Trailing 'The Limping Lady'

Craig Gralley's novel is tentatively titled Hall Of Mirrors.
Craig Gralley's novel is tentatively titled Hall Of Mirrors.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CRAIG GRALLEY

A former Central Intelligence Agency speechwriter is writing a novel about World War II spy Virginia Hall

WASHINGTON • Craig Gralley spent more than 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he worked as a chief speechwriter for three directors: William Webster, Robert Gates and R. James Woolsey Jr.

When Gralley, 62, retired from Langley in 2013, he began writing in the voice of someone different: World War II spy Virginia Hall, a woman known as "The Limping Lady".

For the past four years, Gralley - who still works as a part-time CIA contractor - has been researching Hall's life for a book. Not a work of non-fiction, though. Two Hall biographies already exist and another volume - along with a movie starring Daisy Ridley of Star Wars - is apparently on the way.

Instead, Gralley has written a novel, tentatively titled Hall Of Mirrors, that he hopes to sell to a publisher. It is narrated in the first-person, in the voice of Hall, who worked for the British in France during World War II and later became a CIA officer.

The Maryland-born operative helped organise the French resistance against the Nazis and once fled the Gestapo by hiking through the Pyrenees on a wooden prosthetic leg she nicknamed Cuthbert.

At a time when few women worked as spies, Hall went on to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA's precursor and then the CIA itself before retiring at the age of 60 in 1966.

She became such a celebrated figure at Langley that the agency named a training facility after her last year called The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Centre.

Although Gralley's book is a piece of fiction, it is based on a surfeit of facts. He hiked Hall's route through the Pyrenees and unearthed hundreds of documents related to her career from the National Archives in Britain, many of which have not circulated beyond the collection, he said.

He shared two typed letters to Nicolas Boddington, a senior official at the Special Operations Executive, the British war-time spy service. These are not mere greetings, however. Gralley said Hall, a former code clerk for the United States Department of War, encrypted them.

She had to work as covertly as possible. By August 1941, she had established a headquarters in southern France and was passing along intelligence about the Vichy government and the underground resistance movement to her British spymasters.

Armed with forged documents, she disguised herself as a New York Post reporter, according to an article Gralley wrote last year for Studies In Intelligence, a CIA publication.

All the while, she was cultivating a network of spies in France, supporting British agents with weapons and supplies and offering safe houses to British operatives.

Hall became so well-known that even the Gestapo's chief, Klaus Barbie, known as the "Butcher of Lyon", began hunting for her.

"My dear Nic," she wrote on May 1, 1942, from her perch in Vichy France. "All things in series of three, as usual, a cold in the head, an ache in the thorax and mingled snow, rain and slush out of doors… The dark days are fairly abysmal and a short English word describes one's mood…

"I have hoped for many days to go yodelling in the delightful, peaceful neighbouring country, but alas... the usual keenness for new hotel guests is momentarily dampened by horrid suspicions which, like an old-fashioned detective story, has tendencies towards complications lurid and even spectacular. "

By early November, after their defeat in North Africa, the German forces swept into France's free zones. Hall was convinced they would close down the borders. She knew she had to escape quickly, even if she was hobbled by Cuthbert, her 3kg wooden leg, which she had relied on after a hunting accident.

She teamed up with resistance members and left France on Nov 11 to cross into the Pyrenees, seeking refuge in Spain. When she reached Spain a few days later, she was arrested for illegally crossing the border.

While she was incarcerated, she somehow managed to smuggle out another letter to Boddington - a letter Gralley said he believes she must have written in France before her trek through the Pyrenees.

The letter is dated Nov 25, 1942. Hall was still in a Spanish prison. She was not freed until early December.

So, how did she get the letter out from her cell? "She might have been able to bribe someone," Gralley said. "Also, her cellmate was a Spanish prostitute who got out before Hall's release. She could have taken the letter to the US or British consulate."

Hall was eventually released from prison. In the spring of 1944, she signed up with the OSS and worked her way back to France, now entirely occupied by the Nazis.

While she was away, the OSS sent letters back to her mother, Barbara Hall, who was living outside Baltimore. Here, again, is where Gralley's digging paid off. He came across a series of letters the OSS sent Hall's mother, reassuring her of Hall's safety, but omitting any frightening details.

Gralley, who lives in Great Falls, Virginia, said he approached writing from the perspective of a woman with great care.

He selected a female professor for his final workshop at Johns Hopkins, where he got a master's degree in creative writing, and asked her and fellow female students to critique portions of his manuscript. "They wouldn't let me get away with anything that was less than authentic," he said.

He also modelled Hall based on his observations of agency women who served in hazardous postings overseas.

"To be successful officers, they have to be tough and confident," he said. "That's Virginia Hall."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2018, with the headline 'Trailing 'The Limping Lady''. Print Edition | Subscribe