Below are more questions and answers from our conversation with Sonia Purnell, author of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.
Like many women, Virginia was constantly overlooked or underestimated because of her gender—even after she had proven her worth in the field time and again. How do you think that affected her personality and her career trajectory? What do you think has (or hasn’t) changed about women in the workplace, in warfare, and in the world, since Virginia’s time?
Virginia had always loved adventure, but after losing her leg and her chances of a Diplomatic Service career, she took that love to a new level. In the process, she showed an astonished male establishment—on both sides of the Atlantic—just what women could do in warfare. The topic of women in combat is still controversial today, but nearly eighty years ago Virginia was commanding men behind enemy lines with daring and aplomb. She virtually single-handedly kept Allied intelligence alive in France when most of her colleagues had been captured, and helped to form the nucleus of the secret armies that later went on to help liberate France. She directed, trained and armed guerrilla units who, without professional military help, freed whole swaths of France. She pioneered the sort of clandestine special forces cells that even today inform how our intelligence agencies operate overseas.
The CIA now publicly acknowledges Virginia’s heroism, but for a long time, her achievements remained largely unknown and uncelebrated. Gina Haspel, the new, and first female director of the CIA has spoken about how her promotion to the top job was possible only by the breaking down of barriers by pioneering women of the OSS and CIA. This is widely understood to include Virginia, and perhaps her most of all.
Virginia was 27 years old when she lost her left leg to gangrene. How did she cope in the aftermath of her accident, and how do you think her disability—and the discrimination she faced because of it—shaped her life?
One of my great interests is motivation – why did Virginia take insane gambles with her own life for the sake of another country? Why did she run towards the guns, the horror, the terror when others were running away? What gave her the idea that she might survive when others too quickly succumbed to the Nazi death machine? I believe that the tragedy of losing her leg perhaps answers all these questions. She was a perfectionist, the hardest of taskmasters with herself, to show that she was capable of greatness even in spite of her greatest mistake in accidentally shooting herself in the foot. She was driven to prove her worth, to triumph despite all the cruel rejections she had faced, to make a difference when most thought it impossible. The fact that she was a disabled woman made her mission even more difficult, but also intensified her iron will to succeed.
Virginia also became intolerant of fools, or the lazy or weak, and her temper could be explosive. For her, though, the war was her salvation. The desperate need for someone willing and able to go into Vichy France in 1941 to help fan the flames of Resistance meant that her gender, her disability, and her lack of training or experience had to be ignored. Britain’s urgency was her breakthrough. War was her liberation. And peacetime became, in some ways, her prison.
Before the U.S. even entered the war, Virginia became the first female agent deployed to occupied France. In your words, “She had seen the realities of fascism with her own eyes, and her country’s isolationism did not preclude her form entering the fight on her own account.” What more can you tell us about what Virginia believed in, and what her life teaches us about the important of fighting tyranny?
Virginia had a ringside seat in Europe for the advent of fascism. She arrived in Paris during the Années Folles of the 1920s, soaking up the new emancipation for women and the flowering of literature, music, and art. It was a joyous intellectual and social awakening for her that gave her vistas well beyond what she’d been raised on back home in Baltimore. She was able to see beyond the concept of marriage entirely defining a woman’s life and to make friends and connections across borders and around the world. But this awakening was clouded by the European forces of fascism massing on the horizon – in Germany, Italy, Austria, and later elsewhere. Virginia saw what was happening with her own eyes, and the media manipulation, sloganeering, and constant distortion of the truth that went with it. Yet to her horror, the mounting hatred, racism, and lies that came with the march of the far-right – and in some cases the far-left – was largely met with apathy or incomprehension. Therein started her desire to alert the world to the dangers, and then give her life to fighting them. What alarms me is that much of what she fought for so valiantly is under threat once again today.
The book is full of daring missions and wartime drama, but there are also many small moments that speak to Virginia’s nature: doggedly persistent, often no-nonsense, but charming, warm, and genuine. Do you have a favorite Virginia story that you uncovered while working on the book?
There’s something unexpectedly tender about her love of a cup of tea – a fondness SOE did their best to satisfy by specially packing little packets of tea for her, in with all the guns and explosives dropped into the battlefields by parachute. But how can I not mention the fact that in the most unlikely and grueling circumstances, and after years of being alone, she eventually found love with her husband Paul Goillot. Shorter, younger, more junior than her, he covered her back from her enemies but also made her laugh. He lightened her life and after the war made it worth living. That thought, I confess, after everything she had been through, catches my throat every time.
You write that Virginia “operated in the shadows, and that was where she was happiest.” What are the challenges of unveiling the life of someone like her—whose work was secrecy and subterfuge, and who never sought recognition or praise for her service? How do you think Virginia would feel about A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE?
There’s a story in the book that I think exemplifies Virginia’s attitude toward receiving acclaim for her work. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General “Wild Bill” Donovan, and was the only civilian woman to receive this distinction in World War II. President Truman wanted a public ceremony in the Oval Office, but Virginia objected, saying she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy.” This is typical Virginia: not interested in wasting time on what she saw as mere baubles when there was more work to be done.
But women have been too reticent for too long about their contribution to world events. So though it was difficult to uncover the details of Virginia’s life and of her missions, due especially to the kind of work she did and to her lack of interest in singing her own praises, it was worth it to tell her amazing story. Obviously, I hope she would love the book! It is an attempt not to glorify or romanticize what she did, but to tell it straight: the mistakes she made, but also her incredible successes.
To buy tickets to hear Sonia speak about her book in a city near you, visit our events page at: https://www.royal-oak.org/events/2019-spring-speakers/