World War II continues to be the richest source of forgotten or obscure ethics heroes, and no figure fits that description better than American super-spy Virginia Hall.
Only in the last few years, as newly intense focus has been placed on women’s contributions to society and history, has Hall’s story come out of the shadows: three books about Hall have been published, and two movies are awaiting release, one to be streamed on Netflix. In Hall’s case, her anonymity was substantially her own doing. She had no interest in fame or accolades, and decisively rejected them. Hill left no memoirs, granted no interviews, and spoke rarely about her exploits, even to her family.
She was born into a wealthy and privileged Baltimore clan that assumed its daughter would follow the well-trod path of a debutante and eventually the wife of an appropriate young man from her own class. But Virginia was different, “capricious and cantankerous” in her own words. She liked guns and adventure. She once went to school wearing a bracelet made of live snakes, just to shake up her teachers and class mates.
Hall attended Radcliffe and Barnard, then went abroad to study in Paris. She wanted to be a diplomat or even an ambassador, but received no support from the State Department. There were only six women among the 1,500 U.S. diplomats at the time, so she settled for a clerical job at a U.S. consulate in Turkey. While hunting birds in her spare time, she accidentally shot herself in the foot, and gangrene set in. Her left leg was amputated below the knee. Hall named the wooden leg that became her constant companion thereafter “Cuthbert.”
In 1937, she again applied to the Department of State to enter the diplomatic corps , this time being turned down because of a rule against hiring people with disabilities as diplomats, an especially odd restriction for a nation led by a disabled President. She quit her job as a consular clerk two years later, and at 34, joined the war effort before America did, becoming an ambulance driver in France in 1940. When France was invaded by the German army, Hall fled to Great Britain. By purest chance she came in contact with a representative of British intelligence. Hill offered her services to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which trained her in weapons, communications, security, and resistance activities.
So it was that an American woman with a wooden leg became one of the first British spies sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1941, posing as a reporter for the New York Post.
Primarily working out of Lyon, Hall organized agent networks and recruited French men and women to run safe houses, all while evading the Gestapo, which called her “The Limping Lady.” She became a master of disguise, often changing her appearance several times in a day and managing to become invisible despite the impediment of “Cuthbert.” She even had her nice, straight, American teeth ground down so she could pass as an elderly peasant woman, which was a favorite false identity. Continue reading