Sonia Purnell: "A Woman of No Importance" | Talks at Google
So. I'm Sara sabot publisher, brago and really. Delighted to be here today with with Sonya I'm very proud to be her auditor Sonya. Is a biographer. And journalist, he's written the Guardian Daily, Telegraph in the Sunday Times her. Book, first lady the life and Wars of Clementine Churchill was book of the year in The Telegraph independent. And Leni letter and was, shortlisted for the Plutarch award for best biography, her, first book just Boris a tale of Blonde Ambition my favorite subtitles ever, I think was, longlisted for that world prize but. Sonya's here to talk about her new book a woman of no importance, the untold story of world war ii 'the most, dangerous, spy Virginia. Hall and that. Came out in March and it's been a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic so it's on the New York Times bestseller, list at the moment and it's, just been stacking up the most incredible, set of reviews so congratulations. Sonya and. Yeah thank you so much for having us here we're. Gonna talk for sort of 30 40 minutes and then open, up to audience questions we've. Heard you ask really great questions so please ask. Them at the end. So. Sonya. First, can you tell us who. Was Virginia hall and why does she want to write a book about her well. I stumbled, across her I was, quite interested in in, spying, and, spies. Generally, and I was reading a little bit about intelligence. During the Second World War and, there be a whole lot of stuff about all sorts of different people and every now and again there'd. Be just a little mention of oh, there, was this American woman who had, a wooden leg and spies with the Brits and did amazing things and it'd be full, stop new paragraph and. Nothing more would be said and I thought well, she sounds rather intriguing, why does no one ever to write about her and. I started digging into her life and I couldn't have. Imagined. How extraordinary, her, life was how she triumph. Over adversity her. Resilience, her courage, her, determination. But. Also her, secrecy. And she wanted, to be a secret agent all her life and so she. Wasn't going to make it easy for me I can tell you to find out about. Her, life but I got, few lucky, breaks including having. The help of a couple of retired, intelligence, officers and getting some documents. Declassified I spent a day at, Langley the CIA headquarters. In America, I found, an amazing sort of treasure trove of letters and reverent reminiscences. In. France, so gradually, I pieced together this. Story of this woman who I feel, is. Unbelievably. Modern, and there's so much in her story that resonates. Today of, course yes she was, fighting. In the war and in the 1940s. But the way that she reacted. The way that she kept going the way that she pushed down barriers, kind, of really spoke to me I found her really, inspirational and, a lot of my friends. And I now say for in a sort of type sport are having a difficult time what, would Virginia, doing and the fact even Sarah and I were talking, earlier about something, what would Virginia, say she she. Had a courage. That I. Simply. Can't quantify really, was incredible. Call she had fears, everyone, does but she managed. To conquer them in these, amazing ways so once. I started digging into her life it, became almost, an, obsession I spent three years, lots. Of you know late nights early mornings tracking. Her down piecing, together the. Story in. Different ways and I'm really glad I did it you. Know I I think she's amazing, the Gestapo didn't, think she was amazing they just thought she was dangerous they named. Her the most dangerous. Of all allied spies quite a competitive. Field there but it is incredible, actually that we didn't. Really know much about her, until now but I am to change that mmm and as. He touched on she, was quite, an unlikely, spy, as well as a very successful, and dangerous, one so you. Write in the book that she you know she grew up in quite a well-to-do, you American, family. She. But she ended up spying for the British, you. Know she had a prosthetic, leg which must have made it more difficult, but. She really did you know her mum wanted her to marry the right guy and settle down have a family, why. Did she ditch that life that she was meant to have like what drove her to have. This incredible, life yeah, well she grew, up in quite a well-to-do, family as he's saying just outside Baltimore. My mother wanted her to settle down and marry but she always had these very different ideas, she, was a tomboy she, she loved to go, out. Bareback. Riding on horses to go hunting. With her dad and in the, woods she went into school once with this unusual bracelet, made up of live snakes, you know she she. Was a free spirit an adventurous, soul and she wanted a career, as an ambassador to tour the world and and meet, what she called interesting.
