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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.