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tv   Sonia Purnell A Woman of No Importance  CSPAN  May 29, 2019 2:33am-3:19am EDT

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>> next sonja purnell on her book, a woman of no importance. tells the story of an american spy during world war ii. she spoke at politics and prose bookstore in washington dc. this is 40 minutes.
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>> good afternoon. thank you for coming on this spring day. i'm a bookseller here at politics and prose on behalf on the owners and staff i like to welcome all of you to your favorite bookstore for this event. as you may know we host hundreds of events like this throughout the year and one such event is the one we are doing on april 26 with jared cohen, his new book accidental presidents, eight men who changed america. a little bit of housekeeping before we start and c-span is here so if you could turn or silence off your cell phones we would appreciate it. for the q&a remember to step up to the microphone we have over there before asking your questions so we can not only here and enjoyed the conversation but ensure it will
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be recorded for those who want to buy copies of the book we are selling them right up front by the registers and will be doing the signing after the q&a so if you'd like to get your book signed line up to the podium. lastly, please keep your chairs where they are after the event so we will have another one after this. now for the recent reason why we are here but i'm honored to introduce sonia purnell she's a reporter and biographer whose work has appeared in many publications including the sunday times and economist and previously written two other books before this one including clementine, the life of mrs. winston churchill pit this afternoon to talk about her new book a woman of no importance, untold story of the american spy who helped win world war ii. it tells the untold story of virginia hall, american whom the gestapo referred to as the most
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dangerous of all allied spies. for being ejected to working for the foreign service to becoming the first woman to be deployed in occupied france and then define escape of the pyrenees out it sheds light on the forgotten figures of the second world war and npr called it the compelling biography of the masterful spy and the remainder of what can be done with a few great people and little resistance. everyone, let us welcome sonja purnell. [applause] >> thank you very much. can you hear me, by the way? excellent. i'm not quite as tall. is that better? okay. thank you for coming. such a beautiful day and a good of you to come into the book shop. virginia hall is now my inspiration and a lot of my friends we now say to ourselves if were in a sticky situation or have a hard time well virginia when i complain or what would
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virginia do? she really is someone once you get to know has a big impact on your life and was an unfathomably courageous woman and i'm astonished that more people don't know more about her but of course, i intend to change that if i can with your help. dc is my favorite u.s. city, don't tell new york or boston where i've just been but it is. it's lovely. it did have [inaudible] virginia fought many battles in her life and the one she fought in france she tended to win the ones she fought in dc not so much. she had a hard time here the reason why the book is called woman of no importance is because that was the way she was tweeted right here in the city and it is obviously an ironic
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title because the gestapo felt differently and they thought of her as the most dangerous allied spy of the war. there was a little competition for that title as i'm sure you know. they issued an instruction in 1942 to all their officers across france and military intelligence everyone occupied france we must find and destroy her. what she did in the war meant she was decorated by the french republic and by a british king and an american president and yet all that was done in secret. she has remained in the shadows and i'm would dearly like to change that. what did she do? how could she be so brave because she was beyond brave. she was born to a well-to-do family and her grandmother was a banker and had a big house in downtown baltimore and they say
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it was wide enough to turn courts and horses in its but that's how big it was. virginia came along the fortune had dissipated somewhat and her father, ned, who she was very close to it was a well-to-do guy and married his secretary barbara but the family fortunes were not quite what they were and the expectation was virginia when mary well and restore the whole to the home to their former glory. virginia had other ideas and as you see from the pictures in the book she was a tomboy. what she liked was going horse riding and hunting in the woods with her father who gave her a 12 page shotgun to shirt shoot furry animals and birds with. despite that she did like animals and that used to make a hat out of life birds and one or two occasions went into school though country school you may
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know well with an unusual bracelet made of light six. she wasn't any ordinary teenage girl and voted in the class president and sports captain, editor of the school yearbook and an unusual title, class profits, not sure what she had to do to be the class profit but she was a natural leader and described herself as cantankerous and capricious, her words, not mine. she was a character and you cannot really quite guess what virginia would do next. that's exactly how she wanted it. what she did do next was go to university first at radcliffe which she kind of liked and then went to barnard which he only kind of liked and got engaged at that point under torrential pressure but discovered he'd been cheating on her and she would not put up with that thing and she wanted a career careers would be more faithful but she
