Chapter 1: Big Reputation
“When a woman finally learns that pleasing the world is impossible, she becomes free to learn how to please herself.”1
1 BIG REPUTATION 1931
To say Virginia Hall was ambitious would be an understatement.
She was that girl at your high school who makes everyone else look like a slacker, no matter how hard they’re working: a perfectly well-rounded résumé that would please any college admissions board, with a nice balance of extracurriculars and decent grades. Good family. Money. Fancy all-girls school. She was the class president who somehow managed to get the best part in the school plays (the villain, naturally), edit the yearbook, and
rock it on the field hockey team.
This was the girl who’d get into Harvard but find it boring, choosing to ditch the hallowed halls of Cambridge in favor of studying abroad and sending home pictures of herself posing in front of castles and perched in gondolas with intriguing foreign men. Someday she’d receive prestigious awards from the president of the United States and the king of England. You know this girl—we all do. The girl who goes hard. Who’s hungry. Who makes things happen for herself. And you’re either the kind of person who loves her for it, admiring her swagger, or you hate her, jealous because she has the moxie to hustle for what she wants. Right here, right now, let’s decide to be Team Virginia. Let’s celebrate the hell out of a woman who would have left us all in the dust.
MEET YOUR NEW SHERO
Those who knew Virginia Hall best called her by her family nickname, Dindy. The name—bestowed upon her by her big brother, John2
—suits our gal pal just fine: It’s scrappy, meant for someone who goes on adventures and has, as Jo March of Little Women
might say, “a capital time.” Dindy as a wee lass
Writing about a real-life spy is tricksy, given that most of the work an intelligence officer does is highly classified. While many former WWII spies became famous after publishing memoirs about the escapades they could
spill about, Dindy remained tight-lipped until her dying day, in large part because she stayed operational for decades after the war.
I got my Nancy Drew on and decided to travel to Maryland and hang out with Dindy’s niece to do some proper sleuthing. I met Lorna Catling not long after I began my work on our gal in earnest and had a ball hearing old family stories, sifting through dozens of photographs, and ambling down memory lane. It was here that I got the best accounts of Dindy’s early life, long before she was a war heroine.
Her adventures really began when she finished high school, but a youth spent traipsing about her native Baltimore and romping around the countryside at her family home on the city’s outskirts, Box Horn Farm, set the groundwork for a lifetime of derring-do. Though the phrase has gone out of fashion—and with good reason—Dindy’s interest in so-called male pursuits and distinct lack
of interest in being a proper lady branded her a “tomboy.” If there were a tree, she’d climb it. A horse, she’d ride it. A duck, she’d shoot it. Lest anyone think she couldn’t dominate in the domestic arts as well, Dindy learned how to make her own cheese. Her mother told Dindy nothing she ever learned to do would be wasted, and, boy, was Mrs. Hall right—one day, her daughter’s fromage
habit would give her the cover she’d need to raise hell with the Nazis.
Dindy was especially close to her father, who had no problem with his daughter acting like one of the boys, despite the fact that she grew up in the prim and proper days of the early twentieth century. Dindy was born in 1906, which meant childhood photos of her included family members in corsets and bustled gowns. Old-school. Her family split their time between an apartment in Baltimore and their digs in the countryside.
When she wasn’t attending the Roland Park Country School, a somewhat posh institution that survives to this day, Dindy spent her early years going to movies at the Baltimore theaters her father invested in or goofing off on the farm with her brother, John. She milked goats, scrambled about the property, and got up to all kinds of antics—most photos of these years show her in trousers and knee-high boots, dressed more like a Prohibition booze smuggler than a lady of means. Dindy and her brother, John
Class president, editor of the yearbook, yada yada yada: This was Virginia in the 1920s, at a time when most women who finished high school were discouraged from pursuing their studies or choosing a career; being a wife and mother was very nearly the only path offered to the well-bred ladies of Baltimore. Other paths, I imagine, included trying on hats, gossiping about the exploits of those flapper harlots, and batting one’s eyelashes at eligible bachelors. Virginia was having none of that. She wanted to be in the room where it happens, not on the sidelines while her man went off to do all the cool things. Dindy didn’t give two figs about marriage and babies and chiffon gowns. She craved adventure, much like her enterprising paternal grandfather, John W. Hall, who’d made the family fortune in shipping after running off to sea at the tender age of nine, stowing away on one of his father’s clipper ships and then becoming a captain himself one day. Fun fact: His granddaughter would be a captain too—in the US Army.
