The latest spy story to captivate the entertainment world has it all: World War II espionage in enemy territory, a determined American woman once called the “most dangerous” Allied spy and, of course, her prosthetic leg named Cuthbert.
But Virginia Hall’s tale is far from fiction: She really was an accomplished spy who is the only woman to ever receive the US military’s Distinguished Service Cross. A display is dedicated to her at the CIA’s top-secret museum in Langley, Virginia. Though her legacy hasn’t found a foothold in the public’s imagination, that might change soon. Hall is the subject of three recently-published books and two upcoming films. If they are anywhere as intriguing as Hall herself, she’d bound to be everyone’s new favorite World War II hero.
Here’s a primer: During World War II, Hall served for both the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services. She spent time in the occupied French city of Vichy establishing spy networks for the UK. When Germany took the rest of France, she narrowly escaped – but eventually joined the OSS and asked to be returned overseas. Once back in France, she continued to elude the Gestapo, who were intent on capturing the “woman with a limp.”
“She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies,” their communications reportedly stated. “We must find and destroy her.”
Oh, and Hall did it all on (technically) one leg. She lost the bottom half of her left leg in a hunting accident when she was 27. She eventually gave her prosthetic leg its own code name: Cuthbert.
Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by OSS chief William Donovan in 1945. But as her exploits in World War II were coming to an end, Hall’s career was just beginning: After the war, she spent an additional 16 years in the CIA.
A pop culture wave
The three new books profiling Hall were all published this year: “Hall of Mirrors” by Craig Gralley and “A Woman of No Importance” by Sonia Purnell hit bookshelves in February, and “The Lady is a Spy,” a young adult retelling of Hall’s story by Don Mitchell, was released in March.
A reluctant hero
What would Hall, who died in 1982 at the age of 72, think of all of this newfound attention?
“She would absolutely hate it,” Hall’s niece, Lorna Catling, tells CNN. “She was not the least bit interested in fame or recognition. She did her work because she loved the excitement of it all. She was an outdoorsman and an extremely good organizer, and she just wanted to do her job.”
Catling, who has been present for several ceremonies and dedications honoring her aunt’s life, says Hall never talked about her accomplishments. While part of that was because of the secretive nature of her work, Catling says even after it was safe to discuss her time as a spy, she didn’t bother.
Hall even demurred when President Harry Truman offered to present her with the Distinguished Service Cross.
“She was so disinterested in that kind of recognition, she didn’t want the ceremony to be public, so they had [Donovan] do it,” Catling says.
Unfortunately for Hall, her insistence on pushing away pomp and circumstances kind of adds to her whole mythology.
“I think it’s great that she is finally being found, so to speak, and accredited for her work,” Catling admits. “Because she was pretty darn fabulous.”