A Conversation with Author Sonia Purnell
In 1942 the Gestapo sent out a message: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.” This most dangerous of spies was Virginia Hall, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who became one of the greatest, and least known, spies in U.S. history.
Virginia established vast spy networks throughout occupied France, becoming a linchpin of the Resistance as she led a victorious guerilla campaign that helped liberate France from the Nazis after D-Day. In doing so, Virginia revolutionized covert warfare, pioneering techniques and strategies that remain in use today.
After years of exhaustive and varied research, Sonia Purnell brings us the story of Virginia Hall in her book “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.” BackStory spoke with Sonia about Virginia Hall, the lasting importance of her story, and the difficulty of piecing together a historical figure who by necessity sought to remain hidden.
BackStory: The book walks this interesting line, it’s a really well done history but it also incorporates some really strong literary elements. It doesn’t walk the line but evokes the line between history and myth as well, with Virginia Hall as a figure that’s really hard to reconstruct. I was wondering if you could tell me about that process, with the research but also this way of creating a character where almost by design it’s really hard to do that.
Purnell: Well it is, and it took three years of intense detective work, because you know, if you’re a secret agent, you don’t write down your thoughts and your actions in diary at the end of the day. But what we do have with Virginia, which was really, really helpful, was her situation reports or her signals back to London where her controllers were. And initially it’s interesting to watch how her character changes because the ones [situation reports] initially are quite chatty and she lets her emotions show a little bit. Well, she soon realizes that she can’t do that anymore and she becomes a much sort of tougher person.
Initially she doesn’t allow herself to swear so she does “bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep” you know in her cable, in her signal but then later on she’s saying “where are the pills?” She’s talking about poison pills there, because she’s going to have to use her license to kill with someone who is an immediate threat. So it’s interesting, literally just from the signals to see how her character changes.
And then we’re very lucky, because although she didn’t write a diary, other people wrote contemporary thoughts and then wrote them up in books afterwards. So we can see her from other people’s points of view, some of the agents that she worked alongside, some of the members of the resistance, the Maqui that she worked alongside. So we can slowly build up her character from all of these. And finally, her niece is still very much alive and kicking in Baltimore, so I spent some time with her and that was really good in filling in some of the dots in conversations that she remembered with her Aunt, who she was very close to.
So you start off with sort of the skeleton if you like and then you sort of build up, build up, build up until you get a really good feeling, and I even managed to get some dialogue, some of the agents wrote down dialogue after the war that they’d had with her. So we can hear her voice, we can hear the kind of vocabulary that she used which is all really really helpful.
So it wasn’t the straightforward biography, I did this and I did that and translating that but it was more intense, it was more complicated but actually in the end, more satisfying, so I really feel that I did capture Virginia at the end.
BackStory: You referenced that many of her contemporaries in the field and people that she encountered in wartime became good sources for the book. There’s an element to that where, especially in such a time of confusion, with so little communication, it’s easy for people to become somewhat larger than life figures, or maybe there’s a sense of distortion or a lack of clarity to some extent. I was wondering how you encountered that or how that factored into writing the book?
Purnell: Well that’s a very interesting point. Some of these accounts after war are slightly contradictory, which is difficult as someone writing a book. What you have to do is go for what seems to make the most sense, where there is a consensus or what fits in with the absolute solid facts that you do have. None of this can be absolutely cast-iron guarantee, after all, I was not there when she crossed the Pyrenees, I was not there when they exfiltrated the double agent from the beach, but what I do have is a series of accounts that then there is a consensus at the middle of them. That’s what you need to use, and you have to discard things that you’re not totally happy about, you just feel you have a sixth sense yourself that this maybe isn’t quite right, that it may be distorted by the passage of time or by fear.
I mean fear can actually really affect your memory as to what happened, so you have to take all these things into account and do what you think is the most provable, you know, the nearest to the truth that you can possibly get. But yeah, war is confusing, war is chaotic and you have to remember that all the time.
BackStory: It’s kind of a nice parallel between your process and what Virginia was doing I suppose, that sixth sense.
