Why did I read this? It got wonderful reviews when it was published last year. (Plus my mother loved it, and I usually like what she likes.)
What is it about? It is a biography of Virginia Hall, an American who fought with the French Resistance, first as an agent for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), then with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Purnell’s book reads like a thriller. Like Ben McIntyre, her style is dramatic and cinematic, with easy lucid prose. This is the sort of book that compelled me to natter on with great enthusiasm after completing each chapter… And then! And then! And THEN! (Thank goodness my husband is a patient man.) In telling the story of Virginia Hall, who was an astonishing figure, Purnell also includes riveting details of life underground in wartime France—disguises, codes, parachute drops, infiltration, sabotage, escape. She shares the stories of other heroes, often wildly colorful, along with villains, of which there were too many. Along the way, she does not shy from describing the horrific fates of those arrested by the Gestapo or Abwehr, difficult to read, but an important part of the story. For individuals, for villages, and for entire countries, what was at stake could not have been higher.
Here, I am going to summarize only the first chapter, Virginia’s life before WWII, which sets the stage for everything that follows.
Her story starts in 1906, when Virginia Hall was born to an affluent Maryland family. While her mother was preoccupied with status, money, and a good marriage for her, Virginia had other ideas. From an early age, we learn, she “took pleasure in defying convention. She hunted with a rifle, skinned rabbits, rode horses bareback, and once wore a bracelet of live snakes into school.” She clearly had charisma from a young age. Her high school classmates “viewed her as their natural leader and voted her in as their class president, editor-in-chief, captain of sports, and even ‘Class Prophet.’”
After she graduated, Virginia’s mother picked a wealthy fiancé for her, but she dumped him and instead bounced from school to school: Radcliffe in 1924, Barnard in 1925, the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris in 1926, the Konsular Akademie in Vienna in 1927. When she returned to the U.S. in 1929, she brought with her a university degree, a belief in freedom and independence for women, a deep love for France (where she had been particularly happy), the ability to speak five languages, and heightened awareness of the rising threat of fascism across Europe. She dreamed of being a diplomat, and she applied to the State Department to become a foreign service officer.
Yeah. No. She was a girl: “The fact that only six out of fifteen hundred Foreign Service officers were women should have been due warning. The rejection was quick and brutal.”
She could, though, get in through the back door, taking a job more accessible to women. By 1931, Virginia was in Warsaw as a clerk in the American embassy. She was quickly bored and requested a transfer to Smyrna. There, her life took a turn. On one of the many hunting trips she organized for friends, her rifle discharged into her foot. It was a catastrophic injury, leading to gangrene, amputation of her leg below the knee, sepsis that almost took her life, persistent infection, and enormous physical pain that would last the rest of her days. She survived, and against all advice went back to work the day after being released from the hospital. This was a mistake. The exhaustion and pain were too great, even for Virginia. By the summer of 1934, she was back in Maryland.
What next? A quiet life at home? Not a chance. The minute she was physically able, Virginia took a job in the consulate in Venice. Venice was not a great choice for an amputee, but she managed to acquire her own gondola as well as a “devoted” gondolier who helped her when the water was too rough for her to handle the gondola on her own. She hosted parties, excelled at work (finally being granted responsibilities that were more than secretarial), and paid close attention to the disintegrating political situation around her and across Europe. She decided to try again to get into the foreign service.
Yeah. No. Not only was she still a girl, she was now also an amputee. Even a direct appeal to FDR through a friend failed. (The irony of the polio survivor seeing the amputee as unqualified is not lost on Purnell.)
Next stop, a post in Tallinn. Again, Virginia was bored. She resigned in March 1939, thinking that maybe she could write dispatches that would raise American awareness of what was happening in Europe, but she doesn’t seem to have published anything. Then, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In October, Virginia boarded one of the last ships out of Estonia, landing in London. She tried to enlist in the women’s branch of the British Army, but foreigners were excluded. So she went to France, and “with gritty persistence finally found the one active role she could take up to help the fight against fascism… She signed up in February 1940 with the French 9th Artillery Regiment to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées.”
After an intensive course in first aid, by May she was near the Maginot Line. On May 10, the Germans invaded France and she watched the French army disintegrate and flee. She headed to Valençay, where a division of the French army was still running an ambulance service, and she spent several weeks driving the wounded to Paris hospitals. While doing that, “she noticed how as a nominally neutral American she was permitted greater freedoms than the French she worked alongside.” Ideas began to percolate.
In June, Marshall Pétain capitulated, Virginia was demobilized, and she moved in with a friend in Paris, where she “railed at the complicity of the French authorities in return for what was all too clearly peace at a price.” She was determined to fight against fascism and for France. “She was convinced it would not be long before the French rose up again, and in the meantime she would return to London and wait.”
Thus ends Chapter One.
So by 1940, the Virginia we have met is already a woman with extraordinary physical ability, bravery, and endurance. She is both physically and mentally resilient. She is ambitious, decisive, tenacious, and moves quickly when she wants something. She has charm, charisma, and a talent at getting people to do things for her. She speaks French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. She can drive a car under the most stressful conditions imaginable. She is accustomed to spending time outdoors in uncomfortable conditions. She is trained in first aid. She can shoot a gun. She is politically aware and astute. She loves France with a passion. And she doesn’t give a damn what other people think she should do.
I am not going to share much from the rest of the book. Suffice to say that Virginia’s achievements between 1940 and 1945, not to mention the simple fact of her survival, were extraordinary. (If you want to know more about them without reading the book, read almost any review.)
After the War, Virginia had a twenty-year career with the CIA. These chapters may be less dramatic, but they are fascinating in their own way. Purnell had to rely heavily on non-classified performance reviews for documentation of these years, but she manages to piece together much of what Virginia witnessed and did between 1946 and 1966, and it is a remarkable glimpse into Cold War intelligence operations.
Throughout the book, Purnell appropriately focuses on Virginia’s career and accomplishments, speculating on her emotional life mostly when it is important to explaining her actions. She makes sure, though, that the reader is as captivated by Paul Gaston Goillot as Virginia was. Paul was born in France, but he parachuted into Virginia’s life (literally) as a U.S. Army Lieutenant, assigned to support her towards the end of the war. He was eight years younger and six inches shorter, and they were together from the day they met until her death in 1982. He died five years later.
Paul may not have been the kind of super-human that Virginia was, but he was heroic in a different kind of way. In an era when gender roles were fixed, when reversing those roles was almost inconceivable, Paul Goillot found the love of his life in a woman who many other men of his generation found threatening. When she was his commander, he was professional and respectful even as he made her laugh. When she worked for the CIA, he owned a restaurant for a while (he’d cooked before the war), but when it failed, he stepped into the quiet life of a house-husband. And when Virginia retired, before their health declined, they lived a bucolic life together in their country house. They entertained, she gardened, he cooked. I loved the occasional glimpses of Paul as I read the book, and I hope his life was a happy one.
Virginia left no journals. No memoirs. Few interviews. She spent her life keeping secrets, and she was uncomfortable with medals and honors, even scornful of them, despising those she saw as motivated by glory rather than principle. She was recognized, though, and that recognition has grown considerably since her death. In Purnell’s final chapter and epilogue, she catalogues how Virginia is remembered, from the CIA building that was named after her to the memories of the last survivors amongst her compatriots in the field. No doubt Virginia would have hated the attention.