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A Woman of No Importance

The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

By Sonia Purnell
16-minute read
Audio available
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance (2019) sheds light on the shadowy world of wartime espionage and the career of one of the Allies’ most effective spies in the battle against Nazi Germany – Virginia Hall. In these blinks, we’ll follow Virginia from her Maryland home to the jazz clubs of interwar Paris and the warren-like streets of Lyon, the city in which she learned her trade. Along the way, you’ll discover how the “limping lady” dodged Gestapo agents, martialled the French resistance and revolutionized spycraft.

  • Adventure addicts 
  • History buffs 
  • Francophiles 

Sonia Purnell is a biographer and journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times. Her study of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, First Lady, was hailed as the “book of the year” by numerous newspapers and nominated for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography. Purnell is also the author of Just Boris, a biography of the current British prime minister, Boris Johnson.

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A Woman of No Importance

The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

By Sonia Purnell
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell
Synopsis

A Woman of No Importance (2019) sheds light on the shadowy world of wartime espionage and the career of one of the Allies’ most effective spies in the battle against Nazi Germany – Virginia Hall. In these blinks, we’ll follow Virginia from her Maryland home to the jazz clubs of interwar Paris and the warren-like streets of Lyon, the city in which she learned her trade. Along the way, you’ll discover how the “limping lady” dodged Gestapo agents, martialled the French resistance and revolutionized spycraft.

Key idea 1 of 10

Virginia Hall was too independent to obey her mother’s wish to settle down and marry.

The struggle against Nazi Germany in France during the Second World War was as heroic as it was bloody. Ordinary people were at the heart of the Resistance, a rearguard guerilla campaign against Hitler’s mighty army, the Wehrmacht. Outnumbered and poorly equipped, members of the Resistance relied on their courage in the face of daunting odds. Many paid the ultimate price. 

But our story doesn’t begin in Europe, and its hero, Virginia Hall, wasn’t French. Born in Maryland in 1906, Virginia was the daughter of an ambitious social climber, Barbara, who had married her boss, the banker Edwin Lee Hall. It was a step up the social ladder, but it hadn’t taken Barbara as far as she had hoped. Edwin had squandered his inherited fortune and could only provide his family with the trappings of wealth. 

The Halls’ spacious Maryland country house looked opulent, but it was a far cry from the residences of their more affluent neighbors. Lacking central heating and running water, it was anything but modern. But Barbara, a woman relatives described as “snooty,” had a plan – finding a wealthy suitor for Virginia. 

Barbara selected Virginia’s school, a tony establishment called Roland Park Country, with an eye to preparing her for such a marriage. It wasn’t a natural role for Virginia. Tall and slim with sparkling brown eyes, she was a spirited and independent adolescent given to wearing tomboy trousers and checked shirts. In her spare time, she hunted with a rifle, rode horses bareback, skinned rabbits and made bracelets with live snakes. 

She prized her freedom, but she also loved her mother. After graduating in 1924, Virginia became engaged at 18 years old. It was a valiant attempt to please Barbara, but it couldn’t last. Change was in the air. Having finally been given the vote in 1920, women were throwing off their old subservient roles. This was the age of flappers – fashionable young women who wore their hair short, smoked, drank and danced to jazz. Within a year, Virginia had ditched her fiancé. 

If she wasn’t going to settle down and embrace a quiet domestic life, what was Virginia going to do with her future? Well, if you were a young East Coast socialite who had shown a gift for languages in school and had a thirst for adventure, there was pretty much only one place you wanted to go in 1925 – Paris.

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