(Courtesy of Lorna Catling)

I began my search for Virginia Hall four years ago.  Since then, I scoured the US and British archives; recorded hours of interviews with the only person who remembered Virginia–her niece; reviewed WWII literature for reflections of Virginia, and even spoke with a psychiatrist specializing in trauma to better understand her worldview.

This was one of the first questions I asked: Were there clues in Virginia’s childhood that predicted her eventual success as a spy?  I went to visit Virginia’s niece, Lorna–a wonderful, kindly woman in her 80s, who lives outside of Baltimore.  When I entered her home, she was ready.  Photo albums, documents, and yearbooks were neatly stacked on her kitchen table.  She opened the book from Roland Park School which showed young “Dindy,” a good but not exceptional student, had a passion for leading: she was class president, editor of the school newspaper, and captain of the field hockey team.  But another fact caught my attention.  Virginia loved to act in school plays; assuming the role of someone else was perfect training for an espionage agent.  But Virginia wasn’t satisfied with just any part–“She always played the pirate chief,” Lorna said.

Even at an early age, Virginia had a streak of boldness, independence, and self-confidence.  She was unconventional, called “the most original”–the “class prophet”–in the yearbook and she made no apologies for it.  As a prank, Virginia brought a snake to school, wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet.  She was a rebellious woman, quitting Barnard and the Radcliffe after refusing to take required classes.  Lorna said nothing daunted her, she was comfortable in any situation, even admitting her Aunt Virginia, “was a little scary.”

In the spring of 1941, London was in flames from German bombs and even US diplomats thought the British cause was lost.  With its back to the wall, the British Special Operations Executive was looking for bold risk-takers who broke the rules.  Seeing Virginia was a good match, they quickly hired her for a very special mission–to be the first spy to live behind enemy lines in Vichy France.

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