gathering intelligence that was key to the liberation of Paris before going on to command the resistance fighters that defeated the Nazis in the Haute-Loire region. 

 

As you can tell from this short summary, Virginia Hall’s war years were action-packed, and it is not hard to see why Purnell’s book is being made into a movie.  Her exploits both trigger the imagination and, given the horrors that she and her compatriots endured, test its limits. In fact, there were so many cinematic moments and suspense driven sequences, that we thought only a television series could do the subject justice.  

 

We spent a lot of time discussing Hall’s various accomplishments and marveling at her incredible courage, endurance, and presence of mind.  We were frustrated and angered by the unnecessary obstacles that were placed in her way by those who held her back because of her gender and/or disability.  Given her talents, we wondered how much she would have accomplished, if she had been born decades later. 

 

These comments prompted us to consider how much of her success during the war depended on the fact that she was often underestimated by those around her.   Certainly, she used this fact to her advantage when setting up her initial networks in Lyon and when spying for the Americans later in the war in the guise of an elderly milkmaid.   Nonetheless, her enemies quickly learned to fear and respect her, and she would have been spared nothing if she had been captured.  Therefore, we suspected that Hall would have been an effective intelligence agent, even if she had been taken more seriously.  Certainly, fairer treatment before, during and after the war would have allowed her to add to her list of achievements.   

 

All of us enjoyed the book, because we were glad to have been introduced to this fascinating woman.  However, a couple of people said that they found it hard to get into the book at first.   Purnell is a meticulous researcher, and she provides quite a few details about Hall’s life before the war.  She is also effusive in her praise of Hall from the very beginning, and some found this a little off-putting.    However, by the time Purnell got to her description of Hall’s time with the SOE in Lyon, all of us were hooked.  In fact, at times it was hard to put the book down.

 

That being said, the book remains a relatively straightforward, somewhat academic, account of the facts.   Purnell tells us how people were thinking or feeling, but usually this is only when she has evidence for such reactions in contemporary records. For similar reasons, there is not a lot of dialogue in the book, though letters, memoirs and interviews do give us some access to the “voices” of those involved. 

 

I actually liked this about the book, because I feel a bit uncomfortable when biographers get too much into the heads of the people they are describing, especially if there is no way to know what people were saying or thinking.  However, I admit that this style of writing has its costs.  For example, Purnell cites several people who commented on Hall’s great personal charm and charisma.  However, a couple of us noted that they had a hard time getting a feel for this charm as they read.  Given so little detail about her specific conversations with people, it became something we just had to take as given.  Perhaps this is an aspect of Hall’s personality that will be more fully envisioned in the movies about Hall and/or in the recently released historical novel that is inspired by her life.  (I believe it’s called The Invisible Woman).

 

In any case, we all agreed that Virginia Hall should be given the posthumous recognition that she deserves.  If you have not yet read Purnell’s book, I recommend it as a good place to start.  However, as Nancy Bucy pointed out to me, there are now many other ways to learn about Hall, including a lengthy interview/slide show presentation that Sonia Purnell gave at the International Spy Museum (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQSCJNsRJMQ)  and a podcast about Hall put together by the Smithsonian Museum (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-spy-known-limping-lady-helped-allies-win-wwii-180971889/).  

 

Of course, you could also just wait for the movie.    No matter what medium you choose, it is worth learning more about this important American spy that, thankfully, more and more people have heard of.

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