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Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
April 6 was the birthday of a woman of no importance.
The beginning of this woman’s biography notes the rise of political extremism in an earlier era “on the back of propaganda, sloganeering and ruthless media manipulation. In what became known as the decade of lies, truth and trust were falling victim to fear, racism, and hatred. Virginia found herself in a ringside seat as the increasingly fragile ideal of democracy failed to find champions with alternative answers.”
The story and the birthday belong to Virginia Hall. She was born on April 6 in 1906. I learned about Hall while reading her biography “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II” by Sonia Purnell.
Hall, who later married and took the last name Goillot, grew up in Baltimore. After attending college and graduate school, she went on to study and travel in Europe in the early 1930s, eventually taking a secretarial position with the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. Hall’s dream was to become a diplomat. She studied foreign languages and became fluent in French, German and Italian.
While on assignment in Turkey, the 27-year-old Hall was in a hunting accident. She shot herself in the foot. Gangrene set in and she ultimately required a below-the-knee amputation. She was fitted with a wooden prosthetic leg, which she affectionately nicknamed “Cuthbert.” Once recovered, she applied to the Foreign Service multiple times and was informed that only the “able-bodied” need apply.
Shortly after the start of World War II, Hall drove ambulances for the French Army. She was eventually accepted by the British Special Operations Executive, which trained her in clandestine tactics, communications, weapons and other resistance activities. She spent 13 months in France between 1941 and 1942, organizing spy networks, running safehouses and delivering important intelligence to the British government under the cover of being a New York Post reporter.
In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission about the woman Germans nicknamed “the limping lady”: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her,” according to the biography.
While Nazi Germany occupied France, Hall needed to escape through the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain on what is known as the Freedom Trail. The journey was 44 miles long, with elevations as high as 6,000 feet. During the course of the war, more than 2,000 experienced mountain guides and civilians who were escaping through the Freedom Trail were captured and executed by the Nazis. Despite her disability, Hall walked the trail and made it to safety. She ultimately joined the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, which sent her back to France in 1944 to again take up the cause of the resistance.
In 1945, Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for her heroic actions during the war. She was the only woman to receive the award in World War II. Even though it was a prestigious honor, she requested the ceremony be held in secret because she wanted to continue working as a spy. She continued her intelligence work for the CIA even after the war had ended and retired in 1966, when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 60.
In 1957, Hall married Paul Goillot, who was also a former OSS operative. They lived in Barnesville, Maryland, until her death on July 8, 1982.
Hall was smart, brave, resourceful and fearless, and came to embrace her disability. She also eschewed publicity.
Hall’s niece, Lorna Catling, told CNN in 2019 that Hall “was not the least bit interested in fame or recognition. She did her work because she loved the excitement of it all. She was an outdoorsman and an extremely good organizer, and she just wanted to do her job.”
Currently, importance seems to be defined by how many followers a person has on social media, how many retweets, mentions, or downloads a person gets, or how many times a person appears in the media. Those metrics can measure how famous a person is, but not someone’s importance.
“Through a lot of her life, the early life, she was constantly rejected and belittled,” Purnell told NPR. “She was constantly just being dismissed as someone not very important or of no importance.” Thus the book’s title.
Hall’s legacy can teach us that significance is more than who you are. It can be the work you do, the lives you touch, or in Hall’s case, the lives you save. Or fighting for truth, equality and democracy.
Perhaps the best birthday gift for Virginia Hall Goillot would be to redefine what it means to be important.