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went to paris because that's where she really wanted to study and wanted to see the world. her big plan was to be an ambassador. she went to paris to learn french and other european languages and went to what we now call the [inaudible] in the 1920s were talking 192680s and gentlemen, when you cannot just get on a flight get off on the other end in a few hours but this was a big thing and at the age of 20 to go to paris and rome to study but that's what she did. she loved it. it was the root roaring 20s as you might've called them here in paris is an exceptional time, literally artistic, cultural, josephine baker was there, ernest hemingway and he's always there in every story but gertrude stein and all sorts of
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people. went to jazz clubs and no racial segregation and everyone could drink and no prohibition in this was so exciting and she was alive and learning things and then went to vienna and again she loved to vienna and was it met a young polish guy but appears to not approve of him so amazingly this woman who is going to be so fierce got rid of her boyfriend because her parents did not like him. will come back to that but the other thing that happened in vienna was she started noticing what was happening in europe and what was happening? fascist mobs running in the street and hitler was becoming more and more popular and paramilitary rowdies there and mussolini was already in power in italy abolishing democracy and she saw how extremism and fascism was happening and was growing and was a growing threat. the mortician want to be an ambassador and try to save the world from what she saw as a global problem. she wanted to alert america to
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these dangers. she came back to the u.s. to complete her studies and at this point she had five languages and was a very strong american accent but never quite able to get rid of that but technically very good. she came back to finish her studies and i'm afraid ned died at that point and lost a lot of money in the wall street crash came out of his office one day and had a huge heart attack and died right there and then on the sidewalk. bitter blow for virginia and even more now she wanted to concentrate on her career. course she applied to the state department as a diplomatic service and had lots of great grades and her university spoke of the languages and had been tested knowledge of politics in europe so surely she would be a shoe in. no. she should have had a look at how many women in the world were in the diplomatic service is applying. six out of 1500 and i'm afraid
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her rejection was quick and brutal and she would not be one of them. nevermind she told her friend if i can't go through the front door all entered by the back door so she became a desk clerk in the american litigation in poland. funny enough poland was under threat and if you look at the map you can see russia on one side, germany on the other and this is been poland's lung problem with a big problem just then. again, very aware of what was happening applied again to the diplomatic service but strangely they lost her exam papers. funny that. anyway, she moves to turkey and alicia to go hunting with a lovely gun her dad gave her. one day in december beautiful, sunny, mild day she went to marshes and they were forming those there but they were there to shoot snipe and i'm not a hunter but people tell me has a
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very erratic pattern of flight and quite difficult to get. virginia was a very competitive person as as you probably realize she wanted to be one of the first if not the first to hit a snipe and take it home as a trophy. perhaps she was not quite watching what she was doing when she tripped over a wire fence running through the weeds and as she fell she grabbed her gun and unfortunately she had not engaged the safety and literally shot herself in the foot. she lost consciousness but her friends were there and took her to the local hospital and she seemed to be fine. fine as you can be but she seemed to be rallying but then her leg felt it change color for an temperature sword and organs seem to be on the point of closing down and an american doctor and nurses were called in from istanbul now is 24 hours a
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day by the time they got there her leg was gangrenous and she was about to die so they had to cut it off below the knee with her left leg. she was 27. when she woke up she felt that her life was over and this adventurous soul who wanted to do all these exciting things travel the world, make a difference had one leg and she came back to the states and had several more operations because she got that flesh eating bug that was eating away at her flesh and had to be consistently cutaway to try to save her again and got affected and managed to pull through and fitted her with what was a very primitive wooden leg with a metal foot particular battlefield. she cannot bear to stay home which was what everyone expected her to do. no, she would go back to the state department they were not quite soaking because they
