The Nazis were coming. It was November 1942, and Virginia Hall, a spy based in Lyon, France, knew she had to flee.
She was famous, after all — a Maryland-born operative with a wooden leg and a sobriquet, “The Limping Lady” — who was considered one of the most effective Allied spies leading the French resistance. She organized agent networks, assisted escaped POWs, and recruited French men and women to run safe houses, according to an account of her career on the CIA’s website. But she was being stalked by a pursuer of equal repute: Gestapo chief, Nikolaus “Klaus” Barbie, who went by his own moniker, “The Butcher of Lyon.” The Nazis believed Hall was Canadian, and Barbie once reportedly told his underlings, “I’d give anything to lay my hands on that Canadian b—-.”
Hall was then a special agent with the British Special Operations Executive. She decided she had to escape France by crossing the border into Spain. But how could she trek into the mountains that separated the two countries with a wooden left leg? She’d lost her real one after a hunting accident years earlier, and had learned to walk with a seven-pound prosthetic limb she nicknamed “Cuthbert.” She linked up with other resistance members, and with the help of a guide, vanished into the Pyrenees. She carried a rucksack and hiked up the snow by dragging her prosthetic leg and using her good right leg as a snowplow, according to Judith Pearson’s 2005 biography of Hall, “The Wolves at the Door.”
At one point during the journey, she was able to send a message to her handlers in London, telling them that Cuthbert was giving her trouble, the CIA biography recounted. Their reply? “If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated.”
Eventually, Hall made it to Spain. Although she was jailed for not having a passport with the right stamps, she was let go after 20 days.
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Hall was determined to return to France, despite her Most Wanted status among the Nazis. The British refused, but the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, agreed to send her back on its behalf to help the Allies prepare for D-Day.
Hall might be one of history’s most audacious, yet little-known spies.
After the Baltimore native died on July 8, 1982, at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, Md., newspapers consigned her obituaries to the back pages. The Washington Post and the New York Times used brief Associated Press obituaries that were several paragraphs long. The Baltimore Sun, her hometown paper, wrote up a more thorough account at 14 paragraphs.
But the nations she served have always acknowledged her daring and courage, even if she believed accolades were unbecoming for spies. The French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Britain’s King George gave her the honor of Member of the British Empire. And Gen. William Donovan, the legendary head of the OSS, presented her with the Distinguished Service Cross. President Truman wanted to give Hall the award himself in a public ceremony, but she demurred, according to Pearson’s book. The fanfare, she worried, would reveal too much to the enemy.
After World War II, Hall continued to work for the CIA until her retirement at the age of 60 in 1966.
In 2006, the CIA hung an oil painting of Hall that depicts her inside a barn in southern France in 1944, using a suitcase radio powered by an automobile generator and bike parts to transmit messages to London. The piece is one of several paintings in the agency’s art collection that adorn its headquarters.
Recently, the CIA also named a training facility after her called, “The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.”
Earlier this year, the Hollywood press reported that Paramount Pictures might make a movie about Virginia Hall. The studio acquired the rights to yet another soon-to-be-published book about her life, “A Woman of No Importance,” by the journalist Sonia Purnell. The studio has attached Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley to play Hall. (No doubt, if the modest spy were alive today, the project might send her running back toward the Pyrenees.)
But will it happen?
Pearson, who wasn’t aware of Purnell’s forthcoming work, said her book was optioned by Hollywood shortly after its publication, too. But no deal was ever made.
“You know how during the Academy Awards, the winners say, ‘This movie took 20 years to be made’? It’s kind of the same thing,” Pearson said. “It definitely should be a movie. Virginia Hall certainly has not gotten the attention she deserves. It’s frustrating.”
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