Virginia was beloved by her classmates (they called her the “Fighting Blade”3
), her independence admired rather than frowned upon. She had big reputation, as evidenced by this description of Hall in her senior yearbook:
She is, by her own confession, cantankerous and capricious, but in spite of it all we would not do without her; for she is our class-president, the editor-in-chief of this book, and one of the mainstays of the basket-ball and hockey teams. She has been acclaimed the most original of our class, and she lives up to her reputation at all times. The one thing to expect from Dindy is the unexpected.4 Team player: Dindy is in the back row, second from right.
Barbara Hall was likely disappointed by her youngest child’s divergent ways. I suspect she’d been dreaming of marrying her only daughter off to a nice Baltimore society boy, visions of white gowns and babies in prams dancing in her head. Her own marriage to Edwin Hall had been a real coup, given that Ned, as most people called Dindy’s father, had been a wealthy banker—and Barbara his secretary. Ned’s parents had a fine town house in Baltimore, where they “lived high on the hog,” according to Lorna. The new Mrs. Hall had likely been hoping for a similar arrangement, but it was not to be: Ned was one of seven kids who had to share the inheritance, and as he struggled to hold on to the family’s fortune, Dindy’s mother found herself living in a rented apartment in Baltimore during the school year and then at Box Horn, where they spent the entirety of their summers. Though the house was imposing, it lacked the comforts of central heating or modern plumbing.5
Dindy was a smart cookie: She knew it would help her family out a great deal if she married well and brought the Halls back up to snuff. Given the times, her mother likely saw the investments made in Dindy—her expensive education, the childhood trips to Europe, and the German nanny—as stepping-stones to an altar with a boy of means at the end of it. These things were all indeed stepping-stones—to various positions with both the United States and British governments. Box Horn Farm
KNOWING WHICH FORK IS THE SALAD FORK AND OTHER SIGNS OF PRIVILEGE
Let’s hit the pause button for just a moment, shall we?
So far, Dindy’s life has been pretty easy-breezy—with the exception of the societal pressure nearly all young women of her time felt to marry well and stuff themselves into the corseted view the culture had of them. She had two parents who loved and supported her, she had a nice older brother, and everyone in the Hall clan seemed to like one another. They had lovely homes to live in, and she was educated in German, French, and Latin. Her summers at Box Horn were nothing short of idyllic. The property had a tenant farmer
, which I thought only happened in historical romance novels about saucy aristocrats in the English countryside. Then there are the family trips to Europe and all the ways in which her parents would fund her future endeavors.
Today, we talk a lot about privilege and access—as we should—and Dindy had quite a bit of both. Yes, she was a woman in the 1920s and, therefore, mad oppressed. But she was also white. And rich. And—at the time—able-bodied and healthy. She was given excellent educational opportunities at elite private institutions in the States and around the world. Her family had influential connections—the kind of people who could literally write the president on her behalf when things didn’t go her way. Dindy had a lot of luck. Buckets of it. She had a lot of bad luck, too, but, with one major exception, that bad luck stemmed only from the fact that she had a vagina.
Would Virginia Hall still have become a badass if she hadn’t had the privilege she did growing up?
Yes, I believe she would.
It was Dindy’s access to specific education—language fluency and the ability to navigate foreign cultures, which is only really possible through living abroad extensively—that allowed her to become a game changer in World War II. But there is much about Virginia that has nothing to do with her money or race. Without those privileges, she just would have been a different kind
of badass. I don’t think she would have been able to be one of the greatest heroines of WWII, at least not as a spy in France, if she’d been a woman of color or if she’d been too poor to get the kind of education needed to access foreign languages and cultures. But I bet she would have rocked some Rosie the Riveter action, helping to build planes at a factory, or maybe through joining the armed forces as a nurse.6
I’d say most of what we celebrate Virginia Hall for is audacious courage and the ability to stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of personal tragedy and under enemy fire—all of which you’ll see for yourself soon enough.