People. There. Was a problem with that though which was that, at the time or that she were talking to at 19:20 she was born in 1906. Women. Did not become ambassadors. There were no women. Ambassadors. In America I don't think here either, she. Applied to the State Department but, they. Turned her down as a diplomat, even even though she spoke five languages, by this point and and and. So. She went and worked as a desk clerk at at the State Department and that's when she went to Turkey. She was posted to Turkey and she gathered. Some friends she was always kind of a leader she, was always a leader at school galas, and friends went out on a hunting. Party one December. In Turkey, and the marshes, there. With. The gun that actually her father had given her a hunting gun and she, wanted. To shoot. Snipe now I mean hunting is not my thing but apparently snipe, have. A very erratic, pattern of flight they're quite difficult to hit. And she was always very competitive. And so maybe, she wasn't looking. Where she was going we don't know but she tripped. Over a wire, fence that was going through the reeds and, actually. Tripped, she. Grabbed, her. Guns she reached for her gun and, she hadn't applied the safety cat and. So. She literally, shot herself in the foot at point-blank range, well. Initially I thought she was going to be okay she was taken to hospital they thought she was fine but actually. Within. A week or two she, got gangrene in her left leg well they didn't have antibiotics, then. As I'm sure you know she. Was on the point of death, there, was no other way of saving her apart. From cutting, off her leg just below the knee. Even then I didn't, it was an absolute miracle she. Pulled through so you had, this adventurous, soul this tomboy, this free spirit, all. These great ambitions. Wanting. To travel and meet people and suddenly she. Was she thought going. To be reduced to a soar sedentary, life at best, but. Do you know what and it I knew this almost sounds perverse there was something about that accident. That made her the great person, that she became. Gave. Her that. Self-reliance. And self. Dependence, and. She. Had grit, that made her an absolutely brilliant. Secret, agent so although she might seem to be an unlikely. Commando. Leader in fact only two weeks ago the u.s. commander. Come on as well like mouthful. Place. So for the first time on their Hall of Honor I, mean took them 40, years since she died but they got there in the end she. Did become the most amazing, guerilla leader but I think you can draw. And I certainly became convinced, of this once I started. Investigating. Her life you can draw a line from that awful. Awful accident. Which she barely survived, to. This. Amazing. Leader. With charisma, and resolve, and courage that is actually. Almost you know difficult to imagine mmm. And. You as you said she was a really successful spy, and part, of that is keeping, secrets and not keeping. A diary or you know writing long letters home to her mom about what she missed area. How. Did you you, touched on this a little bit but what was you, know what were the challenges in doing the research like how do you how, do you write a life of someone whose whole aim is to keep secrets, yeah, well I feel like Virginia and I did play a little bit of cat-and-mouse, when. I was writing this and that yeah, obviously secret, agents unfortunately, don't write debt but don't sit down at night and write journals, about what they did that day nor do they do selfies, or in these other useful. Things but. I was. Lucky in the sense that she. Obviously had to file, situation, reports sitreps as they call them back.
To Her controllers, that, gave me some idea, a lot of other people, wrote. About her after the war but no one had really there was all the same person she had more than 220 different code names so, when people wrote about. The. Time that they met or things that they knew that she did they might call, her Sherman or cami or thermit of Philemon or Mary or even Nikola, and it. Was a question of realizing. That all those different women, who'd done all those different, incredible, things they. Were all the same person. And no, one had been mad enough to sit down before and kind of with a Organa, ground bits of string and post-its, and all the rest of it realized, that yes she was there and she was doing that kind of thing so yes and you know not that many spies her wooden legs either that, did obviously help that. Ventually I was able to pull this all together and then the, other thing happened was that this guy who. She fought alongside in, southern France and the outlaw. Was, quite obsessed with her, after. The war and he's actually been quite difficult at. Times but, I think he felt great remorse because she helped. To liberate a whole swathe. Of, France without a single, professional. Soldier, and I think he realized that all, the things that she done had made that possible so he spent about 20 years of his life, after the war when people were still alive when, a lot of the documents, that have now been destroyed, by the way had. Was still around and he took copies, and I managed to find this little personal, archive that he'd put together in France and say that. Was very, very fortunate I was able to join some of the dots and then her nieces saw their life and lives in Baltimore she's, 89, wonderful. Woman sharp. As a pin and some, of the stuff she too was able to, help. Me with and ultimately, also, the CIA far enough were very helpful and two, former, intelligence officers, who were able to help, me get some files Declassified. Because you know a lot of files about the Second World War but typically intelligence, will are still, closed, and will, be till at least the, 2030s. I mean we think we know everything we need to know about so Second World War I can assure you there's, still a whole lot more out there some, of it we'll never know because not a lot of things seem to have been, mislaid. We. Do know that something like 85%. Of, the documents, on the british, secret service she worked for the SOE special, operation, executives, have, been destroyed. Or whatever. They've just disappeared so, it's, always going to be a little bit difficult but you know with, a bit of elbow, grease you can put these stories together mm-hmm. Yeah. I'm quite realized that so many things, were missing now, so. I mean the book is so rich and has you, know lots of great stories about what, what Virginia did but what, were just, to give a flavor to the people in the audience what were some, of her greatest accomplishments. Do you think as a as, a spy and as a commando. As a guerilla leader well. When when she went, in in 1941. So she went in as an American spying for the Brits remember that America wasn't in the wall at, this point Pearl Harbor hadn't, happened, she didn't have to do any of this stuff she volunteered. She, went into. Enemy-controlled. France, when, Britain. Had no spies there it all disappeared, after Dunkirk. That, either died or, or, given Apple or all left and so Britain. Expected, to be invaded at any point and, absolutely.
