A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

This narrative nonfiction (368 pages) was published in April of 2019 by Penguin Books. The book takes you to 1941 and the French Resistance. David read A Woman of No Importance and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.


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A Woman of No Importance

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

Sonia Purnell

This meticulously researched biography reads like a breathless thriller —and puts you on intimate terms with an unforgettable woman in extraordinary circumstances.

Meet Virginia Hall: daughter of a middle-class family in Baltimore, executive assistant, and ambulance driver. She was also dropped into occupied France in 1941 to become a resistance fighter and spymaster.

The risk to her life was real, and everyone knew it:

‘No one in London gave [Hall] more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even the first few days. For all Virginia’s qualities, dispatching a one-legged, thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was, on paper, an almost insane gamble. Her mission, code-named Operation Geologist 5, would expose her to grinding fear and the perpetual likelihood of a grisly death. There was no reception committee to welcome her or ready circuit for her to join, but she was permitted — even obliged — to commit a range of crimes from subversion to murder. To survive, she must lead her double life to perfection and avoid being captured at all costs. Her disability might help protect her—in that she made such an unlikely agent—but at the same time, it rendered her more conspicuous.’

She claimed to be a journalist for the New York Post, but in reality, she worked for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Soon after her arrival, a dozen SOE agents were arrested, leaving her almost the sole agent in Vichy, France.

But Hall got the job done. She recruited, inspired, and directed other resisters to fight the Nazis. Hall ran all kinds of missions, from sabotage to rounding up supplies dropped from planes to training little pockets of resistance fighters. She became notoriously good at busting people out of prison and eventually led teams of guerilla fighters to liberate France.

Another amazing story: At one point, her situation became even more perilous because the Nazis air-dropped posters with her photo that read, ‘The enemy’s most dangerous spy: we must find and destroy her.’ She escaped capture by crossing the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain on foot. On a wooden prosthetic. Largely unprepared.

Then the war ended, and Virginia returned to an everyday American life. She continued to work with the CIA, fighting what NPR calls, ‘the mundane tyranny of sexism that stymied her career.’

This is a rich, full-bodied biography of a remarkable woman. This larger-than-life story delivers a fascinating, often terrifying glimpse into WWII France.

Over a few days locked away in a heavily guarded modern house hidden in the New Forest north of Bournemouth, she learned the basics of coding, and of clandestine warfare and security—how to disseminate pro-British propaganda; how to use only cover names or code names in the field—and “the importance of looking natural and ordinary” while doing “unnatural and extraordinary things.” 15 During days that started at six and went long into the evening, she learned how to spot a follower (look in a window) and lose him (double back). She picked up when to change an address, how to make secret inks (urine comes up brilliantly when subjected to heat), and even how to conceal her personality (through altering a distinctive laugh, gesture, or demeanor). She was shown how to seal microfilm documents (equivalent to nine sheets of letter-size paper) in tiny containers and insert them in her navel or rectum—or, as she discovered, in a handy little slot in her metal heel. She learned how to rifle files and go through a desk leaving no trace, even replacing dust on a smooth surface, and how to approach a guarded house noiselessly. A retired burglar came in to demonstrate how to pick locks. Staff dressed in German uniforms probably put her through the standard drill of a simulated Gestapo interrogation or Verhör, waking her up in the middle of the night with rifle butts, blazing lights, and shouts of ‘Raus, du Schweinehund!’ — Sonia Purnell

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