THE LOVE DODGER
Dindy’s classmates called her “Donna Juanita,”7
a female Don Juan, a libertine for her times who had no trouble snagging the attention of prospective suitors.
Perhaps she played more than just the hockey field. The camera doesn’t lie—Dindy was a looker; but I bet what really drove the boys wild was that secretive, teasing smile of hers that just begs you to give chase, the confident lines of her jaw that suggest she can hold her own with the best of them, and those eyes—an earthy brown with a disarming softness that left everyone who met her with the impression that she was très charmante
But Dindy’s classmates had her number: In addition to her “Fighting Blade” nickname in the senior yearbook, she had a second classification—the “Love Dodger.”8
Dindy didn’t just play hard to get—she didn’t want to be caught.
VIRGINIA HALL “I must have liberty, withal as large a charter as I please.”
- Captainball Team—1920-21.
- Class basketball Team—1923–24.
- Hockey Team—1922-24.
- Captain Imps’ Hockey Team—1923-24
- Dramatic Committee—1921-24.
- Stage-Manager Senior Play—1923-24.
- Marshal of Commencement—1922-23.
- Honor Board—1922-24.
- Class presiedent—1923-24
- Assistant Advertising Manager Quid Nunc—1922-23.
- Class Prophet—1923-24.
- Editor-in-chief Quid Nunc—1923-24.
THE “Donna Juanita” of the class now approaches. Though professing to hold Man in contempt, Dindy is yet his closest counterpart—in costume. She is, by her own confession, cantankerous and capricious, but in spite of it all we would not do without her; for she is our class-president, the editor-in-chief of this book, and one of the mainstays of the basket-ball and hockey teams. She has been acculaimed the most original of our class, and she lives up to her reputation at all times. The one thing to expect from Dind is the unexpected.
Barbara Hall, considered by some family members to be a bit of a snob,9
was in a pickle: How to marry off a daughter who was most at home when there was a gun in her hand and dirt under her fingernails? I’m sure when Mrs. Hall opened her daughter’s 1924 senior yearbook and saw Dindy’s chosen quote beside her picture (“I must have liberty, withal as large a charter as I please”), then turned the page and saw her classmates fondly bequeathing her daughter with nicknames best suited for a femme fatale, she must have had a powerful urge to throw that yearbook across the family parlor. Liberty! Love dodging! Fighting blades? No, no, no
. That would not do.
Despite her independent swagger, Dindy nearly found herself caught in the trap of married life she was so desperate to avoid. At the age of nineteen, somewhere between graduating high school and stepping into the role of college girl, she struck a deal with the devil (or perhaps her mother) and became engaged to a complete douchebag.10
Have no fear, though; Dindy wasn’t about to get tied down.
While she was trying Harvard on for size (Radcliffe College, which, at the time, was the women’s arm of the university), with a major in economics and a minor in languages, Dindy discovered that her no-good lousy fiancé was a cheater.11
(The swine!) She dumped him, dodging the marriage bullet for what would be decades
. The engagement obviously made very little impression on Dindy, who never mentioned it herself the few times she divulged personal details to the people she worked with or when she was interviewed later in her life. This is what her niece had to say of the ne’er-do-well fiancé in question: “I met his third ex-wife, who said Dindy did the right thing.”12
I’d say that’s an open-and-shut case, if there ever was one. This wouldn’t be the last time Dindy gave a guy the slip, though in the future they’d usually be in uniform and trying to kill her.
Newly single and bored with Harvard’s stodgy atmosphere, Dindy moved on to Barnard College in Manhattan in 1925 for her second year of university, where she again studied economics and languages, focusing on French.13
In her application to Barnard, Dindy had written that she was interested in a career with the diplomatic service and in international trade: “Both vocations would bring me into contact with many interesting persons and give me the opportunity to make use of foreign languages.”14
Little did she know that those “interesting persons” would range from a Romanian émigré with a mysterious past to a French brothel owner.
