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Roger Hall, 1919 - 2008

WWII spy wrote bestselling memoir

August 04, 2008|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Roger Hall, who wrote "You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger," a wry memoir about World War II spycraft that became a cult classic in intelligence circles and appealed to a wide audience for its irreverence, died July 20 of congestive heart failure at his home in Wilmington, Del. He was 89.

Hall's 1957 bestseller was based on his time in the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the CIA. The appeal was in Hall's narrative as a man of nerve battling the enemy and his pompous superiors.

Hayden Peake, a former Army intelligence and CIA agent and an authority on the literature of intelligence, called the book "one of the best OSS memoirs," saying it was written by "someone who could perform [dangerous work] but was a kind of a free spirit."

Critic Charles Poore, writing in the New York Times in 1957, called the memoir "the funniest (unofficial, that is) record of rugged adventure in the OSS."

Hall described himself as an ideal match for the OSS, which was interested less in formal military expertise than in recruiting agents who could use their wits and innovation in sticky situations to win the war.

"There were no parameters, and you did what the hell you wanted, up to legal and military limits," he told the Washington Post in 2002. "The more creative you were, the more they liked it."

Hall learned guerrilla warfare at Maryland's Congressional Country Club, which the OSS had taken over for training, and infiltrated a Philadelphia circuit-breaker plant on a test run.

He not only got a job at the plant, but the handsome trainee also wangled a date with a woman in the personnel office who happened to be the daughter of the company's vice president. His made-up identity included a falsehood about being wounded while parachuting into Sicily, and the vice president was so taken with his bravery that he invited Hall to speak at a company war bond rally.

He did the job so well that news of his rousing speech was published in a local paper.

"You're supposed to be a spy, not a bond salesman," an OSS companion said.

Hall spent much of the war in Britain, training and working alongside a motley gang of paratroopers: new recruits, war-hardened Poles and the occasional rising star, such as future CIA director William E. Colby. Ultimately, Hall arrived in a war zone, the little-known but strategic Norwegian theater of operations -- "Operation Better-Late-Than-Never," he called it.

The son of a Navy captain, Roger Wolcott Hall was born May 20, 1919, in Baltimore. He graduated from Annapolis High School in 1936 and a year later from the private Severn School before entering the University of Virginia.

He became captain of the lacrosse team and a member of the Punch and Julep dramatic society before graduating in 1941.

Hall joined the Army and finished the war at the rank of captain. After his discharge, he became a football press box announcer for the Baltimore Colts. The job ended because Colts' management did not appreciate his reaction to a referee's call against the team on what could have been a winning field goal.

"A Seeing Eye dog has been lost," Hall said over the public-address system. "Will the owner please return it to the officials' dressing room?"

Hall spent most of his life in New York as a freelance writer and editor. In the early 1970s he had a stint -- which he said was his favorite job -- as the cartoon editor for the old True magazine in New York.

He also was the host of radio shows, including "You Can't Fight Roger Hall," and wrote two novels, "All My Pretty Ones" (1959), a humorous book based on his relationship with a fashion model, and "19" (1970), a spy story.

He moved to Delaware in the 1980s with his wife, Linda Texter Hall, a poet and yoga instructor whom he married in 1973.

She is his only immediate survivor.

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