Joan Krakover Hall obituary | Espionage

My grandmother Joan Krakover Hall, who has died aged 94, was a passionate teacher and linguist, who worked for a time at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. She was married for more than 50 years to the atomic physicist Theodore Hall, whom she met as a teenager in Chicago after the second world war.

As a young scientist working on the Manhattan Project, Ted had passed secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, believing that a US nuclear monopoly would be highly dangerous. Identified as an agent in 1949, he was never prosecuted by the US authorities and his role remained unknown to the public until the mid-1990s.

Joan’s unwavering love for Ted is chronicled in the recent Steve James documentary A Compassionate Spy, which includes a dramatisation of their romance and interviews with Joan in her latter years. In the film, Joan recalls that, just after she accepted Ted’s proposal, he confessed to his wartime espionage and the reasons for his actions, in case she wanted to back out. She did not. They married in 1947 and she was to keep his secret for more than 50 years, emigrating to the UK and giving up her own political activities.

Born in Chicago, to Evelyn (nee Winetz), an art teacher, and Leo Krakover, who worked in advertising, Joan went to O’Keeffe high school, before being selected for a special programme for gifted school-age students at the University of Chicago. She met Ted at a political meeting – he made an impression on her when he sprayed her with a water pistol “to liven things up a little bit”.

Joan and Ted moved to Connecticut as newlyweds, but Joan was uninspired by the drudgery of domestic life. As McCarthyism took hold, it was no longer safe for the couple to remain in the US. In the early 60s, when Ted was offered a job in Cambridge, they gathered their three young daughters, upped sticks and made a new home for themselves in Britain.

There, Joan had more freedom to explore her own politics and she became involved in the women’s rights movement in the 70s. She was fluent in Russian and Italian and worked for a time as a translator. Joan was a talented painter, poet and teacher, providing positive feedback that enabled her pupils to grow.

Joan’s childhood, by her accounts, had not been full of love and affection, her brother always being given the bigger helping and the most praise. Joan was determined not to do the same as a parent – she and Ted loved and cherished their daughters, and enjoyed time together as a family.

Life was relatively calm until the death of Deborah, my mother, in 1992. Debby was Joan and Ted’s adored middle child, a talented violinist who had inherited her parents’ sense of social justice and campaigned against South African apartheid and the poll tax.

Joan became ever more liberal and progressive as she grew older. She was affectionate, funny, and a talented storyteller. When my sister and I were children, Joan treated us with respect and love (and extra cream on our strawberries), listening to our opinions and encouraging us to pursue our dreams.

Ted died in 1999. Joan is survived by her daughters Sara and Ruth, three grandchildren, Rebecca, Alex and me, and six great-grandchildren, Abraham, Ella, Tobias, Margot, Samuel and Jonny.


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