Dindy’s trips to Europe during her childhood, her education, and her father’s work as a businessman likely set the foundation for her interest in these subjects. However, it’s clear that during high school and after graduation, Dindy was implementing her natural talent for organizing and strategy,15
leaning in to her boundless curiosity and audaciousness in order to build a future for herself well outside the conventional life of a Baltimore lady. All throughout Quid Nunc
, the high school yearbook Dindy herself edited, we see a girl who’s active and inquisitive, whose friends note her desire to go where the winds may take her. As a young woman in the twenties—a time when flappers were cutting their hair short and eschewing the corseted gowns their mothers had grown up with—it’s clear Dindy was on the hunt for adventure, arming herself with knowledge that would allow her to explore the world and make her mark on it.
I’d like to say that our tall,16
striking heroine kicked up her heels in New York City when she moved into her place on Broadway, enjoying all the fun the city that never sleeps had to offer in the Roaring Twenties. Think swilling gin in speakeasies (remember, Prohibition was in full swing this whole decade), dancing the Charleston, and catching a racy vaudeville show in Times Square. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. In a September 1925 letter to a Mrs. Pitts back at her old school in Maryland, Dindy said this: “So far, I am delighted with everything here, but I know very few people outside of college and want to be able to call on someone occasionally.”17
Big cities can be terribly lonely if you don’t know anyone—and if the whole reason you’re there bores you to tears. For the Fighting Blade, the lecture halls of Barnard were a snore, and, despite her smarts, our girl’s academic performance was lackluster at best. She was pulling Cs, even in her favorite subjects, French and math. She failed her gym class because she simply didn’t show up.18
(Gym class in college? Ugh.
I wouldn’t have shown up either.) Obviously, she wasn’t feeling it—“it” being American universities—so Dindy decided to pull the plug.
Of dropping out of school again
, Dindy would say: “I could not get the subjects I wanted without a lot of uninteresting required courses, so Father let me go to Europe.”19
Good thing she’d paid attention in French class.
The following year, at the age of twenty, the Love Dodger crossed the pond, stopping first at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris from 1926 to the autumn of 1927.20
Dindy was living the dream. We’re talking 1920s Paris, which is pretty much on everyone’s time travel bucket list. Paris was the place to be, with scores of pretty young things with money traveling to the city on the regular to catch a show at cabarets like the Folies Bergère and smoke loads of Gauloises cigarettes while debating politics and art and philosophy in late-night cafés. Can’t you just see Dindy smashing about Paris, guzzling booze with Fitzgerald and Hemingway or flirting with Picasso whilst wearing Dior’s latest? I bet she frequently scoured the stacks at Shakespeare and Company for books in English along with her fellow expat bohemians who left the States to live it up in Europe while America was in the midst of Prohibition. Though she was technically there to study, I suspect Dindy’s real education was being unchaperoned on the Continent, where she could enjoy oodles of wine, long walks along the Seine, and perhaps a kiss or two in a candlelit café.
A passport photo of Virginia at the time shows a pretty girl with a string of pearls around her neck and a coat with a fur collar—you could almost cast her as a Russian aristocrat on the run. Her gaze is direct, confident. This is a woman who knows what she wants and what she’s about.
There’s a yearning there too—a hunger for something far outside the boundaries set around the young women of her time. How was she going to get a seat at the table when every chair was taken by a man?
Things started getting even more interesting when Dindy scooted over to Vienna the next year, where, from 1927 to 1929, she once again focused her attentions on political science and economics.21
Her study date—if they actually did
study—was a certain dashing Polish officer named Emil.22
Vienna was a pretty dope place to fall in love: sipping on famous Viennese coffee while sharing a slice of decadent Sachertorte
at the super-luxe Café Central. Roaming the cobblestoned streets hand in hand, serenaded by the city’s famous buskers, all hoping to be the next Mozart. Popping into the Tiergarten, the oldest zoo in the world, to have a look at baby tigers and monkeys. Kissing in the cheap seats at the opera.
Over the next several summers, Virginia would gallivant around Toulouse, Grenoble, and Strasbourg for special courses between regular school terms in Vienna, so by now, she had a pretty good handle on French, German, and Italian.23
At some point in her adventures, Dindy decided she was ready to have her torte and eat it too: A job as a Foreign Officer in the US State Department would allow her to get paid to live in other countries while using all this education she’d begun accumulating by studying languages and economics. Since her man was based in Europe, the idea of returning to the States was becoming less and less appealing.
