Your career takes you to enemy-occupied territory during wartime. You keep your eyes and ears open, gather information, use your wits, and send back to your “control” whatever you learn. Friends and colleagues may suddenly turn against you, you are constantly under suspicion, sometimes there is a price on your head.
A career in espionage? This was the path of two Barnard women. Virginia Hall, Class of 1927, spied for the Allies in Nazi- occupied France. At a time when female operatives were a novelty, she was aiding the French Resistance and sabotaging German troops. The Nazis called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Juliet Stuart Poyntz, Class of 1906, joined the Soviets in the war against capitalism. An early, vocal suffragist and feminist, and a founder of the Communist Party of America, Poyntz became a Soviet spy here in the United States before defecting and ultimately being silenced. Neither woman set out to join the shadowy world of spying, but both were on missions to help causes they believed in.
When Virginia Hall (later Virginia Hall Goillot) applied to Barnard in 1925, she already knew she wanted a career as an officer in the Foreign Service. Born into a wealthy Baltimore family in 1906, Hall traveled throughout Europe during her childhood. Trips to places like Belgium, France, Italy, and Switzerland helped her develop a gift for languages, including French, German, and Latin. French and math were favorite subjects. She started at Radcliffe before coming to Barnard, where she was an average student who did not seem to participate in a lot of aspects of campus life. She left in good standing without graduating in 1927. Despite knowing she needed a college education, Hall yearned to start her life off campus. She gave up the idea of a degree and persuaded her father to send her to Europe. “She was really interested in exciting things. Her family was exciting—her grandfather was a sea captain, her father was an entrepreneur,” says Judith L. Pearson, author of The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy.
By 1931, Hall was a code clerk with the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, who “wanted to rise through the ranks and become an ambassador,” says Pearson. She was working for the American Consulate in Turkey in 1932 when tragedy struck. On a hunting trip, she accidentally shot herself in the foot and lost her left leg at the knee. Skillfully adjusting to her wooden leg, Hall continued to seek career advancement, but a disabled woman at that time was not going to break the glass ceiling. In 1939 she headed to Paris, where she took on freelance writing assignments and even drove an ambulance. When the Germans moved in, Hall moved on—to London.
Once there, Hall was recruited as a spy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) group endorsed female operatives, who were presumably less likely than men to be interrogated. The SOE trained Hall to master weapons and codes. Her first assignment was in France. Working as a New York Post reporter, she sent to London coordinates of safe zones in which to parachute money, weapons, or other supplies for the resistance movement. She also found safe houses for escaped war prisoners and wounded troops.
Hall was good at her job and her aliases were well known in resistance circles: “Diane,” “Camille,” “Marcella,” “Aramis,” “Marie Morin.” The Nazis knew her simply as the “woman with a limp.” (Her leg had its own code name: “Cuthbert.”) When she discovered a double agent among her ranks, a French abbot working for the German intelligence organization Abwehr, she feared she was in danger. Soon wanted posters appeared bearing her distinct likeness. The message: She was “the most dangerous of all Allied spies and we must find and destroy her.” Just before the German occupation of southern France in 1942, Hall managed to escape the country on foot across the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain—a feat for anyone without a wooden leg.
The SOE was impressed, and in 1943, Hall was awarded the prestigious Order of the British Empire Medal by King George VI. Meanwhile, the U.S. had entered the war. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor to the CIA) recruited Hall and sent her back to France in 1944. This time she was disguised as a French goat herder, in oversized peasant clothes filled with padding. She carefully slowed and shifted her gait, so the limp was not noticeable. Time on a farm as a child made her comfortable with the goats, and the 38-year-old American became an old French peasant woman, all the while helping to organize guerilla groups that sabotaged bridges, supplies, and weapons, and to report Nazi troop movements back to the Allies via her suitcase radio.
In 1945, Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Although it was intended that President Truman would present the second highest military honor for heroism to the only female civilian recipient in World War II, Hall worried that too much publicity would compromise her identity and future covert operations. Instead, OSS founder Major General WilliamJ. Donovan presented the honor with little fanfare. After the war, Hall returned to the United States and married fellow OSS member Paul Goillot in 1950. The two settled in her home state of Maryland, and while she continued with the CIA, her international escapades were over. She remained in a comfortable job analyzing French paramilitary affairs for 20 years before retiring.