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shipped her to venice to think about that, you just got of prosthetic leg which cannot lex at the angle or lock it in the way we can what's the problem, it has over 400 little bridges up and down and you can't use a car you have to walk and there's no choice. this was absolutely appalling for her. but, this is where we start to see the virginia we have come to love and admire because she would not be held back. she had a cunning plan. she bought a gondola. her own gondola and got angelo, italian chum, to teach her how to roll. i have a wonderful picture that her niece has agreed or let us reproduce in the book with her on the back of the gondola trying to row back ready to catch because if you been to venice perhaps you know the canal will get pretty choppy and
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particularly the bigger ones. i would not want to stand on the back of the gondola but that is what she did. she was fantastic at her job and went in and stood in for the diplomats and they were so impressed they wrote growing references and no one mentioned her leg because it did not seem to be an issue and quite soon she was bicycling and horse riding too. so you got all have another crack at the diplomatic service so she did and it seems she got through only to receive a letter from [inaudible] or at least his office, secretary of state and no, he said citing the obscure rule that no one else seems to have known about, if beauties are not allowed to join the diplomatic service but two nights ago i was in boston and
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someone came up to me and told me that his grandfather lost a leg in the first world war and have had no problems joining the diplomatic service so i think i'll allow you to make up your mind as to what was going on here. and she had powerful friends, thank goodness. a couple wrote to president roosevelt himself in the white house and think of the irony of this. he, too, had a certain problem with a reliance on a wiltshire and they said here is virginia hall, gentlewoman of great intelligence, great patriotism, served your country well, knows what she's doing, has been terrifically good at her job and what on earth could be the problem? i found the memo he said sent about what about ms. virginia hall? i don't think he liked the special pleading at all and wrote yes, she would make a fine career girl in the clerical
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grades. he did not like this at all and she was punished and sent to estonia and all she was doing there was filing papers and answering the same. she could not stand it and wanted to get involved so she resigned but she came back to the usa for a quiet life, never. instead, she volunteered to drive ambulances for the french army on the front line when the germans invaded may 1949 was an unbelievable dangerous thing to do. a intense bombardment, machine gun fire kept driving those him .-ellipsis. at the same time telling people were going that way and biggest refugee exodus ever running away from the germans and i don't blame them. they were jolly scary and i'm sure soldiers felt the same way and running away. meanwhile, virginia was driving her ambulance with her wooden
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leg which he called expert and gear shifts ambulances and european-style so we do things differently so a lot of changing gears as you can imagine all the time with her left foot and having to put on the clutch. it was agony. shooting pains went up her leg and cuthbert was held on to her by leather straps around her waist and big buckles that chafed her skin and hot weather or under stress and her stump would bleed as well. she went on doing this until they were finally demobilized in france capitulated. did she then come back to the u.s.? by the way, she did not tell her mom she joined the french ambulance to her. not until it was too late and her mom cannot stop her. anyway, did she go back to baltimore and have a quiet life? no, she decided she go to britain and offer her services again.
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this meant you cannot just cross the channel like you canal because they were at war. she had to go down through france which is not occupied by the nazis, while the state, into spain, down to portugal and catch the ship all the way back. she did this on her own with cuthbert and got into spain and the tiny moments of history the guy who is supposedly a british businessman but nothing of the sort and was a secret agent by the name of george bellows, this is his one and a glimpse of fame in the entire history. he was not even his willing name and will never know but he notices this american coming into the station and was there because he was there to see refugees coming over the border but problem was to all british agents had been cleared out in france after dunkirk and at the time britain had no idea what was going on under the third reich. yet, it faced imminent invasion itself so he was interviewing
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refugees what's going on was happening and he saw virginia and heard about the eminences and heard how committed she was in that fight for freedom and truth and he did what any really important thing he did and gave her a phone number and said it was a friend that she should call him and keep company when he got back to london but it was not a friend but a senior agent in this british spy service called the special operations executive. sure enough, when virginia got to london she called them. they had a rule against women going into enemy territory and how to rule against foreigners at that point because they thought they did not need them but that rule was torn up and abandoned and never saw lights again. problem was how many people do you think were willing to go into france under nazi rule?
