Note: In place of a traditional review, what follows is a short story (historical fiction) inspired by Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance, a must-read historical (nonfiction) account of Virginia Hall’s life and undercover operations in Nazi-occupied France. Details are embellished, but events described herein are true to history.
La Madone, Code Name Artemis
Nitrous oxide was the method of choice, so Virginia was awake as her teeth were ground. She did not laugh from the gas, nor did she feel particularly upbeat as the drill vibrated her skull and she saw — or imagined she saw — dust rising from her mouth, enamel turned to powder.
Her mind drifted as the drill whirred on.
She had been beautiful, which was why she found herself in the dentist’s chair. As she advanced through her twenties, still single, her mother had told her dozens of times that men do not notice women once they reach a certain age. No matter how striking her features in youth, attention would inevitably dry up, and with it any prospect of landing a good match.
When the drill paused, Virginia raised her eyebrows and lifted a hand to indicate that she wished to speak. She had felt it might be embarrassing, unbecoming of a lady, to try to enunciate words as her mouth and lips were held open by a metal retractor. So she waited until Dr. Bryant removed the equipment.
“Do you think we ought to pull a few, as well?” She asked.
Her cover blown, she had narrowly escaped as Nazi tanks rolled into Lyon. Out a back door, through alleys, into the country and ultimately across the Pyrennees — on foot — into Spain.
Flyers seeking a limping lady, a British woman, the most dangerous of Allied spies, still hung in the windows of bakers and shirtmakers and corner grocers in Lyon.
But she was American, not British, and she was in a dentist’s chair in Washington having her teeth ground to nubs as the flyers flapped and faded in the elements. Back in the U.S., the OSS, a precursor to the CIA, had hired a Hollywood makeup artist to teach her how to draw realistic wrinkles, to age her face with powders and pencils. She practiced in mirrors with her teacher watching and offering tips, and — hair already dyed gray — she learned to wrap her head in shawls in the manner of French country peasant wives.
Men do not concern themselves with old women.
Later, back undercover, back in Occupied France, a Gestapo officer would stand mere inches from her face and she would mumble — as rehearsed — about delivering a cart of goat’s milk. She would even offer to sell him some cheese. Satisfied, or perhaps unable to muster any further attention, he would dismissively instruct her to keep moving. And she would, again, deliver a payload of radio equipment to the next safe house, helping to keep the underground French Resistance armed with information.
Years earlier, Virginia had aspired to become a diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service, even taking the diplomatic corps entrance exam to prove her qualification, but women were rarely hired for those positions in those days. So she set out to distinguish herself as a State Department clerk, ultimately landing in Europe to do secretarial work for various U.S. consulates. And yet, nearly ten years into that career, she had little to show in terms of advancement. And she had endured near-fatal trauma and a below-the-knee amputation following a freak hunting accident.
Rules at the time prohibited persons with disabilities from serving as diplomats, so the accident and amputation also represented a permanent dashing of her diplomatic dreams.
Increasingly disillusioned in her career as Europe descended into war, Virginia quit the State Department. And, to the horror of her mother in Baltimore, she signed on to drive an ambulance for the French Army. It was a fateful decision that, through a series of chance meetings, would ultimately land the American with the British Special Operations Executive. Her start as a spy.
“We knew her as Diane, and we called ourselves the Diane Irregulars,” Dédé, one of her guerilla troops, would recall decades later. “We were ragtag, teenagers, but she trained us. In combat, in strategy, in service to one’s country. It was worth being born just for that experience.”
To others she was Marie, Marcelle, Germaine, or simply “La Madone,” the Madonna of the Mountains, patron saint of those seeking refuge and escape. To the Germans, she was Artemis. “I would give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian bitch,” Klaus Barbie is reported to have said.
Eventually, Virginia would organize the ambush of Nazi supply trains, call down Allied bombs, and orchestrate complex supply drops to fuel the Resistance: Synced with the new moon, the darkest of nights, cargo crates stuffed with munitions, radios, and cash would fall from the sky on parachutes, landing in open clearings as dozens or even hundreds of men emerged from surrounding forests to quickly clear the supplies and remove all traces of the drop before daybreak. In hideouts and safe houses, women shredded parachutes and sewed by candlelight, quickly turning the scraps into skirts and aprons and wagon covers, lest roving SS police find any evidence during a surprise search. All executed under Virginia’s command.
