A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell


The Dream

Mrs. Barbara Hall had it all worked out. She had raised her only daughter and youngest child, Virginia, born on April 6, 1906, in the expectation of an advantageous marriage. As an ambitious young secretary in the previous century, Barbara had triumphed by marrying her boss, Edwin Lee Hall (known as Ned), a wealthy Baltimore banker and cinema owner, and she never wanted to look back. Her steep social elevation into smart East Coast circles had, at least according to her own family, made her “snooty.” After all, Ned’s father, John W. Hall, may have run away to sea at the age of nine on one of the family’s sailing ships, but he had gone on to marry an heiress and become president of the First National Bank. John’s brother, Virginia’s great-uncle Robert, had been the grandest grandee of the exclusive Maryland Jockey Club. Barbara saw how the senior Halls led a fancy life—the hallway of their opulent Baltimore townhouse was reputedly wide enough to turn around a coach and horses—and wanted the same. But Ned had, to Barbara’s evident frustration, failed to maintain the family fortune let alone enlarge it, and now the Halls’ domestic arrangements were more modest. Ned and Barbara’s country house at Boxhorn Farm in Maryland was genteel, but did not have central heating and pumped its water in from a stream. Their apartment in central Baltimore, although elegant, was only rented. It was Virginia’s duty to haul the family back up to the Halls’ former social heights by marrying into more money.

In Virginia’s old life, Barbara had watched her being chased by well-to-do young suitors with maternal satisfaction. Such was her daughter’s appeal before she lost her leg that Virginia was known to her friends at her posh private high school, Roland Park Country, as “Donna Juanita.” Tall and rangy with sparkly nut-brown eyes and a melting smile (when she chose to use it), she was unusually spirited and presented an irresistible challenge for those young men who dreamed of taming her. Virginia held such displays of male ardor in contempt, however, and would assert her independence by wearing tomboy trousers and checked shirts whenever she could. “I must have liberty,” she proclaimed in her school yearbook in 1924, at the age of eighteen, “withal as large a charter as I please.” Little she said or did accorded with her mother’s great plan.

Virginia took pleasure in defying convention. She hunted with a rifle, skinned rabbits, rode horses bareback, and once wore a bracelet of live snakes into school. It was clear that the fearless young “Dindy,” as her family called her, yearned for adventure, just like her seagoing grandfather. Even if it meant enduring discomfort. The fact that Roland Park Country pursued a Dickensian insistence on keeping its windows open in below-freezing weather—meaning the girls took their lessons in coats, gloves, and hats—seems not to have bothered her at all.

Dindy described herself as “cantankerous and capricious”1—a view shared by her classmates, who nevertheless also recognized her gifts for organizing and initiative. They viewed her as their natural leader and voted her in as their class president, editor in chief, captain of sports, and even “Class Prophet.” Her elder brother, John, studied chemistry at the University of Iowa and then dutifully went to work with his father, as had been envisaged since his birth. By contrast, Virginia liked to explore pastures new, encouraging her classmates to expect from her nothing less than the unexpected. Considered by her peers at school the most “original” among them—an accolade she evidently enjoyed—she admitted that she strove to live “up to her reputation at all times.”2 If Ned was indulgent of this individualistic outlook, then Barbara had quite different views. Mrs. Hall was intent on her daughter forsaking her interest in adventure for the greater prize of a rich husband and a fashionable household. At the age of nineteen, Virginia dutifully became engaged and appeared destined for the confined domestic life of many other society women reaching adulthood in the 1920s.

However eligible her well-heeled fiancé might have been in her mother’s eyes, though, Virginia still bridled at his entitlement and cheating. Yes, young “ladies” such as Virginia had long been expected to defer to their menfolk, but now rebellion was in the air, with the advent in Baltimore as elsewhere of the independence-loving flappers. They were a new breed of young women who broke the Prohibition-era rules on drinking and scandalized their elders by cutting their hair short, smoking,