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no real training, no idea what it would be like no research committee, no backup if things go wrong and no direct medication with london either. well, after six months of trying they had not put a single person into france. not one. to try and got so scared they abandoned it and came back in virginia hall walks in. she changed everything. she would go in undercover as an american journalist. that is what she did. after pretty cursory training a burglar came in to teach her how to pick locks and somehow showed her how to put dust back onto a service if you remove something and she was taught how to creep up on house noiselessly even with cuthbert and shown how to hide secret documents which would be microfilm and a little tiny thought in her metal heel and this is what she shared two things. one is that she also liked a
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martini but she did not care if it was taken or started she did not drive /-slash the aston martins and she wanted to be unattractive but one thing she did share which james bond without a license to kill. she would have to seek authority but even in sinai pills that if you broke them and put them in someone's food they would be tasteless but kill that person within five seconds. because they were in this rubbery soluble thing you put them in the mouth and if you chewed them then you'd be dead and 45 seconds if you are being tortured and did not want to give anything away but if you swallowed them you'd be okay because they did have this coding. other pills you took were benzedrine and amphetamines because it would be a luxury and she needed a whole lot more of those, believe me. she rides in france and she pretty much helped kickstart the
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french resistance but we all think it was always there but it wasn't. a world power which france was had descended into subject country within six weeks. people do not think there was reason to fight back and they thought it was a goner anyway. no help there, thank you very much. they did not want to get into trouble by doing things against the germans. could we survive and find enough to eat with what most people thought -- she had to recruit networks this is what her task was that would form the future resistant armies. that would not happen until the allied troops were ready however many years away that might be to come back and sustain that. along way before pearl harbor. she is an american in countries and her own country was not the war but she was. she started setting up the networks and two of her early recruits she recruited nuns in
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the conference and i was her first -- pretty smart actually. they do not normally let people in but they liked virginia so much but they did. she then recruited -- we don't have a picture of her but wonderfully sexy, very voluptuous, jewels, furs, silks, lovely black pearls and exquisite face. she was the local brothel madam in a very successful one. german were encouraged to go to brothels and thought that they made them betty but better fighters. she had many clients and had a special doctor who looked after her -- i like the french word for it [inaudible] but it's really prostitutes. they were all working with virginia and what do they do? they spike to the germans drinks
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and they fell asleep and when they are sleep they got hold of their uniforms and photographs and documents inside and gave the intelligence to virginia and my tart friends she called them and managed to find a way to send reports back to london but also writing new york messages but the other thing these girls were doing was with the connivance of the doctor, doctor russo, virginia's other left tenant they gave their clients little white cards and on these cards and said this prostitute is free of infection. she was not anything of the sort. she was infected and she would sleep with as many german officers as she possibly could until an appointment to have to go and seek treatment herself. one of them later boasted she put 28 officers out of action but we would never know the names and a lot of them were
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caught and executed and it was biological warfare of a certain sort and they were really brave and effective. working with virginia and doctor russo became the other chief left tenant but she recorded the local chief of police for most people in town hall and making false documents and also had a sideline spectacular one of jailbreaking and she got 12 agents out in one go from a prison camp and the all sorts of ingenious things. radio sets with the priest with no legs and messages and jars of jam, messages and hollowed out books and she got those guys out safely and they got home safely. have you ever heard of [inaudible]? you heard of the great escape but you've not heard of this. she never got any glory four.
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to be fair, the brits tried to get her the commander pretty groovy honor, just below the name but she was still in the field so all they could say was she's very brave so she was turned down and never got it. slowly, germans were closing in and not least because of a double agent priest called [inaudible] one of the most evil persons you can imagine and he was shopping his parishioners to the gestapo making huge amounts of money and some of them have confided in him and was a man of the cloth so he was working how this person and leon was and who is stirring up the resistance and who was fanning those flames and already embarking on the full-scale sabotage complaint. she had to come in berlin's number one target in france. obviously, the most effective double agent and closing in and had codename new where her
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headquarters were in closing in but at this point she knew she put it off again and had to escape. many elements of the story but one of the most amazing is this, she escaped november now one of the worst winters so how did she escape? one of the highest [inaudible] with cuthbert falling apart and rivets coming loose and she cannot flex or locker angle going out that she had to go sideways. coming down she had to lean forward with precipice is one side and the other end as the special documents they they had to get declassified before this book and a lot are still secret until the 2030s. secret documents and said that was a record all by itself in many able-bodied men never made