There was also waiting, as there is in guerilla warfare, and much of Virginia’s work was important but unexciting. Relaying messages. Ensuring the transport of supplies. Waiting. Recruiting friends to the cause, arranging safe houses. Assembling and disassembling and reassembling her radio transmitter, a hundred times over. Waiting.
Foundational but unglamorous work, which women always know too well.
But she carved her own niche, cultivating targets otherwise ignored by her male colleagues. At its peak, in addition to her band of guerilla troops, she led a thousands-strong underground network of nuns, prostitutes and brothel keeps, security guards’ wives, milkmaids, hairdressers, and country peasants with barns that made for suitable hideouts and radio transmitting stations.
If she displayed any frustration, it was with the slow political machinations of wartime allegiances and, occasionally, with the political limitations placed on her as a woman. But when the waiting exploded into bursts of action, her network would prove invaluable time and again.
When Virginia led — and she did lead — it was through force of will and hard-won respect.
She earned few plaudits during her life, at least not the kind she wanted and not commensurate with her extensive and exemplary fieldwork. Post-war, she remained with the CIA in the U.S., though relegated to a desk job. As the agency increasingly filled with analysts and bureaucrats who had never seen combat or known warzone undercover work, men felt threatened by the limping lady — if they noticed her at all. It would be 50 years after her retirement and 34 years after her death before the CIA would name a building in her honor and give her a dedicated section in its training manual. The trait she was said to have embodied was service. Other agents with comparable resumes and similar honors went on to lead the Agency, but Hall retired at her analyst desk and with a handful of male colleagues having given her poor reviews.
Today, the CIA acknowledges that these were unsubstantiated and that — in the bureaucracy if not on the battlefield — Virginia was consistently held back by her sex.
Across the Atlantic, others remembered.
When a dozen French and British operatives were captured by Nazi-allied Vichy police, Virginia put in motion a months-long jailbreak plan. At her direction, the men’s wives began delivering canned sardines during every visit they were allowed. Miniature wire cutters were set into gelatinized strawberry jam and carried into the jail. Lines of communication were opened via coded notes — and eventually a full radio transmitter, carried in tiny piece by tiny piece — smuggled under nuns’ stockings. Working the local bars at night, Virginia and her women cultivated a Vichy guard, luring him to their side with assurances of inevitable allied victory.
A date was set, logistics were arranged, and the men made a daring escape, one of the most successful of the entire war, opening their cell with a sardine can key and exiting an unguarded tower to eventual freedom, narrowly avoiding recapture through a maze of Virginia’s convents and brothels and barns. After their harrowing escape, several would return to France to continue fighting with the Allies and the Resistance, not unlike Virginia herself.
These men — instantly regarded as war heroes after their escape — would mention Virginia with awe and reverence until their deaths.
Allied men were told to find Olivier if they were shot down, lost, or otherwise separated from their units while in France. Olivier — another of Virginia’s code names — was their surest path to safety. And she delivered on the promise for dozens, maybe hundreds of men, while operating behind the lines.
Eight days after 9/11, the CIA began covertly funneling money, arms, and undercover agents into Afghanistan to rally locals to fight on the side of the Northern Alliance. The theory behind the effort, which was called JAWBREAKER, was said to have descended directly from Virginia’s pioneering fieldwork rallying and supplying the Resistance in Nazi-controlled France.
All of the JAWBREAKER field operatives were men.
The Diane Irregulars never saw Virginia after they were unceremoniously disbanded, but it was a point of pride for her that nearly all had gone on to enlist with the Allied army or found other ways to serve. The men — many just young boys when they operated under her leadership — held periodic gatherings into their 60s and 70s, including when they received word from America of Virginia’s death. Their time with her had been formative. “Worth being born.”
After the death of Virginia and her husband, while cleaning their house so it could be sold, Virginia’s niece found a Distinguished Service Cross tucked away in her desk drawer. It is the second-highest honor a member of the U.S. Armed Forces can receive, given for extraordinary heroism and risk of life while engaged in action against an enemy.
The only civilian woman to receive the honor for actions during World War II, Virginia declined a public presentation of the medal, instead inviting only her mother to join her for a private, near-secret ceremony. Any publicity could hinder her ability to go back undercover and she had hoped to make a long career with the newly formed CIA.
“I’m still operational,” she said, demurring. “And most anxious to get busy.” She never mentioned the honor again.