Harrison, Marguerite (1879–1967)

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Harrison, Marguerite (1879–1967)

American journalist, adventurer and spy . Born Marguerite Elton Baker in October 1879, in Baltimore, Maryland; died on July 16, 1967; eldest of two daughters of Bernard Nadal Baker (the founder of Atlantic Transport Lines); attended St. Timothy's School for Girls, in Catonsville, Maryland; attended Radcliffe College for one year; married Thomas Bullitt Harrison, in 1901 (died 1915); married Arthur Middleton Blake (an actor), in 1926 (died 1949); children: one son, Thomas Bullitt Harrison II ("Tommy").

Had Marguerite Harrison's husband not died and left her alone with a child to support, she might have lived out her life as a comfortable Baltimore matron. Instead, she became one of the earliest correspondents in the United States and an American spy.

Born into wealth and esteemed lineage, Marguerite Elton Baker was the daughter of the founder of Baltimore's lucrative Atlantic Transport Lines. She and her younger sister, Elizabeth Baker (Ritchie) , grew up in luxury and privilege, though Harrison later recalled her early years as stifled and lonely. Alienated from her mother whom she felt had not welcomed her birth, she also felt estranged from her sister who was her opposite in temperament. She later wrote that she felt closest to her father, and "loved him with a passionate devotion that amounted to adoration."

After five unhappy years at the exclusive St. Timothy's School where she excelled in languages, she was sent off to Radcliffe for a year, ostensibly to further her education but in reality to prepare for a good marriage. On her own for the first time, Harrison rebelled by immediately becoming engaged to her landlady's son. The affair was nipped in the bud by her mother, who immediately took her out of college and sent her off to Italy. No sooner had she returned, however, then she attached herself to Thomas Bullitt Harrison, the charming stepson of Dr. Joseph S. Ames, who later became the president of Johns Hopkins University. Despite her mother's misgivings about the match, the couple had a wedding that Harrison described as "one of the most splendid ever seen in Baltimore." In March 1902, just nine months after her marriage, Harrison gave birth to her son Tommy and settled into blissful family life.

With the untimely death of her husband in 1915, Harrison was left penniless, with a young son to support, and an incurred debt of nearly $70,000. Initially, she converted her large home into a boarding house; when that failed to provide enough income, she applied for a job at the Baltimore Sun. Having no experience in journalism, but armed with a letter of introduction from her brother-in-law, Harrison was hired as assistant society editor. A quick study, she was soon producing such quality work that she was promoted to music and drama critic. In addition, she also produced the column "Overheard in the Wings," a weekly feature of interviews with visiting artists. She was soon earning $30 a week, which was augmented by an additional $25 yearly, earned through an appointment to the State Board of Motion Picture Censors.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Harrison was assigned to cover the role of women in the war effort. By 1918, despite 14-hour days that left her little social life or time with her son, she was growing restless. With the war now raging in Europe, she was particularly curious about conditions in Germany, where she had traveled as a child. With all paths to Europe pretty much closed, especially to a woman, Harrison chose an unusual means of fulfilling her goal: she became a spy. Applying to General Marlborough Churchill, the chief of the army's Military Intelligence Division (MID), Harrison presented him with a letter from her stepfather-in-law who happened to be a friend of the general's. Accepted on the basis of her intelligence, her fluency in German and French, and a promise of discretion, she was hired at a salary of $250 a month. Before she could start, however, an armistice was declared; it appeared that her career as a spy was over. The MID, however, sent her to Europe to report political and economic matters of possible interest to the U.S. delegation at the upcoming peace conference. Traveling under the cover of a correspondent on special assignment to the Baltimore Sun, Harrison sailed for France in December 1918, en route to Germany.

In addition to being one of the earliest correspondents in the United States, she was the first English-speaking woman reporter to reach Berlin after the armistice. Arriving in the city after an arduous journey, Harrison set out to acquaint herself with every aspect of political and social life that might be of interest to the MID, often preparing her reports late at night after a full day of continuous activities. She also regularly filed stories for the Baltimore Sun. A British journalist, S.K. Ratcliffe, recalled Harrison in her double role as spy and journalist during the Berlin days. "Marguerite Harrison possessed all the qualifications, as her journalist colleagues and enemies were alike ready to admit. She was brilliantly attractive in appearance, and assured in manner; she had a steely intelligence, and she was everywhere at home. Language had few difficulties for her. In public speech she was swift and pointed."

