Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.
“Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.”
In the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was eventually forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. But her war would not end there, and she would go on to become one of the first women recruited into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency after the war.
A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Still hoping to do field work after the war, she did not wish to draw public attention to herself. The tight-lipped policy that served her well in the war carried on throughout her life, so that she is little known today outside of intelligence circles. However, film rights for this book have reportedly been optioned, with J. J. Abrams directing, and Daisy Ridley attached to star, though no doubt both have been busy with Star Wars Episode IX.
An aspiring diplomat, Hall lost her leg in a hunting accident while stationed abroad as a clerk with the State Department in Turkey. Struggling for advancement, and repeatedly refused entrance to the diplomatic corps, she turned her back on the Department and went in search of other opportunities. She tried to join the women’s branch of the British army when war broke out, but since foreign nationals were not accepted, she eventually found herself in the French ambulance corps. With the United States remaining neutral at the start of the war, she began her work as a spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as the Baker Street Irregulars, or Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Purnell’s previous book focused on the life of Clementine Churchill.
A Woman of No Importance recounts the accomplishments of a confident woman with a talent for cultivating sources and allies who trusted her implicitly, a feat many of her male peers struggled to imitate. Virginia’s confidence was also her downfall, however, in the form of a priest called Alesch, who passed off his German accent and appearance by claiming to be from the border region of Alsace. He avowed himself as an enemy of the Nazis because they had killed his father, and he spouted anti-Nazi rhetoric from his pulpit every Sunday. In fact, Alesch was a spy for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Virgina was suspicious of him, but believed that she could handle him. This self-confidence would prove fatal to many members of her network when she was forced to flee the country. In her absence, Alesch had enough information from his contact with her to infiltrate her circuit, and Virginia was not there to gainsay him to her more trusting contacts. Because she failed to trust her gut, much of her network would be burned, a guilt which stayed with her, and compelled her to go back into France after a narrow escape. In the Haute-Loire, she would become a legend for organizing and arming the maquisards.
Most of Virginia’s fellow field agents were men, with whom she had relationships that ranged from collaborative to adversarial. The women she worked with were largely French recruits into her information network. Initially distrustful of sex workers, viewing them as collaborators if they took Nazi clients, Virginia eventually came to rely on the resourcefulness of such women. One small but fascinating aspect of this book shows how these women quietly participated in the resistance by such unorthodox means as getting enemy soldiers addicted to drugs, or deliberately infecting them with venereal diseases. This was in addition to more traditional means of assistance, such as providing safe houses, access to black market gods, or spiking an officer’s drink, and then rifling his pockets for information when he passed out.
This fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read. After struggling to find her place as a young woman, Hall achieved great success in the war, only to struggle to advance in her later career. What was forgiven under the exigencies of war held her back at Langley. That she is today recognized as one of the greats is but little consolation for the failure to fully utilize her talents.
You might also like Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy by Karen Abbott