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tv   Sonia Purnell A Woman of No Importance  CSPAN  May 28, 2019 11:17pm-12:03am EDT

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her book the woman o a woman ofo importance it tells the story of virginia hall american spy during world war ii. spoken at politics and prose bookstore in washington, d.c. this is 40 minutes. >> good afternoon everyone. i am a bookseller here at
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politics and prose and on behalf of the owners and staff, i'd like to welcome all of you to the favorite bookstore for the afternoon's event. politics and prose hosts hundreds of events like this through the year and one such that we are doing on april 26 with jericho in for his new book eight men who changed america. a little bit of housekeeping before we start. if you could turn off or silence your cell phone, we would greatly appreciate it. please remember tor step up to the microphone that we have over there before asking a your question so we can not only enjoy the conversation that sure that it's going to be recorded. for those who want to buy copies of the book we are selling them out front by the registers and we will be giving a signing after the q-and-a so if you would like to get your book signed, and sign up next to the
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podium and keep them there because we will have another event after this. another reason we all are here i'm honored to introduce sonia tto overview, reported and biographer whose work has appeared in many publications including the sun eight times and thtimesand the economist. she's previously written two this oneks before luincluding clementine the lifef mrs. winston churchill. this afternoon she's going to talk about her new book beyond the story of the american spy who helped win world war ii. it's the story of virginia hall among whom was referred to as the most dangerous of all allied spies. from being rejected to work in the service for making the first to be deployed in occupied franceef and then to escape, a woman of no importance sheds light on one of the forgotten figures in thehe second world w.
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npr calls it a biography of the masterful spy and what can be done with a few people and a little resistant. let us all welcome sonia. [applause] thank you very much. can you all hear me by the way excellent. thank you all for coming. it's a beautiful day outside. we would now say to ourselves if we are in a sticky situation were having a hard time, virginia wouldn't complain or what's with virginia do. she's someone that once you get to know has a big impact on your life and work a courageous woman. i'm astonished that more people
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don't know more about her, but of course i intend to change that with your help. how does it make time for virginia she fought many battles in her lifen and one she fought in france she tended to win. she had a hard time here and the reason it is a woman of no importance is because that is the way she was treated right here in the city. it is obviously a big cause. as you heard it felt very different as the most dangerous ally despite of all.
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they issued an order across france and anybody else occupying france we must find and destroy her. what she did in the war meant she was decorated by the french republic and a british king and an american president and yet all of that was done in secret so she's remained in the shadows and i would like to change that. so how could she be so grave in baltimore or into a quite well-to-do family, her great-grandfather was a banker and a have a house in downtown baltimore. they say that this was a enough to turn horses in it and whether anyone tried i cannot tell you that that is how big it was. her father who she was close to was a pretty well-to-do guy.
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they were going horse riding and going hunting. despite that she didn't like animals and the will in part to school some of you might know that so she wasn't any ordinary teenage girl in fact it was class president, sports kept in, editor of the school yearbook
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and unusual profit that was a natural leader she described herself as contemporaneous and was a character. you can't guess what she was going to do next and that is exactly how she wanted it. what she did was go to the university first which she kind of liked and then got engaged under the parental pressure but discovered he had been cheating so he wasn't going to put up with that kind of thing. she wanted a career. she went to paris and we are wee
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talking 1926, ladies and gentlemen when you could just look at the other end. it is an exceptional time and artistic and cultural. there was no preposition. this was very exciting. she was alive and learning things and then went to vienna and a young polish guy actually but her parents didn't approve of him, so amazingly, this woman
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got rid of her boyfriend because her parents didn't like him. interesting. we will come back to that. she started noticing what was happening in europe. there were mobs around the streets and hitler was becoming more and more popular. ndere were paramilitary rallies already in power abolishing democracy she saw no extremism hin fascism was a growing thret that are more did she want to be an ambassador to try to save the world from what she saw as a global problem that wasn't just a european problem. she came back to the u.s. to complete her that he seemed by this time had about five languages but was always a strong american accent she wasn't able to quite gettr rid f
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that. she came back to finish her studies and lost a lot of money in the wall street cash and came out of the office one day. it was a bitter blow for virginia and it's more now if you want to concentrate on the career so of course she applied to the state department and had a lot of great grades. she should have had a look at how many there were at that point.on there were six out of 1500. she told one of her friends if i can't go through the front door i will go by the back door.
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you could see russia on one side and germany on the other end this has been: long problem and it was a big problem just been so she was very aware of what was happening and applied again to the surface strangely. so she moves to turkey. it was quite difficult to hit and you probably realized by now she wanted to be one of the first if not the first.