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it and occasionally you came across a frozen corpse but sometimes standing upright and staring forward and people would give up and lie down and fight death to take them. okay, she got back to britain and did she come back to the states? completely compromised in the gestapo had her name and picture and everything in the brits said no way, not going back in. we won't allow. what does she do? she went to work for you guys. the oss. she switch because they do not know quite how compromised she was but she was not stupid and had to have a disguise to come back. going back to her farm days working with animals and things the family farm outside baltimore she decides to go back and she hired hollywood makeup artist to draw in or draw in wrinkles on her face so she would look 30 years older. she wore six skirts, to make her
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look stout. she went to a ferocious much feared london dentist to grind down her beautiful white american teeth that we brits and be so much to look like a french peasant. yeah, she will not stop at anything, pretty much. got back into france and got very long story and exciting story she became a guerrilla leader and soon she stopped being a milkmaid but had already cleaned a great deal of information undercover as a milkmaid because she can speak german. going back to those days of university she described her voice by making it raspy and elderly but after she cast away that the skies she became guerrilla leader and liberated whole swaths of france in the apartment where she particularly operated from was one of the
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first in france outside normandy where the allies had now landed post- d-day but still stuck in fighting and took them five days to get off the beach and nowhere near where she was and no ally soldiers and no professional soldiers of any sort with the army of schoolboys, booksellers and the guys working behind thi. they rescued their part of france and organized 22 parachute drops of arms explosives, choppers and more benzedrine and vitamins because a lot were starting. they had not had shoes for months because they were so desperate and with those people she blew up bridges and ambushed german convoys and cut off their telecommunications and surrounded their garrison and in the end they surrendered. i saw this signal from a very
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senior american officer who said with some understatement extremely brave women were doing fine work. you bet she was. anyway, all sorts of adventures she got into towards the end of the fighting or at the end of the fighting she'd been asking for back up again and again in the case of war it never came but she was one fine woman all those hundreds of men, desperate men and imagine how hard it was to control. it really was. no -- two american officers parachuted in and i'm not going to spoil but one became very significant indeed and i'm pleased to say that because she deserves it. she was ordered all kinds of incredible operations and at the end of the worst comes on with american officer who lightened
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her life as her nieces put it to me. she went to work for the cia took a long time to get a job here i'm afraid to say her career there was difficult [inaudible] he was good and it saddened his heart to see her reduce. the sacred presence reduced in undermined and ignored and a lot of college kids cannot quite get their heads around this woman blowing up bridges and who also had this distinguished service cross, truman himself wanted to awarded to her but she said no thanks, i want to be a secret agent. thank you, mr. president but he only expected in secret for the only person who saw her getting the metal was her mother. she had her american [inaudible] barbara did not approve but in the end they did get married. it's amazing how you not scared of the gestapo or police but
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you're scared of your mom. yeah, okay. she's at the cia and does not go that well but in the end there are high points and quite a lots of low points, too. in the end she retires and her she and her husband have a pretty happy retirement together until their health gets out. taking benzedrine for a long time does not tend to do your heart that many favors and i think she suffered and cuthbert was getting more difficult. she died in 1982 a lot of people that ignored her. how many of you knew about her? yeah, okay. she really did make a huge difference and secret documents again they she said allied intelligence from extinction and one said she was almost embarrassingly successful and i spent a day at langley and they said a lot of the techniques she pioneered in forming the resistance are still in use
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today including an afghanistan before and after 911 and they named one of their training buildings after her but still she's not known by the rest of us. it is interesting when gina became the first cia director she stood on the shoulders of heroines who had gone before her and cia and oss and a lot of us thought she really liked me talking about virginia holt. she was a woman and a willing inspiration and never complained and never gave up and had such resolve and ingenuity and i do think that it's been an utter pleasure to find out about her but it took me three years of very long weeks and hours and worth every single moment of it. the cost of characters around her were astonishing and these people did not see glory but they deserve it. that's why i wrote the book and hope you enjoy.
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thanks very much. [applause] >> if anyone has questions i'm happy to answer them, maybe not, but if you do there is a microphone somewhere. any questions? yes. >> was she beautiful this lady asks. danger made her beautiful. what is interesting is that looking at the first-hand accounts of people meeting her they describe her when she was in combat as radiant and beautiful and there was something that made her feel alive and always striking. that's when she was at her most beautiful. i managed to find a cache of letters that the men who fought with her for two months and that's all it was but who fought with her and wrote about her after the war and they used
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different phrases but the same thing comes up again it was worth being born just to have met virginia hall and fought alongside her. they talked about her as the madonna of the mountains because she rescued them and somehow she had [inaudible] they dropped parachutes and things that help them and rescue them and she's a complete legend in that department of france. she may have been forgotten elsewhere but they talk about her now and there's a phrase to use and unfortunately the very last guy who fought for them died in 2017 but he's with them any others use the same phrase, stars in their eyes. to them virginia was an absolute savior and they thought she was beautiful, to.
