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Virginia Hall Painting by Jeffrey W Bass This painting of Virginia Hall radioing London from a barn in France is part of the CIA’s Fine Arts Collection.
Painted by © Jeffrey W Bass, donated by Richard J Guggenhime

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Virginia Hall: The Transatlantic WW2 Spy

Sonia Purnell tells us about an extraordinary American woman with a wooden leg called Cuthbert who became one of the all-time great secret agents

Published on April 8, 2020
First published in the May-June 2020 edition of The American magazine
Shop: Buy A Copy of A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Hello Sonia, thank you so much for your time. Our traditional first question, where in the world are you from?

I was born in Australia but have lived most of my life in Europe. London and Normandy in northern France are now home.

Your book, A Woman of No Importance, tells the true story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who operated in Europe during the Second World War. How did you first find out about Virginia, and how did the book come about?

I last wrote about Clementine, Winston Churchill’s wife, and was astonished to discover her pivotal role in WWII. This got me thinking about other key figures – often but not exclusively women – were played a major part but who have disappeared into history. I’ve always been interested in espionage and started digging around to discover mostly fairly fleeting mentions of an extraordinary American woman with a wooden leg called Cuthbert who became one of the all-time great secret agents. No-one seemed to know much about her but I was immediately hooked!

How did Virginia first find herself moving to Europe, and what did those experiences contribute to the rest of her life and career?

She had an adventurous soul and always wanted to travel, going to Paris to study at the Sorbonne at the tender age of 20. She loved it – it was the Roaring Twenties and the city represented freedom and opportunity and excitement. There started a long love affair with France as a whole, but also a gradual fear as she saw the onset across Europe of nationalism and extremism. She wanted to do whatever she could to stop its rise.

One incredible aspect of Virginia's life was her brush with death during her early years with the State Department, can you tell us about the incident and how it affected her mindset and work?

She was a country girl at heart, loving field sports including hunting. Her late father had left her a gun and she was out hunting with friends in marshlands in Turkey where she had been posted by the State Department. It was a beautiful sunny December day, but she stumbled on a wire fence running through the reeds. As she fell she grabbed her gun but had not engaged the safety catch. She literally shot herself in the foot. It is a miracle she survived, but the price she had to pay was the loss of her left leg. She was just 27. Prosthetics were primitive and painful and no-one expected her to continue roaming the world. But Virginia was made of a different cloth from many, and if anything her accident galvanised her and helped her to become the supreme partisan leader she eventually became.

How did Virginia come to work with the British secret service?

The most extraordinary coincidence. Without giving too much away – beware friendly Brits who say they are travelling salesmen when they engage you in conversation in a packed Spanish railway station!

Was it difficult for Virginia as an American given the US' early policy of neutrality in the war?

It actually helped her with her cover as an American journalist in the early days – she saw it as essential to help in any way she could long before her country felt the same way.

What stories from Virginia's early years in the war struck you the most when researching the book?

So many to choose from – her recruiting techniques were unusual though. Her agents ranged from nuns in a convent to the prostitutes in the local brothel. Both were extraordinarily brave in the long run, as were the police officers, doctors, railway workers, town hall officials, lingerie sellers and so many others who helped her! Of course her frantic escape over the Pyrenees in heavy snows with the Gestapo in pursuit and despite having to hide the existence of Cuthbert is an epic all in itself.

How important was her role in the UK and US war effort?

The American army has said her intelligence was ‘vital’ and ‘pivotal’, British intelligence has said that she virtually singlehandedly kept it going in France in the early years, her fellow maquis in the Haute Loire consider her a legend who guided them to freedom. She was huge.

What would you say is Virginia's legacy in terms of Anglo-American history?

She embodied the best of Anglo-American relations and understanding – a shared humour, outlook, and at that time a sheer determination to do the right thing and free the world of a barbaric regime. There was also a little gentle and affectionate teasing of her fellow British agents – not least about the poor performance of England at cricket. Such little gestures go a long way in bonding. She inspired huge affection and admiration in return.

Your book is also currently being developed into a film starring Daisy Ridley - congratulations! How does it feel to be bringing the story to the big screen?

I can’t wait – the story is both epic and somehow cinematic. It has so much that resonates with us right now.

How do you hope readers of the book remember Virginia?

As someone who proves that heroes come in many forms and how important resilience, courage and truth matters.

What projects are next on the horizon for you?

I’m right now putting together a proposal for a new book. I’m very excited about it so watch this space.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Sonia Purnell?

Finding and telling stories that mean a lot to me and that I hope will mean a lot to others too.

Sonia's book about Virginia Hall, A Woman of No Importance, is available to Buy Now. Keep an eye on future cinema listings for the big screen release!


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