Knew Nothing about, what was going on and its closest neighbor but. The foreigner if they couldn't find that many people prepared, to go in and and without any backup, but. Virginia would and so she went in and, that's last time we all heard about the French Resistance, it didn't exist, it didn't just spring up from, nowhere because, people were terrified you think there's a first. World power, like, a country. That as important, as Britain is today say. Had. Become a subject nation, within six. Weeks and this had caused such, a shock. To most French people, that they simply could. Not cope with the idea of fighting back it took a long time for this idea, to, be planted, so for gin you went in her, job was to fan. The flames of French Resistance, there helped make that first, sort, of little bit of French resistance, happen for anyone she spoke to could, be a collaborator, we know there were lots and lots of collaborators could, be a Nazi stooge she could be killed, at any moment, she had to go up to you you and you and work, out what side were you on would. You perhaps help what could you do could. You print. Some false papers. Could you provide. A safe, house would, you prepare to hide, guns or explosives. What would you prepare to do and ironically. She, had, success. With some, of the most unlikely people, including, nuns, in, a convent, who gave her her, first safe, house and did, brilliantly and. Prostitutes. In a brothel whose madam, became her, chief left hand one of the bravest. Women, you, can possibly, imagine basically. Sacrificed. Herself, her, freedom to the Gestapo to save, agents. And you, know she literally, just said. Okay take me to allow other people to get, away and got all her prostitutes. Spying, on, German. Clients, because they have many German clients German officers who encouraged to go to brothels it was thought to make, them better fighters, and, the. The prostitute spies and and rifled, out their, uniforms. Despite, their drinks they'd fell asleep and then deliberately, infected. Them it was kind of like a biological, warfare if, you like and Virginia. Got the intelligence, from them set them up into these networks, recruited, the local police, chief and. And as, the secret documents, say she saved. This. Is a direct quote Allied. Intelligence in, France from extinction. Not. Bad for a disabled, woman with virtually, no training, because, no one knew how to do the stuff no one had done it before she, pioneered it she pioneered techniques. At the CIA tell.
Me They still used today I mean this is how pioneering. She was but no one knew about it later, when, she went back like a staffer knew all about her by this point they'd sent out this command. That we must find and destroy her, that she was the most dangerous allied spy she, went in disguised, as a milkmaid, with wrinkles. That. Hollywood makeup artists, had shown her how to put, on her face so realistic. And all sane take that German officers would come up and think she was in her sixties, she was in her, 30s and. Eventually. Formed will ragbag, armies, of schoolboys and vets and booksellers. And and teachers. And things and, blowing. Up bridges, ambushing. German convoys, and liberating. A whole, part of France now. This was apparently. Dumb the another, quote from the secret documents the good humor of a Sunday school picnic so you, know she was a pretty, amazing, woman. They had no it was very conservative, time, you know Vichy France, women, I'm expected, to stay, at home and have at least four kids and she. Was there a foreign, woman somehow. Persuading. Hundreds. Of men to, take her orders, I didn't know who she was or where she came from she persuaded, them to do this to trust her at a time when really, you couldn't trust anything so, so just to give you a little kind of clue as to why. She. Was actually, a woman who was very important, indeed that just gives you a little little, bit of a flavor hmm. So. You, were saying you know she she, innovated, and pioneered all these techniques did she was, there any training available to her before did, she wish, she just sort of plunged in like what what was she said what, tools was she sent with well. Very few she did get a little bit of training I mean, one of the things she, was taught by they got in a, burglar. To. Teach her how to pick locks, she. Was taught how to replace dust on a surface, when you remove something, she, was taught that you and as a brilliant secret, ink because it comes out well under heat you can see, things quite clearly and, she. Was, also. Shown. How to microfilm. Documents, we all see you couldn't send things in a way that you guys can, now but you could shrink doctrine it's a tiny little. Size. Like there's like a postage, stamp and she, was very fortunate she had a particularly, good, hiding. Place for such documents, which was a tiny little slot, in her metal sari left in her, metal heel so she was able to put secret.
Documents, In there she was also taught, perhaps, most importantly. Because, she did have a license, to kill one of the few things, she had in common with James Bond she. Didn't drive around in a flashy Aston, Martin I mean absurd she got the Trammell, walk by what else, she. Did have a licence to kill and she was shown how, to do it and her preferred, method. Was with. Poison. Pill cyanide, pills now these were in. Soluble. So in insoluble. Rob balls, if you, swallowed, them hope hold you'd. Be fine if, you broke them and put the contents, in someone's food they, wouldn't be fine they died within 45, seconds, if, you could hold the pill in your mouth at the back, say. You, know you were worried that you were going, to be tortured you might not be able to hold out if that. Was the case you, could then bite, into. The pill and you add I was in a 45 second surgery but, this was. Pretty. Much the only training. She had. Because. They. Didn't know how to set up networks. In the hostile, country, no. Never done, it before she, had, to work it out on the job so when, she set off they gave her a 50-50, chance of survival. And that was you, know actually. Being quite optimistic, so the fact that she did survive longer. Than almost anyone, else in the field is is kind, of testament, to the. Way that she did become a terrific, spy in her spy craft her field craft was, was great. I. You, talk in the book about how, not. Only are these you know cyanide pills and poison pills but also there's. Quite a lot of drugs, around. Help. Break even can you say a bit about that okay, so she, had two other sets of pills one one. Set. Would give you the symptoms, of typhoid so, that you would take be, taken to hospitals supposing you were captured this is one potential, way that you might be able to escape hospitals, Mussina's her softer touch the, other pills their most popular pills, of all and you know these were used, in fast quantities, like Miss Ellie were Benzedrine. They were investment, because. The thing was that in the field that sleep was a luxury and sometimes, you might have to be awake six nights on the truck wellhe there's, no way you can be sort of dozing, off if you're, on, an operation, so you would pop these things they, were blue little tiny blue tablets, like, sweeties, always to keep you going now. She took lots I can tell you and sometimes when, she finally needed to sleep, she had to take it down her because they kind of make you so wide as, you can imagine after all that time and you. Know I can also tell you having. Taken all those pills during the war and she wasn't the only one and once she started organizing. Parachute, drops I mean whole bags. Of these things would come down with the guns and the explosives. And I'm glad to say chocolate tea they realized, that Chuck that was very important, almost. As important, as the Benzedrine but. That. You know this did have an effect on her hearts after the war and a lot of those agents, you know that had very their. Health was clearly. Affected. And also you know there was nothing to eat in France at that time the, Germans were taking pretty, much all the food so she was half, starved, as well in lots of huge amount. Of weight and there were people going to, a hospital in cities like Leo from. The, symptoms of famine you know I don't think people realize just how tough. Life was there was also no soap so. You couldn't get clean you couldn't, wash your clothes and you couldn't wash your sheets or yourself. So. Life was pretty grim so the very fact that she. You. Know volunteered, to do this for a few quid a month you, know when everyone thought she's had 50/50, chance of survival, is just shows you how determined, she was really. And. You you touched upon earlier you know this kind, of incredible, feat you know for the time it was anyway. For. A woman but also in, Vichy France somewhere it's you know very conservative. That. She as a woman who was able to lead all of these men and sort of persuade them to do all these new things and. Yeah. What were you, know what were those sort of disadvantages. But also maybe the advantages, for her of being a woman in this position, well.
