Born on 6 April 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland to Virginia Hammel and Edwin Lee Hall, the life of Virginia Hall Gollot is far from fiction. Known by many aliases, like Marie of Lyon, Marie Monin, Nicolas, Germaine, Diane and Camille, she was nicknamed by the Germans as Artemis and was marked by the Nazis as the most dangerous of all the Allied spies. Born into wealth as a Baltimore banker’s daughter and raised to marry within her privileged class and quietly conform to society’s gender norms of the time, she wound up with a wooden leg, being chased by the Nazis throughout Europe during World War II.
Nicknamed ‘Dindy,’ Hall described herself as cantankerous and capricious, who once sported a bracelet of live snakes to school. She was a natural leader and was elected the class president. After completing her studies at the Roland Park Country School, she became engaged at the age of 19, but broke it off and first attended Radcliffe College in 1924 and then transferred to Barnard College the following year and studied French, Italian, and German. She also attended the George Washington University to learn French and Economics. After that, she visited Europe to continue her education and studied in France, Germany and Austria. She had the ambition to join the Foreign Service and become an ambassador, but her applications were turned down time and again, due to the biased attitude of the State Department against employing women, when only six of its 1,500 staff members were female.
Desperately, she accepted a clerical job at the US Embassy in Warsaw, Poland in 1931, before being assigned to the consulate in Turkey. It was there, on 8 December 1933, while hunting snipes, her shotgun misfired as she was climbing over a fence, leaving her left foot in tatters. She was immediately taken to a local hospital by her colleagues, which saved her life, but as gangrene had already set in, the attending American doctor had to amputate her left leg below the knee. Fitted with prosthesis, her recovery was long, difficult and painful. The painted wooden leg with its aluminum foot weighed eight pounds, and was held in place by leather straps on a corset around her waist. However, during that difficult period she learned the lesson of her life. She realized that she had been given a second chance to live and she was not going to waste it.
As Hitler invaded Poland on the 1st day of September 1939, Virginia Hill travelled to London and tried to join the women’s branch of the British army, but was denied because she was American. She then went to Paris and volunteered to drive ambulances for the French army. After the fall of France, she escaped to England, where an undercover agent puts her in touch with the British intelligence. After a short stint of training, one-legged Virginia Hall was selected as one among the first British Special Operations Executive agents sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1941.
Hill spent the next 15 months there, helping to coordinate the activities of the French Resistance, using the cover of a correspondent for the New York Post. She had her natural ability in the field of espionage. While staying at a French convent in Lyon, she persuaded the nuns to help her. She befriended a female brothel owner and gathered information that French prostitutes gathered from German troops. She organized French Resistance fighters and provided them with intelligence and safe houses. On more than one occasion, she masterminded jailbreaks of captured fellow agents. Eventually, the Germans realized the person who always seemed one step ahead of them was a woman of unknown nationality. She was on their most wanted list and called her the limping lady. She was an enigma for the Germans. By that time, Virginia Hill became an expert to take disguise and by changing her appearance, she could become four different women in a single day, operating with four different code names. Altering her hairstyle, wearing a sunglass and a wide-brimmed hat, changing her makeup, using different gloves to hide her hands and even inserting slivers of rubber into her mouth to puff her cheeks, she could easily hide her identity and it worked surprisingly well.
Suddenly, in November 1942, the Germans seized all of France and made random arrests. Hall narrowly escaped by train from Lyon to Perpignan, a southern French city near the Mediterranean coast and the border with Spain. After that, she had to walk for three days to cover a distance of 50 miles in heavy snow over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees Mountains on her often-clunky wooden leg, to reach Spain. However, Hill was arrested in Spain, as she did not have an entrance stamp in her passport. She had to spend six weeks in jail and then made her way back to England, where she was quietly honored for her wartime service and made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Within a short time, Virginia Hall became restless, as she gradually became fade up with the imposed peaceful life. She wanted to go back to France and work, but the British refused, fearing that it would be dangerous for her. However, the Americans needed her service, since during that stage, their own intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, had virtually no presence in France. They provided her with a forged French identification certificate for Marcelle Montagne, code named Diane and assigned Hall to central France in 1944. As her artificial leg prevented her from parachuting, she landed from a British Torpedo Boat in Brittany. Nevertheless, she knew that this time it would be difficult for her to operate undercover, with the Gestapo still looking for the mysterious limping lady.
Despite everything, Hall's second undercover tour in France, in 1944 and 1945, was even more successful than the first. Her network consisted of some 1,500 people, including Paul Goillot, a French-American soldier, who would later become her husband. She mapped out and called in airdrops for supplies and commandos from England, found safe houses for them, who blew up bridges, attacked Nazi convoys, sabotaged trains and reclaimed whole villages before the Allied troops advanced deep into France. She ended up in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a geographically isolated region that is now known for saving thousands of Jewish lives during the war.
Virginia Hall was presented the Distinguished Service Cross in a private ceremony in 1945, by General William Donovan, the then head of the OSS, the only one awarded to a civilian woman for service in World War II. President Harry Truman wanted a public award of the medal, which she declined, as she was still operational. Later, she was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palme by France.
After the war, Hall remained in the intelligence community. She was initially sent to Venice, mainly because she was fluent in Italian. She officially started her CIA career in December 1951 and for 15 years she used her covert-action experience in support of resistance groups in Iron Curtain countries. However, she was largely confined to a desk, which she did not like and also faced discrimination as a woman, as she faced at the beginning of her career.
She never spoke publicly and retired at 60 in 1966, returning to civilian life to live with her husband on a Maryland farm. She died in 1982 at the age of 76 and was buried in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, in Maryland. Recently, she was posthumously inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019.
Today, a display is dedicated to her at the CIA’s top-secret museum and the new recruits report for CIA training to a building named the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center. Four books have been published about her remarkable life and two movies in the offing.