As Nazis closed in, spy fled across moun­tains on her wooden leg

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - IAN SHAPIRA ian.shapira@wash­post.com

The Nazis were com­ing. It was Novem­ber 1942, and Vir­ginia Hall, a spy based in Lyon, France, knew she had to flee.

She was fa­mous, af­ter all — a Mary­land-born op­er­a­tive with a wooden leg and a so­bri­quet, the “Limp­ing Lady” — who was con­sid­ered one of the most ef­fec­tive Al­lied spies lead­ing the French re­sis­tance. She or­ga­nized agent net­works, as­sisted es­caped POWs, and re­cruited French men and women to run safe houses, ac­cord­ing to an ac­count of her ca­reer on the CIA’s web­site. But she was be­ing stalked by a pur­suer of equal re­pute: Gestapo chief Niko­laus “Klaus” Bar­bie, who went by his own moniker, “The Butcher of Lyon.” The Nazis be­lieved Hall was Cana­dian, and Bar­bie once re­port­edly told his un­der­lings, “I’d give any­thing to lay my hands on that Cana­dian b----.”

Hall was then a spe­cial agent with the Bri­tish Spe­cial Operations Ex­ec­u­tive. She de­cided she had to es­cape France by cross­ing the bor­der into Spain. But how could she trek into the moun­tains that sep­a­rated the two coun­tries with a wooden left leg? She had lost her real one af­ter a hunt­ing ac­ci­dent years ear­lier and had learned to walk with a sev­en­pound pros­thetic limb she nick­named “Cuth­bert.” She linked up with other re­sis­tance mem­bers and, with the help of a guide, van­ished into the Pyre­nees. She car­ried a ruck­sack and hiked up the snow by drag­ging her pros­thetic leg and us­ing her good right leg as a snow­plow, ac­cord­ing to Ju­dith Pear­son’s 2005 bi­og­ra­phy of Hall, “The Wolves at the Door.”

At one point dur­ing the jour­ney, she was able to send a mes­sage to her han­dlers in Lon­don, telling them that Cuth­bert was giv­ing her trou­ble, the CIA bi­og­ra­phy re­counted. Their re­ply? “If Cuth­bert is giv­ing you dif­fi­culty, have him elim­i­nated.”

Even­tu­ally, Hall made it to Spain. Al­though she was jailed for not hav­ing a pass­port with the right stamps, she was let go af­ter 20 days.

Hall was de­ter­mined to re­turn to France, de­spite her most­wanted sta­tus among the Nazis. The Bri­tish re­fused, but the U.S. Of­fice of Strate­gic Ser­vices (OSS), the pre­cur­sor to the CIA, agreed to send her back on its be­half to help the Al­lies pre­pare for D-Day.

Hall might be one of his­tory’s most au­da­cious, yet lit­tle-known spies.

Af­ter the Bal­ti­more na­tive died on July 8, 1982, at Shady Grove Ad­ven­tist Hos­pi­tal in Rockville, Md., news­pa­pers con­signed her obit­u­ar­ies to the back pages. The Wash­ing­ton Post and the New York Times used brief As­so­ci­ated Press obit­u­ar­ies that were sev­eral para­graphs long. The Bal­ti­more Sun, her home­town paper, wrote up a more thor­ough ac­count at 14 para­graphs.

But the na­tions she served have al­ways ac­knowl­edged her dar­ing and courage, even if she said ac­co­lades were un­be­com­ing for spies. The French gov­ern­ment awarded her the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Bri­tain’s King George gave her the honor of Mem­ber of the Bri­tish Em­pire. And Gen. Wil­liam Dono­van, the leg­endary head of the OSS, pre­sented her with the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross. Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man wanted to give Hall the award him­self in a pub­lic cer­e­mony, but she de­murred, ac­cord­ing to Pear­son’s book. The fan­fare, she wor­ried, would re­veal too much to the en­emy.

Af­ter World War II, Hall con­tin­ued to work for the CIA un­til her re­tire­ment at the age of 60 in 1966.

In 2006, the CIA hung an oil paint­ing of Hall that de­picts her in­side a barn in south­ern France in 1944, us­ing a suit­case ra­dio pow­ered by an au­to­mo­bile gen­er­a­tor and bike parts to trans­mit mes­sages to Lon­don. The piece is one of sev­eral paint­ings in the agency’s art col­lec­tion that adorn its head­quar­ters.

Re­cently, the CIA also named a train­ing fa­cil­ity af­ter her, called the Vir­ginia Hall Ex­pe­di­tionary Cen­ter.

Ear­lier this year, the Hol­ly­wood press re­ported that Paramount Pic­tures might make a movie about Hall. The stu­dio ac­quired the rights to yet another soon-to-be-pub­lished book about her life, “A Woman of No Im­por­tance,” by jour­nal­ist So­nia Pur­nell. The stu­dio has at­tached Star Wars’ Daisy Ri­d­ley to play Hall. (No doubt, if the mod­est spy were alive to­day, the project might send her run­ning back to­ward the Pyre­nees.) But will it hap­pen? Pear­son, who was not aware of Pur­nell’s forth­com­ing work, said her book was op­tioned by Hol­ly­wood shortly af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, too. But no deal was ever made.

“You know how dur­ing the Acad­emy Awards, the win­ners say, ‘This movie took 20 years to be made’? It’s kind of the same thing,” Pear­son said. “It def­i­nitely should be a movie. Vir­ginia Hall cer­tainly has not got­ten the at­ten­tion she de­serves. It’s frus­trat­ing.”

COUR­TESY OF ERIK KIRZINGER

Vir­ginia Hall, a Mary­land-born Al­lied spy known as the “Limp­ing Lady,” is awarded the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross by Gen. Wil­liam Dono­van, chief of the U.S. Of­fice of Strate­gic Ser­vices, in 1945.

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