I Think initially it, was an advantage, in the sense that the Germans, in Vichy France they're sort of they. Kind of reaction reviews, persuaded. Them but women. Didn't get involved in nasty dirty things like the resistance, or. Parachute. Drops of guns or blowing, up things and so it, was assumed, that they, would be innocent, but then they kind of work that out quite. Quickly that. Women were actually hugely, involved, and. The. Thing was that they say some of the absolute. Worst forms, of torture for, women. We know that now, that some of the most prey, things I weren't going to details were done to women to, get seek without him because they realized, that. Often. The women knew, an awful lot because they were couriers, they would be carrying, messages in, their heads from one time to another from, one resistance. Leader to another and they often knew, an, awful, lot and. So, if. You think that they were treated, any more leniently than men you'd be wrong. Absolutely. The. Reverse and. It. Wasn't long that before. She became so successful in. Rescuing. Other agents, from prison. Rescuing. Aircrew. You, know been shot down people. On the run from the Gestapo. Small-scale. Sabotage, at this point that, the that the Germans, and Vichy Frank, the the French police were were, after, her and they knew now, at this point that she, had a false like they called her the limping, lady and you may have heard of Klaus Barbie the butcher of Lyon this Gestapo. Monster. Killed, thousands. Of people was, particularly. Obsessed, with her and said that, he would give anything, to get his hands, on her so she had, the whole office, of the Reich. After. Her as well as the French, police and at one point had to escape. Was no other way for it over. The Pyrenees in the, worst winter, for 200 years with, cuspid. Her, wooden, leg and, the, amazing thing is is that she made it and she her, niece says that was the worst moment for, her personally, in the war but she. Managed to get away and so she always eluded. Them amazingly. Mmm-hmm. But many women didn't, many women a lot of those prostitutes I told you about who. Deliberately. Affected, German. Officers so that they couldn't, fight who got, all that information passed. On to Virginia, she called them my, tart friends we won't even know their names ever but, a lot of them were, caught tortured. And shot or. Or. Worse you know so, there. Are many many many heroes, who. We will never know about and who you know we owe great deal to you, you mentioned early, about that. Some of the things that she. Pioneered. In terms of spying are still used. By the by. The CIA and I wondered if you could talk if, you're allowed to tell us his. Techniques are but also, the book is really interesting about how. Britain, in America, viewed, spying, at the time and the sort of differences between the two countries and obviously she was an American spying, for the British and, yeah, I guess just a bit more background about sort of spy craft at that time what she what, her innovations. Were what her lasting impact was oh yeah. Was interesting I mean obviously America. Came into the war much later than Britain but it also came into this. Sort of form of intelligence. Half, intelligence, half Special. Forces because most boys didn't go around blowing up bridges they tend to just gather intelligence well she was doing both, and that was quite unusual. And, something that yes he did pioneer, and something that the CIA when. I spent at the day at Langley, said for instance I, guess they wouldn't tell me about anything more recent but there was something called operation. Jawbreaker, which was in Afghanistan. Before. And after 9/11 when they were wanting. To form local, networks, to support their. Own troops. At some point and they, said that they they looked. At what Virginia did and replicated. That in in, Afghanistan. So it is pretty, amazing, that what she was getting up to the 1940s. Is still being used now and, I guess some of the things that she did was looking. In places, for recruits that other people, might, not think of finding. A way to. Get. Them given, hope, and a, sense of loyalty but, also this, discipline. That you mustn't, tell other people, what you're doing you, can tell me because I'm your commander, I can tell one other person, so and so on so that you have these discrete, cells of people maybe, five or six, you know only, those other people you don't know any other cell because, once, you know about, you might never ever want to give them away but if you're caught and you're tortured, know none of us knows how, long, we could hold out and we could hold out for a minute we just don't know no. One expected. You to hold out for more than 48 hours if, someone was caught who knew a lot everyone took that next 48 to get into hiding, but.
