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A spy gets her due

The Baltimore Sun

The party was in honor of an undercover spy, but who said the guests had to be discreet? Champagne-fueled conversations -- in French, British-accented English and Bawlmerese -- echoed from all corners of the French ambassador's mansion. Soldiers with chestfuls of medals jingled past, and every few seconds there was the sound of a double-cheek kiss.

In the midst of it all was propped the portrait of the late Virginia Hall, and for once the Baltimore-born spy appeared oblivious to the swirling intrigue. In the painting, she sits in a barn in France, among hay bales, punching out Morse code. Headphones cover her ears. Her eyes -- which saw everything -- are closed.

"I have a feeling she wouldn't have wanted to come to this," an elderly woman in a purple pantsuit observed -- and if Hall did show up, she'd hardly have said a word. "She didn't want to tell anything to anybody. Ever."

She is probably right about Hall's inclination to skip the festivities. After serving as both a British and an American agent in France during World War II, she spent the rest of her life dodging publicity the way she did the Nazis.

That's one reason some of the hundreds of people who gathered Tuesday night at the ambassador's house in Washington, including Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, several of Hall's descendants and the ambassador himself, had waited until nearly 25 years after her death to celebrate her life.

It's not just that this year is the 100th anniversary of Hall's birth, on April 6, 1906, in Baltimore. It's that recent scholarship, including the research of at least two biographers and the artist who painted the portrait, has revealed that she missed out on -- or perhaps avoided -- certain honors that were her due.

It turns out that France never formally celebrated the little-known Baltimorean, who for several years helped network the nation's resistance effort, coordinating parachute drops and sending radio messages to London. Neither had the British, whose downed pilots Hall sheltered, decorated her in full.

Britain had tried, awarding her the medal of the Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1943. But the accompanying certificate, signed by King George VI, was never delivered, apparently because the British government couldn't find her.

She was that good.

A rumor was circulating at the party that the woman in purple was, like Hall, a former 1940s-era agent -- that she, too, once worked behind enemy lines, foiling the original Axis of Evil. Oh, yes, said the ex-spy, chatting amiably for five minutes or more without revealing so much as her name. ("Which one do you want?" she finally asked. Elizabeth McIntosh of Woodbridge, Va., is the one she offered -- for the moment, at least.)

Spies are tough to pin down.

"I never knew much about my aunt," said Lorna Catling of Baltimore, Hall's niece, still aglow after accepting the certificate from Sir David Manning, the British ambassador, and a smacking double kiss from Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador, who also read a thank-you letter from French President Jacques Chirac.

Catling didn't inherit Hall's prying tendencies, it seems: "I knew she was a spy, but I just didn't ask many questions."

Hall was born into a wealthy Baltimore family with a 110-acre estate in the country, where she learned the cheese-making and livestock-tending skills that, during the war, enabling her to sometimes pose as a shepherdess.

A bookish tomboy, Hall attended Roland Park Country School, and at least once attended class wearing a snake as a bracelet, according to The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy, Judith Pearson's 2005 biography and one of the works that helped set the celebration in motion. Hall was class president and edited the yearbook, dominated the school's field hockey and basketball teams, and took on male parts in the school plays. In the senior yearbook she was called "cantankerous and capricious," and the "most original of our class."

Fluent in several languages, including French, Hall pursued a career with the Foreign Service after leaving college. That dream died in 1933 after she lost a leg in a snipe-hunting accident in Turkey. The Foreign Service didn't hire amputees.

But after the war broke out, the British paramilitary service, the Special Operations Executive, enlisted Hall as its first female field operative in France, artificial leg and all. Having a prosthesis -- which she inscrutably nicknamed "Cuthbert" -- did not stop her from learning hand-to-hand combat, surviving in the countryside for months at a stretch and escaping on foot across the snowy Pyrenees after the Gestapo posted rewards for the dangerous agent they called "the lady who limps."

She was awarded the medal of the Member of the Order of the British Empire, sans certificate, in 1943.

"Not bad for a girl from Baltimore," she is supposed to have said.

Later, Hall joined the American Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, where her portrait will eventually be displayed. In 1945, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second-highest military decoration, bestowed for extraordinary heroism. She was the only civilian woman to receive the honor in World War II, though she declined President Harry S. Truman's offer to present it personally.

She didn't seek accolades when the war ended. She simply asked to be stationed overseas again. But in the rigidly gendered 1950s, female field agents were no longer so viable.

Catling remembers an aunt who frequently dropped in with exotic-accented friends, and who introduced her to squid, a delicacy that Hall learned to love during time spent in Italy.

"She was very glamorous," Catling recalled, "but she also looked tired."

"I think she was disappointed," said Pearson, who also attended the ceremony.

In 1966, Hall retired from the CIA, at the maximum age of 60. She died in 1982 at age 76.

The speeches made, the champagne drained, Hall's long-delayed celebration drew to a close. The ambassadors and politicians scattered. Meghan Catling, Hall's 10-year-old great-great-niece who had been heartily handshaking all evening, retired to a chair to play with her dad's PDA.

Meghan, a visitor from upstate New York, used to think that she wanted to be a spy -- a thought that might be crossing many minds this season with The Good Shepherd and the latest Bond flick hitting theaters. But a sobering trip to the International Spy Museum in Washington quickly stifled Meghan's ambition.

"I realized that there is a chance that spies can die," she said. A career in animal photography, she believes, might be safer.

Luckily, another 10-year-old at the party was willing to don Hall's mantle. Hannah McFadden of Clarksville has been a great admirer of the lady who limps for several years now, and when she heard about the party through the Spy Museum, she begged to go. Hannah, whose leg was amputated as the result of a birth defect, had her picture taken with Hall's unsmiling portrait again and again.

Actually, Hannah explained in low tones, she is even now an operational agent. She keeps very close tabs on her 17-year-old sister. And she already knows seven words of Albanian.

Rest easy, big sister.

Hannah's lips, like her hero's, are sealed.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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