Yet while Dindy had become successful academically—she ended up graduating in 1929 from the Konsular Akademie in Vienna and, get ready for this mouthful, from the Schule der Orientalischer Sprachen24
—this wasn’t the case in matters of the heart. At twenty-three, Dindy would once again become the Love Dodger—by order of her family.
So, here’s the deal: You might read some stuff about Emil dumping Dindy or whatever—total bollocks. I got the scoop from Lorna, Dindy’s niece, and the breakup went down like this: Virginia and Emil got engaged, but her dad was not cool with her having a European husband, because it meant his daughter might never come home. And he adored
Virginia. So there was no way he was ever going to consent to this marriage. This would become a bit of a trend in Dindy’s life: The next time she fell in love, a million years later, it would be her mother who would stand in the way. Though our gal was a trailblazing feminist (before anyone was using that word), Dindy was a pretty obedient daughter—not too hard for her, given the relative freedom her parents allowed her compared to other young women of the time.
She broke off her engagement, and from family accounts, it appears as though Dindy never saw or heard from Emil again. There are no surviving letters, and Dindy threw out the only picture she had of him because she didn’t want to upset her husband. (Oh, boy! Do I have story for you
—KEEP READING, Y’ALL! It’s not all doom and gloom.) One of Dindy’s friends would later say it was wrong of her father to push her to break up with Emil, but I’m glad he did.25
Mr. Hall wasn’t a fortune-teller, but maybe a subconscious part of him saw the future: a world war that would tear apart countless lovers, families, and communities.
At any rate, the affair was over, and Virginia, perhaps resolved to put as much distance as possible between herself and the makings of a tear-jerking Billie Holiday tune, left Vienna and returned home to Box Horn Farm in July 1929, with no ring on her finger, but a diploma in her hand. She’d struck out with love, but she was ready to play ball when it came to her career.
THE BACK DOOR OF THE BOYS’ CLUB
Now, I will be the first to shake my fist and yell, Down with the patriarchy!
but I wanted to make sure I got my facts straight before I talked shit about the State Department.… But now: Yeah, I’m gonna talk some shit about the State Department—at least the one back in the day, which was a veritable boys’ club. I’d say Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton settled some necessary scores when they took over the department in later years.
The State Department is a federal agency tasked with advising the president on foreign matters and leading in regard to foreign policy. The job of a State Department employee can include visiting other countries as a way to create good international relationships, negotiating trade treaties with other nations, and acting as a liaison between a foreign power and the United States. I personally think it’s the sexiest department to work for in government: jet-setters welcome. Dindy thought so too. It was the perfect place for someone who was fascinated with other cultures and eager to live abroad. Someone who was intelligent, curious, well traveled, multilingual, et cetera et cetera—seems like a no-brainer she’d be part of the Foreign Officer crew, right?
Dindy wasted no time putting her plan into motion once she returned home in 1929. She was twenty-three and ready to make her mark on the world. But since she was no longer in school or engaged to a guy in Poland, she’d need a good reason to get back to Europe. Knowing how competitive entrance into the corps of Foreign Service Officers was, Dindy opted for a year of grad school at George Washington University in DC to continue her studies in French and economics in order to best the rest.26
For Dindy, the stakes were the highest they’d ever been in her life to date: Just months after she returned home, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression began. The Halls were hit hard. Most of the family money disappeared along with countless other American families’ fortunes. Her brother lost his job while her father struggled to keep his many business ventures afloat.27
Never a stellar student—I suspect she absolutely hated sitting still for so long in those classrooms—Dindy managed to squeak by in grad school, earning high enough grades to feel confident that she’d ace the Foreign Service exam that would allow her to become a legit diplomat. Ambassador Hall, anyone?
By all accounts, Dindy rocked the test, but she was left out in the cold.28
And while there’s no actual proof in this patriarchal pudding, it’s still a pudding seasoned with Old Spice and testosterone. It’s a pudding made by The Man for The Man. (I’m going to stop talking about pudding now because I’m getting hungry.)