It Was that kind of building, up from nowhere and, building, up building up giving people hope giving people structure. Giving them instructions. -, that, was really important. Constantly, being on the move only, ever using, code, names never, ever using, your, own own name, never, giving away where. You live but, always having a place that you can exchange messages, so, one of the places that she exchanged messages was, with, in. A laundry, where the, owner of the laundry, would put them in stands about lol Oh as as Altru would, put stockings. In. Sort of neat piles close together if she had messages, and the neat piles would be further apart if she didn't there was sure Michelle shard it was any of you've heard of him a musician, his mother was, involved, in, in, Virginia's. Resistance, - she had an, underwear, shop and she. Said I hide guns under piles, of bras in the backroom I mean all, these people he would never expect, I think the thing is that spies don't. Look like spies they don't look like James Bond they really do they look like all of us in this, room I think Virginia was really, good at doing that and winning. People's, trust, to. The point that she needed it I mean one of her recruits was the local police chief well that was a really smart move she. Managed to get, him to trust her so that he tipped her off when. They were about to mount. A raid on a place all he would also try and let her know when the Gestapo, up to things so. Those, techniques, that kind of discipline, never, going straight to the building if I want to go in and see, someone in that cafe, I have a meeting with them I don't just walk into the cafe I go. Round the block first I have I I monitor. It before I go in I, might, spend called for now doing, that that, person only knows my code name I knew then that their code name we. Will never meet at that cafe again also. Within. The space of a few hours you can make herself look completely, different she'd. Change her parting, put glasses on a hat but little rubber slivers in her cheeks, put. Gloves on to hide her hands were different sorts of clothes. And so she could be Rashid, Marie philomon. And Virginia. In, the space of three or four hours always. Elusive, never going the same way so all of these techniques, are ones, that she kind of had, to make up on on the hoof as it were and are, now used by the CIA. And. So, we've we've talked quite a lot about what she did during the war and but, then she had this whole you, know sort of second act her life. At. The CIA but before. We get to that she. Did also, amazingly. In the midst of all of this all these different identities the, danger find, love during, world war two and that certainly is not you know sort of cliche thrust of your book at all but you do, I felt, so attached to Brittany that I was. Pleased. Could, you tell us a little bit about got. To cheer actually because you, know after mm-hmm. After. She lost her leg she. Had. Been lonely, she had been very. Much on her own and she felt kind, of separated, from other people and all qualities, in a way that, make for a good spy but not necessarily, a happy. Life and, and. Then towards the end of the fighting and in the Second World War, she, been absolutely. Shouting, giving again she was in charge of all these French when it was like unruly, she was a foreign it was difficult she, always wanted backup from.
Base By this point she's working for the Americans it never came until, the fighting, and her part of France is pretty much over and then two American, officers were parachuted. In to, help her when ironically, right at the end anyway, it was jolly good that they did because one of them this, chap. Called Paul who was by. The way, six. Inches shorter than her seven, years younger than her and. Obviously. More junior than her was. One of those two who was parachuted, in to help her and he was French, American, his sort of French by backgrounds, and. He. Did everything she wanted to bait, her orders watched, her back for her but also made her laugh I don't, think they've been much, laughing for we, were on her life and he. Certainly. License. Her life and they stayed together for the rest of their life and there's. A sort of mazing. I found out from her niece as how, they commandeered, a chateau at one point they were looking for, more fighting, I mean you know they just liberated one bit of France that that kind of wasn't enough for her as she wanted to get. Other Germans, elsewhere, and they commandeered, this the chateau and there was a lake on the Chateau and there's a boat on the lake and. Things. Happened that night. According, to Nathan and you. Know war, often tested, relationships. To destruction, but amazingly, from, that night to. The day she died they. Stayed together even. Though her mother if you remember, who wanted her to marry well, ie money. Refused. To acknowledge. Him, he was a chef by background and, didn't, have any money didn't have much of an education either, so. Amazingly. Despite the fact that Virginia wasn't, scared of the Gestapo, visibly. Sore fighting. Germans all the rest of it she was a teeny. Bit scared of her mum and she had to hide, this relationship. For about 20, years until, she finally admitted. Yale was still together and yeah gonna get married next week. But, she left it until quite late in life to get married for that reason because she was scared of her mom's reaction say, this. Sort of it's, such a human, side to Virginia, there was a soft. Side to her too. So. Said. She was. Then after the war involved. In the very early days of the CIA could you tell us a bit about what, her role was and some of the challenges that she had at the CIA despite, this incredible, wealth.