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as she felt she grabbed her gun and hadn't engaged the safety and shot herself insh the foot. she lost consciousness but her friendthat herfriends were therr to the local hospitals. she seemed to be fine, as fine as you can be that seemed to be rallying but then her leg started to change color on the point of closing down. the doctors and nurses were called in but that was 24 hours away in those days and by the time they got there, there was no choice. she was about to die and they had to cut it off below the the
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knee. this adventurous soul who wanted to do all these exciting things, travel the world, make a difference. she came back to the state and have several more observation because she had a flesh eating bug that was eating away at her flash that had to be consistently cut away to try to saveve her again she got all sos of things and managed to pull through and they gave a particular metal heel. she couldn't bear to stay at home. think about that ladies and gentlemen if you just got a prosthetic leg that cannot flex the ankle in the way that we can, there's over 400 little bridges up and down you can't use the car or the seats there
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is no choice this is absolutely appalling that this is where we start to see i the virginia that we love and admire because she wasn't going to be heldau back. she had a plan. iit have a wonderful picture tht her niece has agreed to produce in the book with her on the back ready to catch her because if you've ever been there perhaps you know they can get pretty choppy. i wouldn't want to stand on the back of one and i particularly wouldn't wantt to deal with a wooden leg that is what she did. and she was fantastic at her j job.
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she stood in for the diplomat said they were so impressed with her they had glowing references. no one mentioned her leg because it doesn't seem to be an issue. she was bicycling and horse riding. okay i'm going to have another crack at the associated and it seemed she got through that there was a letter from the secretary of state. no, he stated. amputees are not allowed to join. two nights ago i was in boston and someone came up to me and told me his grandfather had lost a leg in the first world war and had no problems in the lldiplomatic service afterwards, so i'm going to allow you to make up your own mind as to what was going on here. but before that, she had some powerful friends can't think of
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us. a gentleman of grace and the veterans that served them well and has been perfectly good at her job. she would make a fine career girl in the clerical grades. he didn't like this at all. she was punished and there was a motion all she was doing there is signing papers and answering the phone.
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if she didn'she didn't understad to get involved to help so she designed and conducted the usa for a quiet life. she volunteered to drive ambulances on the front line when the germans invaded. there was an unbelievably dangerous thing to do 10 million people were goingim that way. there were gearshift ambulances so there was a lot of changing gears as you can imagine.
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if they are under the hot weather or stress in stump with me as well. she kept doing this until they were finally demobilized and france capitulated. she decided she would go to britain and offered a go again. she had to go all the way down through france for the lawless state and then catch the ship all the way back.
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there was a guy who was a british businessman, secret agent this is his one in the history that probably wasn't even his real name but he noticed them coming into the station and he was there because he was there to interview refugees coming over the border but the problem was for all british agents they have been cleared out and france after and at that time they had no idea what wasri going on under the third reich and it faced in invasion. he saw virginia and heard about how committed she was in a fight for freedom and truth and he did onepo important thing.
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he gave her a phone number and said it was a friend and that she could call her company when she got back. this wasn't a friend. it was the senior agent in the special operations executives and short enough she called them.m. they also have a rule against foreigners atst that point becae they felt they didn't need them. the problem was how many do you think were willing to go into france underer h the nazi rule,o real training or idea what it was going to be like, no backup if things go wrong and no direct communication with one been either. they haven't got a single person
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into france. a burglar came in and taught her how to pick locks and she was taught how to creep up and was shown how to hide the documents that were being microfilmed. there were two things, one she didn't care if it was shaken or stirred and didn't drive these and wanted to be intrusive but one thing she did share is she had a license to kill.
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if you put them in someone's food saverld taste tasteless. you would be dead in 45 seconds perhaps if you i were being tortured and didn't want to give anything away but if you swallowed them coming and would be okay. the others she took sleep was going to be a luxury from now on and needed more of those, believe me. she pretty much helped kickstart the french resistance. the world power they had to send them to the subject country in six weeks people didn't think there was any reason to fight
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back. there was no help there, thank noyou very much. so, they didn't really want to get into trouble by doing things against them. it was a quiet life. could we survive and find enough that most people thought. she had to recruit networks that would form the resistance armies, but that wouldn't happen until they were the however many years away that might be to come back and sustain that. it's a long way before pearl harbor. two n of the early grades -- recruits they liked virginia so much that she did and they've been we didn't have a picture so we have a lot of first-hand
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account. very voluptuous jewels, silks and exquisite face. she was the local data meant very successful one she had a special doctor thatsh looked afr her. she got them involved as well and they were all working with virginia. what they did was spiked the german strengths they got a hold of the uniforms and photographed for documents and gave the hintelligence but she's also writing new articles in the messages into the other things
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these girls are doing, they were giving little white cars to beat coke -- little white car. she would sleep with as many officers as she possibly could on tountil the point when she wd have to go and seek treatment herself. later she put 28 so we will never know their names. this was biological warfare of a certain kind. they were working with virginia and doctor russo and lots of
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people on the townhall meeting documents. she also had a sideline spectacularly she got old agents out in one go from a prison camp with all sorts of ingenious things, all sorts of things she got them out safely. they got home safely. you've heard of the great escape. she never got any glory for it. because she was still in the field all she could say is they were brave.
