Book Reviews,  Politics,  Resistance

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (2019) | Book Review

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (2019) | Book Review A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
Genres: Biography, Non-Fiction
Original Publication Date: 2019
Source: I purchased this book
Find the Author: Website, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon

American spy: In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”

The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and–despite her prosthetic leg–helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it.

Virginia Hall Was An American Spy

Brought up in a prominent family in Baltimore, Virginia Hall was never like the other girls. She was fearless, athletic, and determined to have an adventurous life.

Her mother just wanted her to have an appropriate marriage.

But Virginia had other ideas:

Virginia took pleasure in defying convention. She hunted with a rifle, skinned rabbits, rode horses bareback, and once wore a bracelet of live snakes into school.

Despite her rebelliousness, her great talents for leadership and organization were valued by her classmates:

They viewed her as their natural leader and voted her in as their class president, editor in chief, captain of sports, and even “Class Prophet.”

She Wanted To Become An Ambassador

She had excelled at languages in school and thought this would be the perfect outlet for her talents. But only men got those positions. She applied several times.

She studied at several universities, including ones in Paris and Vienna. These were very exciting places in the 1920s. Her fluency in multiple languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian, would serve her well in the future.

Her knowledge of European culture and politics also became very important. She started witnessing fascist groups rising in popularity in Europe and watched with horror the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

She was rejected for the diplomatic corps, but eventually snagged a job at the American embassy in Warsaw as a clerk, then transferred to a similar job in Turkey.

A Tragic Accident

She still liked to shoot for sport, and on a day in December 1933, she had a terrible accident. As she was climbing over a fence she stumbled:

As she fell, her gun slipped off her shoulder and got caught in her ankle-length coat. She reached out to grab it, but in so doing fired a round at point-blank range into her left foot. A creeping slick of blood stained the muddy delta waters around her as she collapsed into unconsciousness.

She was badly hurt, and her open wounds became infected. Gangrene had set in. There were no antibiotics at the time. Doctors had to amputate her left leg below the knee to save her life.

She was eventually fitted with a rudimentary wooden leg, which she named “Cuthbert.” She eventually returned home to the United States to recover.

Virginia Hall Becomes A Spy

Virginia eventually quit the State Department because they refused to give her anything but clerical work.

She ended up in France driving ambulances to help the French.

In August 1940, an undercover British agent was in a border town in Spain when he noticed an American woman trying to get a train to Portugal. They started chatting. He was impressed with her ambulance driving and ability to get around France. Her knowledge of the country and sharp observations about life in Vichy France astounded him.

She was recruited by the British agency Special Operations Executive (SOE) to train to be a spy.

Virginia was a complete natural as a spy. Her organizational abilities and ability to understand complex concepts made her a very valuable member of the team.

She was trained in England and sent to France to become an agent in the field.

She worked for both the British intelligence agency and later for the American agency Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.

Virginia was based in Lyon, France to work with the French Resistance, which up until then had been disorganized and chaotic.

She had to recruit members for her team of resisters, using everyone from nuns to brothel owners!

One of the biggest problems in France was that the Vichy government were willing collaborators with the Nazis. It was very difficult to trust anyone.

The Limping Lady

She became notorious to the Nazis for being the spy they could not catch, despite being a woman and walking with a limp. She was known as “The Limping Lady” and they were frustrated because they could not catch her.

Unfortunately, there was one traitor – a priest – who almost brought the whole network down. Many people died because of his treachery. Many people died because of his betrayal.

Final Analysis

This book is a very exciting book of espionage, adventure, and bringing down the Nazis! I highly recommend this book.

Virginia Hall was a true hero of democracy and freedom.

Further Reading And Viewing

The author was interviewed at the International Spy Museum in this video:

Please read my other posts on RESISTANCE and politics:

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World Press Freedom Day 2024

State of the Blog Address 2024

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead | Book Review

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How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes From An Impeachment Summer by Jimmy Breslin | Book Review


All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein | Book Review

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich | Book Review

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Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness by Robert Specht | Book Review

Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman | Book Review

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath | Book Review

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Thank you for reading The Literary Lioness!

About Sonia Purnell

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 (published as First Lady in the UK) was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and The Independent, and was a finalist for the Plutarch Award. Her first book, Just Boris, was longlisted for the Orwell prize.

I love books, writing, film, and television.

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