Of Knowledge she brought to them so. She at. The end of the war she was the only civilian. Woman. The whole ward we. Decorated. With the Distinguished, Service Cross, which is a very very prestigious. Medal. In America, President Truman himself wanted, to give it to her but she said no thank you mr. president I went, to remain, a secret agent, so I can't be doing with any publicity, so she just had it in this private ceremony. But she was a recognized. Full-on. Massive. War. Hero. Who, had done all this secret, stuff and turned round the intelligence. War. And she couldn't get a job. Yeah, after what was very difficult in the CIA was set up and it took her a long time even to join the. CIA and even, when she did, that's. When her real troubles. Began, because, you. See she, was seen as the sacred, presence because of what she'd done but, that just produced, a lot of resentment because most, of the men that she was with at the CIA there weren't many women let's, face at this point, had. Done nothing like what she's an award when they've been sitting behind a desk or they've been too young or they, haven't blown up bridges and things and the way that she had it and there, was a lot of resentment and I managed, to get from, the CIA her, personnel, files where, the way that they talked about her is absolutely. Horrifying. They belittle her and undermine, her say. She's got no ingenuity. No resolve no ideas. You, know the evenings will question her stability and, courage do you think what she'd just been, through, it, is utterly, absurd. But the story, tells, of of someone, being basically. Frozen. Out again. And again and again and this, guy could e Howard, hunt he, was part of the Watergate thing so basically a body he went to prison for that but he. Was actually someone, who saw, what was happening to Virginia, and and. Wrote about how appalling, this was that she was basically. Shut outs of everything and then when she said I don't think that's a very good idea she, was just branded. As a, sort of conservative, no, no, ideas, of her own but when you think that CIA was up to at that point mean you know great trance like the Bay of Pigs I don't think you know they, could have done with more people saying you need to plan, this properly, but her great, sense. That being ridiculous was essential, and these, operations. Kind of pushed to one side so I mean, really that's why the book is called a woman of no importance, because that is how she. Was very much treated, before the war when the State Department, excluded, her after, the war and the CIA pretty, much behaved the same Society, was becoming much, more reactionary conservative again. But obviously, during the war she. Was this figure of exceptional. Importance. But that's always been been, lost. I'm gonna, open up to the audience. Shortly. But I, just, wanted to mention T that um you, know unsurprisingly with film rights were snapped, up very quickly and, so. If you could tell us a little bit about that but also how. Do you think Virginia you know who sort of kept. All these secrets, you know whose II say didn't want to accept this medal in front of anyone so, she could keep being a spy how, do you think she would feel about her life now hitting, the bestseller, list and maybe, being on the big screen do you think I. Think. Instinctively, she would worry about it I have to admit I'm a father myself this question a lot but. I also think that she wanted. Things to be more meritocratic, and, if she could push. Down some barriers I mean she. Was the only woman out, in France, the SOE for a whole year she. Was the guinea pig if you like there was only because she was so spectacularly. Successful that, they ever sent Mom more, women into the field and they never did the same sort of thing as she did but Gina, Haskell who recently became the first female director of the CIA last, year when. She accepted, the job she said. That. She was standing on the shoulders of heroines, who'd gone before her, who had pushed down barriers. And I think it's pretty clear that Virginia, would have been foremost, amongst. Those who's talking about we win at the CIA and its predecessor, OSS, where Virginia works I think Virginia. Would be pleased, ultimately. That, things. Are changing. I. Think she'd be pretty dismayed.
It's Taken, so, long and, that, you know things are still having to change so. I like to think that should we please about that side there and yeah. I mean that's the the. Film I mean I. Guess. Her life is so epic. And, in, a way so, pictorial. And full, of action. I, mean. It just never stops her life, being. Exciting. And extraordinary, and and it, means absolutely fantastic, news it's going to hopefully, be made into huge. Film yeah can, you I know these things are always under ups but can you tell us where the film is and. Well. It permits, two days are the CJS and bad, robot, who make Star Wars movies, are. Producing. It because. The Star Wars kind. Of you. Know seeing is basically. Winding up now so they were looking for something, new. To get their teeth into they're working, on script right. Now I, was. In LA couple weeks ago and we were talking about how, on earth do, we fit, everything, that she did into. A. Screenplay. It's so difficult to leave things out because so. Much as is exciting, so I'm, no expert in films but they seem to be working very hard on it right now and what she's great yeah. See. I think let's open it up to the audience. So. I can start with a question. So, I was curious about so, you mentioned that a, big part of Virginia's, work, and her life in, general was to. Be able to maintain. Multiple. Identities, at the same time and to be able to switch between identities, so. I was curious if you could elaborate, a bit on how do you actually do that when you, have a very, big detail that gives away your true identity as a wooden leg yeah yes. Well she. The. Limp was obviously an issue so she deliberately. Took huge, strides, to try and disguise. It I. Mean worse when she was tired I guess these things always do that. That was, a problem but, the fact that she still managed to do this despite, that is pretty. Indicative of how how, good she was I guess you know I mean President Roosevelt. Who was the American presidents at the time I mean he was often he was dependent. On a wheelchair you. Rarely were. Aware of that at the time because he found, ways of disguising, it I suspect. She did things like met. People sitting, down when she could all, tried. Not to walk along with them so much, but you, know word dick did, get round and there's one. Occasion. Which was written about by this guy who who. Is, walking, along beside her says, thinks. That she has a wooden leg but she's walking so fast and and so briskly, he say is it true you have a wooden leg and later, on that night they're, having didn't, she, takes it off and and you. Know kind of does. This against the table so that he can hear it's hello because it was some it, was so rudimentary. Well ways nothing like those high-tech things you see now it was painted, wood, flesh-colored, wood with, a metal. Toe and a metal heel and leather. Straps, around her waist that, was it you know this was kind of Long John Silver, type stuff. And yet somehow she managed, to do this this kind of thing I mean the, secret of that will never probably hugely, totally. Get um. As an American. And Parasuram. Well, as a as a, foreigner in France how did she manage to even, get started and, not, be given away for instance, by her accent, well. She did have an accent I mean her french was pretty good but she did have quite a heavy American accent, she was very lucky and this is one, of the things that you know was. Lucky, for her to begin with well, America, was not in the war and they didn't join the world scene until December 41, she. Could go in undercover, as an American, journalist, which. Is what she did and initially.
