This Nazi-fleeing spy with a wooden leg was nearly forgotten by history

Virginia Hall’s life ‘definitely should be a movie’

Virginia Hall is awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Gen. William Donovan, chief of Office of Strategic Services, inside his office in September 1945. (Photo courtesy of Erik Kirzinger/Lily illustration)

Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Ian Shapira.

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. The Nazis believed Hall was Canadian, and Barbie once reportedly told his underlings, “I’d give anything to lay my hands on that Canadian bitch.”

A journey by wooden foot

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, trekking into mountains with a wooden left leg. She’d lost her real one after a hunting accident years earlier, and had learned to walk with a seven-pound prosthetic limb she nicknamed “Cuthbert.”

She linked up with other resistance members and 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.

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

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

A posthumous claim to fame

After the Baltimore native died on July 8, 1982, newspapers consigned her obituaries to the back pages. But earlier this year, the Hollywood press reported that Paramount Pictures might make a movie about Virginia Hall. The studio acquired the rights to yet another soon-to-be-published book about her life, “A Woman of No Importance,” by the journalist Sonia Purnell. The studio has attached Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley to play Hall.

But will it happen?

Pearson, who wasn’t 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.”

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