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the germans were closing and on the most evil person you could imagine they were making huge amounts of money. some of them confided in him. he was stirring up with resistance and already embarking on a sabotage campaign and have become berlin's number one target in the grand surveyor to deploy the most effective double agents. he was closing in and at this point she put it off again and again one of the most amazing is
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it's november now, one of the worst winters of 200 years and how did she escape, falling apartt remember she couldn't let her ankle and coming down she had tomi lean forward on one sie and then the other. a lot of them are still closed, but the document said that that was a record all by itself. many able-bodied men never made it and occasionally can across a corpse sometimes standing upright and forward. people would also just lie down and fight death to take them. so she got back to britain.
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completely compromised they said no way we won't allow it so she switched because they didn't know how compromisedth she was but she had to have a disguise to come back so working with animalsas and things she decided to go back so she would look 30 years older and she went to a london dentist to.
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she got back into france andra a long exciting story short, she became a guerrilla leader and stopped being a milk maids but already claimed a great deal of information because she could speak german. she discussed her american accent but after she passed away that disguise she a immigrated o france in the department where she operated from was one of the first where the allies have now landed but they were still stuck it took five days to get off the beaches so no professional soldiers of any sort of damn
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army of schoolboys, farmers, those working behind. she ambushed the telecommunications and surrounded and in the end they surrendered. the signal from the officer that they said was an understatement extremely brave, you bet she was.
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anyway, towards the end she had been asking for back up again and again and it never came. there were all those hundreds of desperate men. imagine how hard that was. they were parachuted in and i'm notra going to spoil the story t one of them became very significant and i'm pleased to say that because she deservespo it. there were other incredible operations she comes home with said american officer who likened her life as her nieces put it to me. it took a long time to get a job there and i'm afraid to say there was very difficult in this
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happened his heart to see her reduced and undermined and ignored. they couldn't get their heads around this woman who had blown up and have done all this stuff into also have this distinguished service she said no thanks i want to be a secret agent thank you but i will only accept it in secret and the only person getting the medal was s r mom. barret didn't really have proof but in the end you're still a little bit scared. it doesn't go that well. there are some high points and low points also and in the end
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she and her husband have a pretty happy retirement together until their healthhe gives out. she died in 1982 and a lot of people forgot about her. how many of you knew about her. okay. but she really did make a huge difference. the secret documents say she saved her inheritance from extinction and one said she wass embarrassingly successful. a lot of the techniques that she pioneered in forming a resistant sourcehe of used today including in afghanistan before and after 9/11 and they named one of their training buildings after her.
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she said she had stood on the shoulders before any of us saw she was talking about virginia. she was an inspiration. it took me three years and it was worth every single moment. ife these people didn't seek glory that they deserve it so that's why i write the book, and i hope you enjoy it. thanks very much. [applause] if anyone has any questions i would be happy to answer them.
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does anyone have any questions? >> what is really interesting is looking at the first-hand accounts of people meeting her they describe her as something that made her feel alive and she was always striking that this when she was at her most beautiful and to find the cache of letters of those for two monthshs that followed was a fought witfaultwith her and wror after the war and they use different phrases at the same thing comes up again and again it was worth being born just to have met virginia and thought alongside her. they talk about her because she rescued them and somehow she had
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these bombs come from nowhere and if they drop parachute full of things that helped finance rescued them. she's a complete legend in that department of france so they talk about this and i spent some time there and talked with people. the last guy that fought alongside and died but is there with many others used the same phrase. to them, virginia was an absolute savior. >> how did you become aware of her? >> my last book was about clementina and churchill and i became interested in the stories of the women who had been overlooked and i've always been interested in spies.
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it's something i grew up with and to mention here and there about this and amazing agent and no one had really pulled all of the elements of the story together, and i thought how can i not try to find out but in the end i managed to do it. it was bad. it was a lucky accident i couldn't imagine the story would turn out ass well as it did. stack we have a microphone right over here. three years my husband will tell you i wasn't at home very much.
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it was are labor of love and it led me over here and research and pariss france into the national archives. i had to be a depicted. virginia was always slightlyd hiding from kenya tell us more about how long did that take and how did she manage that? >> apparently, sugar cubes is normally what you would take just to keep you going. it took two and a half days about a 50-mile track altogether as i say it was over 8,000 feet
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she went with her would tend to be from the civil war in spain that is what happens quite often so she could only claim sideways and i assume she had a heavy bag with her. able-bodied men frequently said they wanted to give up and it was she who was pushing them forward.
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so, one, however. most intense on getting her and were you able to consult on any of the german forces? >> clarence was sent there because he knew the resistance headquarters for new and he was particularly successful so he was obsessed with her and he captured many have tortured them and said i will do anything to get my hands on that. then she came back they had given her the code names because to them it was a constant hunt
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to find virginia so the fact she eluded them was superb there's no doubt about that. do you know of german sources both refer to her, were you able to do that? >> a lot of my sources were. what i was able to do is look at the thought of secondary sourc sources. they wrote a book after the war and that also was very helpful and others were sent to the concentration camp for women. virginia never got over how many of her supporters were captured and how many died. i was able to track down and i
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think they handled this kind of thing brilliant. they help with information. i spoke to the germans then about what happened and found out the number she was an in whn she arrived and when she left. those are the german sources i looked up and secondary sources and other books as well. .. [inaudible conversations]
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