When She didn't have a radio operator and any other way of contacting London, she, contacted. Her controllers. This is unbelievable. With coded, messages, in her articles, in the New York Post so, the people in London would have to get hold of a copy of the newspaper and then scan, it all the different kind of code, things to get her messages they had no way of contacting her, at all to, begin with but, also being a gentleman that she could she had cover for going around and being nosy, and asking people questions and travelling around obviously. After, America. Came into the war that. Became more, and more difficult she, stopped sending, articles. Into the New York Post all very few she, no longer said, where she was and in France she would say if she did write an article somewhere in France so she wouldn't give her, whereabouts, but more and more and more she went completely. Undercover. The, accent, was the problem sometimes she would get other people to talk on her behalf, and, say that you know she, had problems speaking or something there were all kinds. Of techniques. That she used to get around that but the initial thing was fine because she. Was to, all intents and purposes an, American, as, I said she helped raised the, resistance, like. Establish the resistance in France and, one of the key thing is to not get any. Collaborators. Or something inside so did she have a special sense about sensing, people who could give the, institution. Away or that, is such a good question do, you know I think I, mean having spoken to quite a few intelligence. Officers now about this it it does sound like one of the qualities, you need as a as a spy undercover, is a, highly, developed Sixth, Sense so, some kind of feeling, as to, what, people's, motives, or or, you, know incentives. Are that, said of course anyone, that she recruited, could, be a collaborator, and, there. Were huge rewards, if you shopped. Someone to the Gestapo you know you could make a serious, amount of money there was a great incentive. To do that so obviously her. Sixth sense was very well developed I mean she was very good at listening at the door she would never just walk into room she'd always listen. First you know she, was going to meet someone just in case they were doing something that made them suspicious. Or being you know potentially, you, know betray, her in in some way she. Was ultimately. Betrayed. By someone which. Was reason. That. The final, catalyst, for her having to escape, at the end of 1942, a priest. Who, was the, most. Unbelievably. Wicked. Double. Agent, who managed, to infiltrate, himself. Into. Her. Network and who. Was. Responsible for, dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths. And chap by the name of Robert, ilish and, you. Know it was brilliant being a priest of course because so, many people, instinctively. Thought he, must be a goodie there he is he's in a cassock, and he. Was giving, sermons. In, his church, denouncing. The Nazis, and the, Third Reich and then the, young guys and his con would, come up and talk, to him about what they've done for the resistance, and the next day they'd all be rounded, up because he would have sold them he. Took much more care, over, how, he was bringing in the net closer, and closer and closer to, Virginia, she, has, six cents did work she she, by this point she could contact. London through, a radio. She, said I can't believe he's a phony, but. The, offers, see there was this seed of doubt in her, mind but a he, was a police that the others trusted. And B he kept turning up with incredible. Intelligence. That seemed absolutely. Brilliant, unfortunately. It had all been doctored, by the Germans, it looked great it was, useless. So. On this, occasion she just, let her armor, down maybe she was so tired she couldn't, quite do. You know deals. It anymore but as a result of his work she, got away of the Pyrenees but, the brothel, madam is your main go round for, instance. He, caught her she was sent to ravensberg. The appalling. Woman's. Concentration, camp where they injected. You with gangrene, where so many died.
She Survived, only Joshua's, know the same again and her other chief lieutenant, who was the VD doctor, who worked with the was, a brothel was sent to Buchenwald. And he justified, many, many others didn't. Know so that was the time she got it wrong and I think after that she, was even, more careful, if that's possible I think. He was fascinating, did, you find the French authorities were, helpful with any information. They. Record much. Not. Unhelpful. But this is this. Is. This. Is quite a tricky subject in France. Looking. At you know what happened, in the war there, were many many heroes but there were also many many, collaborators. And. Who's, not to say that that wouldn't have been the same here before we get you know sort. Of disappear about it I don't, suppose it would be any different here if we'd been occupied. But that it is still something that's quite difficult to to. Deal with. So. It, isn't always easy. Get the files that you want. They. They. Didn't obstruct you but they don't make it easy on. The. Other hand there was this archive, that they found in Lyon where. There's a resistance Museum, which is amazing. Plays and upstairs is the library, and, this particular, archive, which was all, about Virginia. And they couldn't have been more helpful because no, one else had ever looked at it so when I rocked up and said I'd, like to spend a week here. Then. Throw religious about their lunch Charles and Frances opposed I'm sure you know normally. They would close the office down our necks out, but, I only had a week and the guy said no no no don't worry you can work for your lunch now that was a big big concession, and. You know I'm very very grateful to. This day so I, think. They were really pleased because here, was the Frenchmen who done the, right thing and that. Was great so I realized. That there are. Sensitivities. Here. But. I'd, also like to say that you, know some of those French, people. Who fought. With her were. Just. Incredible. Credible, heroes and I tell. Their story to this young guy called Marcel lecture in his 30s, who. Was, executed. By the Germans, but did, so much with her she called him her Neffe he was any fears older younger than her he. Called her his auntie. But, you know that. Was an, international. Bonds, that we can probably never. Imagine, and the guys that she fought with in the other world liberated. The department, with all these letters they wrote to each other after the wall they. Said it in different ways but the the, feeling was always the same the, sentiments always the same it really, touched me which was it. Had worth being it, had been worth being, born, just. For that moment with Virginia Hall those two months when they were all on the same side, all different, backgrounds different nationalities. But. All the same cause which was kind of getting rid of the Nazis, freedom, for France and and peace, again and I think. That, international. Message. Is so so strong. You know it was something that came out so, powerfully. That I think ultimately, it's, it's. Good for France and it's good for Britain it's good for America and it's kind of good for all of us and. I'm, interested. In how you got, the information from the CIA like, how how did you access. People. There and. Well. It's, an amazing piece of luck I do think luck comes into these things when I started. Researching. Here, I was at the National Archives in Kew and I was the second day and someone tapped me on the shoulder, I thought I must have done something wrong he said he wanted to speak to me outside and it turns, out to be a retired. Mi6. Officer they speak in riddles but anyway that's basically, what he was and, he was really helpful showing, me documents, getting, soft. Declassified, over here and, then he had a friend in America who, was he.