If Hall was an adventurer who helped alter the events of history, Juliet Stuart Poyntz (born “Points”) was bent on changing the world. Born in Omaha in 1886, she came to Barnard in 1903. She was 16 and her family was living in Jersey City, but she took full advantage of college life. Class treasurer during her first year, then sophomore class president, she became secretary of the Barnard Union and, during senior year, president of the Undergraduate Association and chair of the Student Council. Poyntz edited the yearbook, Mortarboard, and was a member of various clubs, including the Kappa Kappa Gamma women’s fraternity, the Christian Association, and the sophomore dance committee. During senior year she performed in a play, participated in the school’s third annual Greek Games (taking first place in wrestling), argued in the interclass debate (her team won), and made Phi Beta Kappa. Valedictorian of her class, her yearbook named her “Most Popular in College,” and next to her photograph a quotation reads: “At her command the palace learned to rise.”
Poyntz also founded Barnard’s first chapter of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York State in 1907. “When the movement began,” she later recalled,
“the intrepid few who composed it were distinctly made to feel by the rest of the college that they were regarded as ‘queer,’ as lacking in balance and altogether abnormal.” Said Poyntz in her valedictory speech: “Mere facts can never develop power and personality. But in our rebellion against mere information, we have tried not to go to the other extreme, exemplified by the college girl whose motto was, ‘never let your lessons interfere with your college life.’” In 1914, Poyntz would turn the then thriving suffrage club into a feminist club, arguing for the merits of women’s studies to provide more education about “the general economic and social position of women and the history of the woman movement.”
After graduating from Barnard, Poyntz claims she “broke away from the respectable middle classes” to find her “proper level” working as a traveling special agent for the U.S. immigration commission. But she was soon back at school. During the years from 1909 and 1913 she held teaching assistant positions at Barnard as she studied variously at Columbia, the London School of Economics, and Oxford University. She also changed “Points” to “Poyntz,” and married a man named Dr. Friedrich Franz Ludwig Glaser, a German diplomat and a Communist.
Her interests in equality and the labor movement in America fueled her Communist sympathies. The notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in 1911, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers (many jumping 80 feet to escape the burning factory floor), and Poyntz became a champion of labor causes. She did investigations for the American
Association for Labor Legislation, and became the education director for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union Local No. 25, the union that represented some of the Triangle Factory workers. Poyntz helped found the Communist Party of America in 1919, and then became head of the Labor Research Department of the Rand School of Social Science, a school teaching communist
and socialist ideals. In addition, she gave speeches and wrote articles for The Nation.
Although never elected, Poyntz ran for office on the Communist ticket four times. (In a 1928 bid for attorney general of New York, she had more than 10,000 polling votes.)
Having traveled to Russia several times, and even once to China, it was in 1934 that Poyntz apparently began working for the Soviet OGPU (a KGB predecessor), sending back whatever specific information she could about the United States. But on a
1936 trip to Moscow, she witnessed Stalin’s “great purge” of dissenters, which ultimately
resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people, including individuals she knew and cared about. Her own loyalty to the party came into question, and by the time she returned to America that loyalty was indeed gone. She told friends she wanted nothing more to do with Communism and revealed that she feared for her own safety.
Whittaker Chambers, the TIME magazine editor who testified in 1948 about his years as a Communist, broke with the party around the same time. “For a year I lived in hiding, sleeping by day and watching through the night with gun or revolver within easy reach. That was what underground communism could do to one man in the peaceful United States in the year 1938.” Part of his fear was due to the disappearance of his friend, Poyntz, who in June of 1937 left her room in the American Women’s Association Clubhouse on West 57th Street and never returned, although it took authorities and the media six months to take notice of her disappearance. Eventually, Poyntz’s lawyer came forth with some information: She had been missing for months but he hoped she might turn up.
The New York Times continued to follow the story in the coming months. Carlo Tresca, a fellow Communist Party member, revealed he knew Poyntz was with Sancho Epstein, an editor who was her old friend and perhaps lover. Epstein was an “agent
provocateur” working with Soviet secret police, Tresca said, who most certainly took her body to Moscow or disposed of it along the way (Tresca himself was murdered
in 1943). Poyntz’s body was never found, despite rumors of it being buried in Dutchess County.
The Poyntz case remains unsolved, and many of her colleagues went on to renounce Communism and have productive lives and careers. As for Virginia Hall, she passed away in 1982, not a famous war hero, but as an elderly woman who loved to tell stories of her days as a spy. But Hall may still become famous: Her story is currently being developed for a movie.
-by Melissa Phipps