The signing of the Versailles peace treaty in June 1919 ended Harrison's work in Berlin, and she returned to her job at the Sun. But civilian life now bored her. Newly intrigued by the Bolshevik attempt to transform the formerly imperialist society in Russia, Harrison consulted her former MID employer, General Churchill, about operating in Russia as a secret agent. He eagerly welcomed her back, and in November 1919 (with a warning about "considerable risks and many hardships"), she sailed for England with orders to enter Russia and report on conditions in Moscow and other key cities. Carrying credentials from the Sun, she was assigned as a temporary Moscow correspondent by the London bureau of the Associated Press. Then, after placing her son in a school in Lausanne, Switzerland, Harrison embarked on the difficult journey to Moscow, which included a six-week delay in Warsaw and a dangerous and prolonged passage through Minsk, the Polish front lines, and an outpost of the Russian front.

Upon her arrival in Moscow, the commissioner of foreign affairs initially allowed Harrison only two weeks in the city, during which time she mastered the language, held interviews, attended meetings, and talked with a variety

of people. Her attachment to the Russians was instant and when she was given permission to remain an additional month, she redoubled her attempts to learn as much as she could about social, artistic, and intellectual life in Russia. Her articles for the Sun were written late at night and scrutinized by the Foreign Office before they were telegraphed to the United States. Harrison was unaware of a leak in the MID and was taken completely by surprise when she was arrested by the Russian police one night while walking home after filing a story. Brought before the authorities and accused of spying, she was presented with evidence that the Russians not only knew of her present assignment, but had information about her covert work in Germany. Harrison faced serious consequences, but was unexpectedly offered her liberty if she agreed to become a counterspy. After agonizing over her options, she agreed. "In that moment, I renounced everything that hitherto made up my existence," she later wrote. "It was finished—and I felt as if I had already died and been born into a new nightmare world."

Released, Harrison attempted to placate her captors with bland reports, while smuggling information to U.S. military officials that she had been caught. Although MID officials were optimistic about her ability "to extricate herself," she lived under constant surveillance in Moscow and the certainty that she was pretty much doomed. On October 24, 1920, her worst fears were realized, and she was hauled off to Lubianka, part of the vast Soviet penal system that Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn later called "Gulag Archipelago." The first American woman ever held in a Bolshevik prison, Harrison spent ten harrowing months in deplorable conditions. Her incarceration began with a four-month period of solitary confinement, during which time she sustained herself through a method of self-hypnosis. "I learned to detach myself utterly from the world which seemed irretrievably lost and to find a new world of my own, bounded physically by four walls, but spiritually limitless."

Removed from isolation, Harrison spent the next six months in a small room which variously held 7 to 14 women. Many of the women contracted typhus and syphilis from the unsanitary conditions, one filthy toilet for 125 prisoners, and the continually attacking vermin. Harrison eventually succumbed to tuberculosis and was removed to Novinsky, a prison hospital which she described as "terrestrial paradise," when compared to Lubianka. Certain she would die there, she was unexpectedly freed through the intervention of the American Relief Administration which offered food for famine-ravaged Russia in exchange for the release of prisoners, including Harrison.

Weak and exhausted from her ordeal, Harrison returned to Baltimore and a joyous re-union with her son. Severing her ties with the MID, she devoted her time to lecturing and writing Marooned in Moscow, a recounting of her Russian experiences. By the spring of 1922, shortly after completing the book, she was on the move again, this time to write a series of articles about the Far East.