Knew Someone in the state he was recently retired, from the CIA who, also helped, me get, some stuff Declassified. Made, some connections with me at the CIA. So. I applied, to go there for a day so I could speak to them see these documents it took some time they eventually said yes even. When he gets the CIA is that more yet, more security and they told me that I'd gone through nine. Levels, of security just be to. Repeat I allowed to go to Langley and one of which had. Been a non, concur, which is the phrase they used and I said well what's that and as well as because your foreign national, so I said well how come I'm here they're there and they said I, was. Someone. High up said, don't worry she can come I said, Who I can't tell you why don't, know but, anyway so. I've. Got a friend at the CIA who, knew. So. I was allowed to go see, these, documents. You. Know look at their own, internal. Documents about her now in which they except we. Did not use her talents, well you bet. You didn't and, also, all those annual. Appraisals, and the other stuff about her so I. Think. Maybe the CIA finally, wanted, her story to come out they. Are trying, I think to change things she, is now a poster, girl in sense for inclusivity, with CIA they, have named a new. Training building, after her hurrah, and. Maybe. It was just the right time that people. Were prepared. To have, this out. In in, the open because, although it seemed like I was never going to be able, to open the, door ultimately. It opened, enough, so. I could sort, of get a pretty good view if. You, google Virginia, Hall one. Of the top. Results. Is that her like the CIA employing, people with disability is paid, it's. Like I hope there's more current, stuff on her but. Yeah, they do definitely assumed as you say she's a kind of poster girl yeah so he has become that now yeah yeah I I. Also just wanted to know if you had if, you found information at the CIA from before. She, came like before she was a spy with them like, forward, from the time where she was a spy for the. Sorry. So like for did, you find information at the CIA for, the time during. The world or was, only after, like. The. CIA was only, formed. After the war during. The war there. Was a full. Run on CIA called the OSS, which, she went to work for after, see when, she escaped, over the Pyrenees that's, good stuff and you all about how they have photographs, of her they had sent this signal, out across the whole of France saying we must find and destroy her, she. Said so when she got back to London amazed me right I want to go back now all the Brits that there's no way you were going to send you back every, single Gestapo, officer, in France has your photograph, they all have this command. To find and destroy you we're not saying you back are you joking, so, that's when she went and worked for the Americans, he didn't know quite so much what have been going on, hadn't. Had quite the same sort, of grounding, in the. Barbarity. Of you, know the war in France were. Prepared, to send her back but as a milkmaid, with the. Wrinkles and things the, OSS, was disbanded. At the end of the war but. Then re-emerged. Basically, as the CIA a few years later, so that's how it how. It happened, and you, know that there were very very very, few, women if any others, who at, the OSS, who did what Virginia did, it was still I mean, they did other things code breaking, and things but not so much behind enemy. Lines as Virginia. Yeah. So she changed she changed, them some. Fury said did you meet her niece and, if, so, so. The physicality, of meeting someone was a relation, did a lot of this really come to life for you did it did it make a difference yes. I mean yeah absolutely so we've had several conversations on, the phone and then I went and spent some. Time with her and Baltimore, and. Yes. Because, you. Know suddenly. It. All makes sense when you're writing a biography. Initially. You think I can't, quite get this person I can't quite get this person and you. Need to I mean I think it must be a little bit like method acting that you need to have that kind of, understanding. And I. Never, completed, it I felt until I met Lorna, and spent some time, with her and she opened, the, family, photo album so some of the pictures you'll see in the book are from her photo.
Album And they're great and she, called her aunt dindi, it was the family nickname so talking, about dindi. And and what paul was like and paul made her laugh and just, hearing all of that that having that sort of first-hand, connection. With her it's, like this other light bulb comes comes, on and and it. Gives you confidence. As. A writer yeah. I know my subject now i I've, seen, all those papers, I've read all those accounts I've read the letters I've dug. Hitting I've dug there but finally, I have that personal. Account and that sort of yeah makes it kind of whole and it, was a great moment, she was a friend, sick woman, in her own right yes, I say 89. She goes to the station to pick me up in Baltimore went, back to her house and sisters on making me lunch I went for a walk around the garden she's, great I mean absolutely great, and she's, certainly the most touching. Email. The other day saying, that you've, got her you've absolutely got, her I'm so thrilled and yeah, I think that's the little. Kind of getting on motion about it now that was the best moment of any of this when she did that have to say all, right thanks, a lot it, sounds really exciting. You.