Purnell: Well yeah, I mean she did have a sixth sense and so I mean, and a very good one. It let her down once spectacularly, there was one guy that she let into her network, a priest by the name of Robert Alesch, she had doubts, we know she had doubts because she signaled London for reassurance that this guy was OK, but he kept coming up with what looked like absolutely, staggeringly good intelligence, perhaps a little bit too good, but she’d been in the field for a long old time by this point, living in constant, constant fear, immensely tired and mostly starving because there really wasn’t much food around. Maybe we can forgive her this one error of judgment, certainly those around her urged her to trust this priest, but he was a double agent and I’m afraid, his activities, he infiltrated her network, his activities led certainly to many many deaths and the capture of many others too.
And ultimately it meant that she had to escape from the field, over the Pyrenees, with her wooden leg, during one of the worst winters for 200 years, over one of the highest passes then, because no one in their right mind would normally take that pass in winter snow, but that’s what she had to do, and she did get back to Britain safely only to go back into the field again despite everyone knowing that she was completely compromised and that the Gestapo knew all about her, but then she disguised herself as a milk maid, unbelievably, and she employed Hollywood make-up artists to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face that were totally authentic, could fool anyone, she had her white teeth, lovely American white teeth ground down to look like a French peasant woman and wore layer upon layer of thick clothes to make her look stouter than she really was.
So you know she was prepared to go the absolute last mile to do what she had to do and then became this extraordinary guerrilla leader, we know what she did through signals again, through accounts written after the war. So the material is rich and varied it just had to be tracked down, certainly speaking French meant that I was able to do that, without being able to speak French it would have been impossible, but it took three years, but my, it was worth it.
BackStory: There seems to be this almost contradiction coming from the agencies that she works for, you talked about the SOE [explain], it’s considered somewhat ungentlemanly, its form of warfare. Then they’re the first agency to really understand Virginia’s talents and be able to employ them to some extent, but at the same time you also describe hostility towards women in active field rolls from that same agency. I was wondering about this connection between breaking with past codes of conduct, a willingness to forego typical gender roles and this state of cultural and societal upheaval, and what Virginia’s story might be able to tell us about that.
Purnell: I think that’s a really good point. I mean the SOE had a rule book initially which was that, you know, women must not go behind enemy lines and we’re not going to employ foreigners either, well when Virginia Hall came along they just kind of tore up the rule book, such as it was, and they decided, quite rightly, that they would deploy anyone who was able and willing, because most people were neither, and Virginia was both.
And the other thing was, although she had this training before she went into the field, she was taught how to pick locks, she was taught how to replace dust on a surface if you remove an object, she was taught how to creep noiselessly on a house, the fact of the matter is, she wasn’t taught how to build up networks in a hostile country because no one had ever really done it before. So they couldn’t say well, Virginia isn’t like X who did it before, because, there was no X; well, Virginia was the X, she was the one who kind of pioneered this stuff.
So it’s interesting that war, the extreme sort of urgency, the desperation of war, being at this point Britain was expecting to be invaded itself any minute so, those urgencies, that desperation means that the rule book is torn up, but also eyes are opened, minds are broadened. This person, just because they’re not the sort of, the conventional idea of a secret agent, doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be a brilliant one. And very often, SOE agents, the best ones are not those that you would imagine at all. One of the ones who Virginia fought with and who was extremely brave, Dennis [inaudible 00:14:11] loud noises, wouldn’t handle a gun, was short, slightly pudgy, looked like an old fashioned grocer, but was the most coldly courageous person that his controller had ever met.
So it did open eyes, and the terrible tragedy was that at the end of the war, that that liberation was reversed and peace in some ways imprisoned her, and her career at the CIA was marked by prejudice and discrimination and wasn’t very satisfactory. So it’s interesting what war does to people, in some ways it brings out the best, of course it also brings out the worse, but also it has that idea that we will deploy anyone who is able to do this, and that is a liberation.
Sonia Purnell is a biographer and journalist who has worked at The Economist, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. Her book “Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill” was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and The Independent, and was a finalist for the Plutarch Award.