I came across The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy (2005) quite by accident; it was brought to my attention by my niece in a local bookstore. Virginia Hall, the subject of Judith L. Pearson’s biography, deserves to be better known. Hall (a graduate of Roland Park Country School in Baltimore), moved to Europe in the early 1930’s determined to become a member of the Foreign Service. She never quite achieved this goal (the Americans initially didn’t want her – women were not deemed suitable for such roles and she had another encumbrance that I’ll mention later…), and she spent the beginning of the Second World War working as an ambulance driver. By 1941, however, the British sensed her potential and she joined the British Special Operations Executive aiding the French resistance and undertaking missions of sabotage and espionage. Her terrific success at running larger and larger groups of operatives brought her to the notice of the Nazis who posted rewards for her capture. Her heroism earned her the Distinguished Service Cross, awarded discreetly in order to allow her to continue her undercover work, which she did to great personal danger both during and after the Second World War. Such a career is remarkable for any man or woman, let alone a woman with not two legs, but one! Hall lost one leg in a shooting accident in her early twenties but refused to let this disability hinder her – it serves as a physical metaphor for her personal grit.
Pearson’s biography is commendable – engaging and workmanlike – although the story could have benefited from a more imaginative narrative structure. It’s abundant, astonishing material yearns to be turned into a gripping yarn, which could have been achieved without undermining the diligence and respect of Pearson’s approach or belittling the sacrifices made by Hall. I can’t believe no-one’s made a movie of this yet and I hope to heaven her story is being taught in our schools.