According to Dindy and her family,29
she passed her exam the first time around with flying colors, but because the diplomatic corps rarely accepted women—only six
of the fifteen hundred Foreign Officers at the time were female30
—Dindy was shut out. Was the family just defending their baby girl, or were the Halls onto something?
It gets worse. Not long after the disappointments with State, Dindy’s beloved father, Ned, up and died right in front of his Baltimore office at the age of fifty-nine in January 1931.31
This must have been a terrible blow for Dindy, as the two were close. Now that she was finished with school in DC, Dindy’s mother was expecting her daughter to stop this gallivanting around the world and come live at Box Horn, which had gotten even more crowded now that her brother and his family had moved in. The Great Depression, indeed.
Unwilling to turn spinster and live at home or to become Mrs. So-and-So in Baltimore society, Dindy needed a gig, and fast. She explained to her friend, a vice-consul at the American embassy in Warsaw called Elbridge Durbrow (a name so weird, we could surely cast him as the next Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher), that since top officials at the State Department did not welcome women into the service, she would enter it by the back door.32
That back door—which is still the entry point today for so many women—was the secretarial pool. So Dindy became a clerk, which, let’s be honest, really means you’re only allowed to take notes in the room where it happens. The girl got into Harvard
and spoke three languages, but, sure, have her push some papers around. Have her be a secretary, just like her mother. THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE.
Dindy’s first position with the Foreign Service, a wing of the State Department for postings abroad, was in Warsaw, Poland, in 193133
—her ex-beau Emil’s stomping grounds. She sailed from New York to Hamburg on the George Washington
one of those big ships that you think would be cool to sail on until you watch Titanic
I just love
picturing Dindy on the deck of a steamship in a stylish suit, an independent lady of the world embarking on a grand adventure. Maybe she ate at the captain’s table once or twice, had champagne while watching the sunset, and promenaded around the deck arm in arm with a feisty gal like herself. I picture her wearing fabulous hats and sneaking cigarettes from sailors while she practiced her German with them.
Virginia worked at the American embassy in Warsaw from August 1931 to early 1933.35
It was her first-ever job—way cooler than mine
, which was making cookies at the local mall in a too-short khaki skort.
Dindy was only pulling in $2,000 a year,36
so we know she wasn’t doing consulate work for the money. Her lack of experience in typing and stenography—writing in shorthand or taking dictation—didn’t seem to hinder her. Her superiors in future postings would feel confident enough to entrust Dindy with responsibilities far above her pay grade.
Still, it must have been a little hard being in Warsaw without Emil, who had no doubt regaled her with tales of his home country while they’d cuddled in Vienna. In Dindy’s day, Warsaw was the perfect city for young lovers. Often referred to as the “Paris of the East” before it was leveled during WWII when bombing left more than 85 percent of its buildings in ruins, Warsaw was dotted with colorful Baroque architecture, fashionably dressed Europeans, and restaurants serving up the delicious traditional fare the country is known for: savory kielbasas (sausages), pierogies (dumplings), and smoked cheese. One could take a trolley ride along picturesque Marszalkowska Street, stroll along the Vistula River near the stately royal castle, or pop into the city’s many cafés for kawa
—coffee made the Polish way, with one or two spoonfuls of ground coffee placed directly in the glass with boiling water.
In between getting coffee, filing paperwork, and trying to be a Girl Boss at the consulate, Dindy decided to take the Foreign Service exam again.37
(This exam drama would go on for—I kid you not—another five
years.) By now, our girl is twenty-seven: In those times, she’d be viewed as an object of pity among her fellow women, many of whom were well into motherhood by their late twenties. Dindy’s career prospects were more important than ever; she’d taken a huge risk by choosing a much-less-traveled path for women in her day, and the last thing she wanted to do was move in with her mother. Dindy seemed unbothered by the possibility of being a so-called spinster, but no badass wants her mother as a roommate. The way she saw it, a secretary is a secretary—whether she’s sharpening pencils in Wichita or in Warsaw. It was time to level up.
Failing once again to make any inroads at State, and perhaps tired of being treated like a basic bitch, Dindy peaced out of Warsaw soon after ringing in the new year in 1933 and transferred to the consulate in I?zmir, Turkey38
—where life as she knew it was about to be irrevocably changed during a hunting expedition in the countryside.