Aboard ship during the first leg of what turned out to be an around-the-world journey, she completed a second book of memoirs, Unfinished Tales from a Russian Prison. After visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Korea, Manchuria, and China, Harrison ventured to Chita, the capital of southeastern Siberia, eager to set foot again on Russian soil despite her ordeal. Unfortunately, shortly before her arrival, that Far Eastern Republic was taken over by the Soviets, and although she held a valid passport, she was again arrested, charged with espionage, and ordered to Moscow. "The iron self-control to which I had schooled myself almost gave way," she remembered later. Once again finding herself in Lubianka, she was also once again given an ultimatum. She would be freed if she became a defector, living with her son in Russia at government expense, and acting as an informant. Refusing, she endured another ten weeks in prison, then was scheduled for trial for espionage and high treason. At the brink of complete despair, however, she was once again rescued by an officer of the American Relief Administration who threatened cessation of food relief unless she was freed.

Returning home in March 1923, Harrison settled into the Hotel Schuyler in Manhattan with her son, who was now 21. She kept busy on the lecture circuit and began another book, Red Bear or Yellow Dragon, published in 1924. By the spring of 1925, however, she was once again overcome by wanderlust. A fortuitous meeting with Colonel Merian Cooper, whom she had met during her first visit to Russia and who was now involved in making travel films, led to her next adventure: the production of a new kind of travel film. Forming a partnership, they invited cinematographer Ernest Beaumont Schoedsack to join them on a project to document the migration of the Bakhtiari of Persia, some 1,500 miles away. They departed "with nothing in the world but a camera, fifty thousand feet of precious film and our ten thousand dollars," Harrison wrote later. The result of this incredible journey with the Bakhtiari, during which Harrison endured a dangerous trek across the formidable Zardeh Kub in the Zaros Mountains of Persia, as well as a debilitating bout with malaria, was the documentary Grass, a watershed film which can still be viewed at various libraries. It was shown privately at the Plaza Hotel in March 1925 and had its public debut at the Criterion Theater where it played for four months. Although reviewed favorably, critics hardly knew what to make of the movie, having nothing like it for comparison. Harrison, however, was disappointed in the effort, stating that as a record of a natural drama, it should have been treated in a more natural manner. "I wanted to tell the story of the migration simply and straightforwardly without over-statement or exaggeration," she wrote, "but I was over-ruled by Merian and Shorty, and the scenario writer from the editorial staff of Famous Players…. Their titles were melodramatic, artificial, and of the theater. They put impossible speeches into the mouths of the Bakhtiari tribesmen ['Br-r-r, this water's cold!'], whose language was as primitive as their lives."

In early 1925, Harrison and three other women explorers, Blair Niles, Gertrude Mathews Selby , and Gertrude Emerson , formed the Society of Woman Geographers, an organization for women who had "blazed new trials in geography, ethnology, natural history, and kindred sciences." Originally established to dignify the professional image of female writers, journalists, and explorers who resented being treated like dilettantes, the organization blossomed to include some of the most distinguished women of the 20th century. Harrison considered the founding of this society as well as her part in establishing the Children's Hospital School in Baltimore, the most important accomplishments of her life.

At age 47, after reputedly leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake, Harrison married an attractive English actor by the name of Arthur Middleton Blake. Claiming she was tired of "wandering the world alone," she settled down to lecturing and writing articles and books. In 1928, she published what is considered her best work, Asia Reborn, a political and economic analysis of the new movements in the Far East. Her autobiography, There's Always Tomorrow, came out in 1935, as did her translation of Edward Stucken's The Dissolute Years: A Pageant of Stuart England.

Following her husband's death in 1949, Harrison returned to Baltimore, residing with her son and his second wife. She continued to travel despite her age, making a journey to South America when she was 78. Subsequently, she visited Africa and Australia, and in her 80s flew to Berlin. Harrison remained in good health to the end of her life and died of a stroke on July 16, 1967, at 88. In accordance with her wishes, her son Tommy scattered her ashes in the Atlantic. "Mother loved the ocean," he said, "and I thought there was an appropriate symbolism that her last remains should have gone out on the ebb tide to be swept restlessly on and on across the face of the earth by the tides of the ocean."


Olds, Elizabeth Fagg. Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America's First Women Explorers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Harrison, Marguerite (1879–1967)

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