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>> since she's so not know well how did you become aware of her? >> my last book was about clementine churchill became interested in second world war stories and women that have been overlooked and i've always been interested in spice. my dad used to come to this for a british counterintelligence and something i grew up with. they would be our dimensions here and there about this amazing agent with a wooden leg called virginia hall and no one had ever really pulled all the elements of the goal together and i thought how can i not try it or at least find out and a lot of the -- in the end i managed to do it. it was just that, a wooden leg agent in france. wow, it was a lucky accident. it could not have imagined the story turn out as well as it did but it did. thank you. >> [inaudible]
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>> how long it took me. three years solid. as my husband will tell you i was not home very much and did lots of hundred hour weeks and did not take a vacation and was a real labor of love and let me overhear and i did research here and across france and paris and in the national archives fortunately i live close to. it was a bit like cat and mouse. i had to be a detective in virginia was always slightly hiding for me but then i would track her down and final thoughts were nuggets that i could string together. in the end, it worked. >> can you tell us more about virginia's track over the pyrenees? how long did that take where did she stay how did she manage that
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food and shelter that kind of thing. >> the cannot take much food with them because they cannot take too much weight and apparently sugar cubes were normally what you would take to keep you going. it took 2.5 days and about 50-mile track altogether over 8000 feet and went with a guide and they tended to be leftovers from the spanish capitalist army and these are hard-bitten guys do not want to get caught for obvious reasons so she had to disguise the fact that she had cuthbert and the reason for that is if they did find out you might think they were more likely to get caught and would let them down so he would pushed into the ravine or back of the head and that's what happened quite often. so, she could only climb sideways and i assume she blame that on the fact that she had a heavy bag with her. but, it really was difficult.
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absolute miracle she survived that. she was with two other able-bodied men frequently said they wanted to give up and it was she who push them over. one hell of a hero, really. >> to questions. wasn't it bobby, but sure of lyons, most intent on getting her? were you able to consult german sources that refer to her at all? >> first question was about bobby and he was the butcher of lyons. leon was her headquarters and he was sent there because they knew the resistance headquarters were in leon and new they were particularly successful so he was obsessed with her and someone who he captured and tortured trying to find out and captured many and tortured them to find out and i said i'll give anything to get my hands on that
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woman or word starting with ap. he was assessed to the end of the world in france and when she came back it transpired that the germans had given her the codename, artemis, goddess of hunting because to them it was a constant hunt to find virginia hall. the fact that she eluded them her field craft was superb and no doubt about that. the fact she managed to elude them she was brilliant at disguises. other question was -- >> do you know of german sources that refer to her that could be consulted and able to do that? >> i speak french so a lot of my sources were french. i don't speak german but able to get a lot of secondary sources. [inaudible] they wrote a book after the war and that also was very helpful. i'm afraid others were sent to
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concentration camps for women and caught two. virginia never got over how many of her supporters were captured, many died. i was able to track down through i think they handled this kind of thing brilliantly and i spoke to a lot of the germans and about exactly what happened and even find out the number of hot she was in when she arrived and left those were german sources i looked at the secondary sources. >> okay. thank you very much indeed for coming. [applause] i'm happy to sign any books if your curiosity has been you know, start.
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thank you. >> we do have copies up at the front. will have copies in the line start might appear. [inaudible conversations] >> c-span's washington journal live everyday with the news and policy issues that impact you. coming up wednesday morning, washington post discusses how lawmakers are addressing privacy and civil rights concerns caused by facial recognition technology. then, angela kimball with the national alliance on mental illness talks about the state of mental health amid insurance carriers making it difficult to receive care. uber institute senior fellow on the results of his recent study on income inequality and
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educational achievement. c-span's washington journal live at 7:00 a.m. eastern on wednesday morning. join the discussion. >> here's a look at life coverage wednesday on the c-span networks.

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