Marguerite Harrison

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Marguerite Harrison
BornMarguerite Elton Baker
October 1879
Baltimore, Maryland
DiedJuly 16, 1967 (aged 88)
OccupationJournalist, spy
SpouseThomas B. Harrison (1901–1914), Arthur Blake

Marguerite Elton Harrison (1879–1967) was an American reporter, spy, filmmaker and translator. She was also one of the four founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers.


Harrison was born Marguerite Elton Baker, one of two daughters of wealthy Maryland shipping magnate Bernard N. Baker and his wife Elizabeth Elton (Livezey) Baker.[1]

Born into inherited wealth, she and her sisters were raised as society princesses. She adored her father, who built and would later lose his lucrative Atlantic Transport Line, but her relationship with her overprotective and all-controlling mother was distant and cold.[citation needed]

In 1907, her sister Elizabeth married Albert C. Ritchie, who would later become the 49th governor of Maryland.[2] When Harrison's first and only semester at Radcliffe College was punctuated by an affair with her landlady's son, her mother abruptly shipped her to Italy. In June 1901, despite her mother's vehement protestations, she succeeded in marrying a young man without money, Thomas B. Harrison. Their son, Thomas B. Harrison II, was born in 1902.[3]

Children's Hospital School[edit]

In 1905, Harrison spearheaded an effort to open a school for indigent convalescent children. She used her many connections to procure donations and offered a large stone house owned by her father in Catonsville, Maryland. The school was initially called the Ingleside Convalescent Home but was later known as the Children's Hospital School. Harrison concocted many schemes to raise funds for the school, including a charity baseball game and a circus performed by prominent society members. In 1911, Harrison was named to the board of directors of the Women's Civic League of Baltimore, which advocated for safer and cleaner streets and schools.[4]

The Baltimore Sun[edit]

In 1915, Harrison's husband died of a brain tumor, leaving her and her 13-year-old son deeply in debt from his outstanding loans. In an unsuccessful effort to repay the debt, she converted her large home into a boarding house. In 1915, despite having completed only one semester of college and with no appropriate training, she used her brother-in-law's influence to secure a position as an assistant society editor for The Baltimore Sun at $20 per week. With her society background and familiarity with foreign languages, she advanced quickly within the newspaper. By 1917, she was writing features about women's wartime labor.[3]


In 1918, with the U.S. still involved in World War I and Europe virtually one large battlefield, Harrison wished to report on the conditions in Germany. As women were not recognized as war correspondents, she instead became a spy[5] after being introduced to General Marlborough Churchill, head of the Military Intelligence Branch of the War Department. On her application, Harrison described herself as five feet six inches tall, weighing 125 pounds without physical defects and with no use of stimulants, tobacco or drugs. In response to a question asking about foreign nations and localities with which she was familiar, she replied:

The British Isles, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Rome, Naples, Tyrol. I have an absolute command of French and German, am very fluent and have a good accent in Italian and speak a little Spanish. Without any trouble I could pass as a French woman and after a little practice, as German-Swiss ... I have been to Europe fourteen times ... I have been much on steamers and am familiar in a general way with ships of the merchant marine.[3]

The November 11, 1918 armistice was declared before she was officially hired, but Harrison was sent to Europe with a new assignment to report on political and economic matters at the forthcoming peace conference. Only her immediate family and her managing editor at The Baltimore Sun knew why she traveled to Germany in December 1918.[3]

Harrison spied for the United States in the Soviet Union and Japan. She arrived in the Soviet Union in 1920 as an Associated Press correspondent and assessed Bolshevik economic strengths and weakness and assisted American political prisoners. She was detained in the infamous Russian prison Lubyanka for 10 months, where she contracted tuberculosis.[6] Because of pressure applied by her influential contacts, such as Maryland senator Joseph I. France, she was eventually set free in exchange for food and other aid to the Soviet Union.[7] She was arrested again in 1923 in China and was taken to Moscow, but was released before her trial after she was recognized by an American aid worker.

These experiences, and those of her fellow prisoners, are related in two of Harrison's books: Marooned in Moscow: the Story of an American Woman Imprisoned in Russia (1921) and Unfinished Tales from a Russian Prison (1923). She expressed her views of the Soviet Union and China as world forces in her book Red Bear or Yellow Dragon (1924). These books, along with her volume Asia Reborn (1928), comprise her major publications on Asia.[citation needed]

Harrison was an important member and sponsor of the production team responsible for the classic ethnographic film Grass (1925). Harrison had met producer Merian C. Cooper at a ball in Warsaw during the early days of the Russo-Polish conflict[8] and provided him with food, books and blankets when he was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1920 and sent to work in a prison camp.[9][10] Grass depicts the annual migration of the Bakhtiari, an Iranian tribe who herded their livestock through snow-bound mountain passes under conditions of great hardship to reach high-altitude summer grasslands and then to return to lower elevations for the winter. Harrison appears as herself in her role as a reporter in the film. Cooper's co-producer Ernest B. Schoedsack opined years later that Harrison had not done "a damn thing" during the expedition.[11]

As women were excluded from membership in most professional organizations such as the Explorers Club, Harrison participated in the founding of Society of Woman Geographers in 1925. Harrison also founded the Children's Hospital School in Baltimore.[5][12]

Later life and death[edit]

Following her participation with Grass, Harrison married and moved to Los Angeles. In 1942, she offered her services to the FBI in the war effort, but the agency demurred.

Harrison died on July 16, 1967, in Baltimore at the age of 88.


  • Marooned in Moscow: the Story of an American Woman Imprisoned in Russia (1921)
  • Unfinished Tales from a Russian Prison (1923). (short stories)
  • Red Bear or Yellow Dragon (1924).
  • Asia Reborn (1928)
  • There's Always Tomorrow: the Story of a Checkered Life (1935)


  1. ^ Steiner, Bernard C. (1907). Men of Mark in Maryland: Biographies of Leading Men in the State, Washington, D.C., Vol.1, pp. 44-47.
  2. ^ Wise, Marsha, Wight. (2005) Images of America:Catonsville. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0-7385-1825-5
  3. ^ a b c d Olds 1985.
  4. ^ Atwood, Marguerite (2020). The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America's First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1682475270.
  5. ^ a b Griggs 1996.
  6. ^ Young, Hugh (1940). Hugh Young: A Surgeon's Autobiography. New York: Harcourt Brace. p. 455.
  7. ^ Sherwood 1921.
  8. ^ Brin, David (2005). King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape. BenBella. ISBN 1-932100-64-4.
  9. ^ Brownlow & Bird 2005.
  10. ^ Wakeman, John (1988). World Film Directors. New York: W.H. Wilson. p. 148. ISBN 0-8242-0757-2.
  11. ^ "Marguerite Harrison profile". imdb. Retrieved April 13, 2008.
  12. ^ "The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America's First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent". Air University (AU). Retrieved December 18, 2021.