Marguerite Harrison

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Marguerite Harrison
Marguerite Harrison.jpg
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, film maker, and translator who was one of the four founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers.


Born Marguerite Elton Baker, one of two daughters of wealthy Maryland shipping magnate, Bernard N. Baker and his wife Elizabeth Elton Livezey.[1] Born into inherited wealth, she and her sisters were raised as society princesses amidst opulence. 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 would be distant and cold. In 1907, her sister Elizabeth Baker 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 to forget this lower-class individual. 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 March 1902.[3]

Baltimore Sun[edit]

In 1915 her husband died of a brain tumor, leaving Harrison and her thirteen-year-old son deeply in debt from loans taken out by the father. In an effort to repay this debt, she turned her large home into a boarding house, which did not make ends meet. In 1915, despite having only one semester of college and no appropriate training, she used her brother-in-law's influence to get hired as an assistant society editor for The Baltimore Sun. This brought in an additional twenty - and later thirty - dollars a week. Coming from a society background and having a great facility with languages learned from European jaunts with her family, she proved to be well-qualified for this job and advanced quickly within the newspaper. By 1917 she was writing features about women's wartime labor and exposing the true fact that women work as well or better than their male counterparts.[3]


In 1918, with the U.S. still involved in the war and Europe virtually one large battlefield, she became overwhelmed with the desire to report on the conditions in Germany. As women were not recognized as war correspondents she decided to become a spy.[4] With an introduction to chief of Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army General Marlborough Churchill, she offered her services. On her application, she described herself as five feet six inches tall, weighing 125 pounds; using no stimulants, tobacco or drugs; and without physical defects. Answering the question "With what foreign countries and localities are you 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 11th Armistice was declared before her official hiring, but Harrison was still sent to Europe though with a new assignment: "Report political and economic matters of possible interest to the United States delegation at the forthcoming peace conference." Only her immediate family and her managing editor at the Sun knew why the War Department was sending her to Germany in December 1918. Unlike wartime spies, she would not be reporting strategic or military intelligence but political, economic and social reporting, and this would not be without risks.[3]

Harrison spied for the United States in Russia and Japan, arriving in Russia in 1920 as an Associated Press correspondent. She assessed Bolshevik economic strengths and weakness and assisted American political prisoners in Russia. She was held captive in Lubyanka, the infamous Russian prison, for ten months. While there she contracted tuberculosis,[5] and due to pressure from her influential contacts, including Senator Joseph I. France, she was eventually set free in exchange for food and other aid to Russia.[6] She was arrested again in 1923 in China and was taken to Moscow, but was released before her trial after recognition by an American aid worker.

These experiences, and those of her fellow prisoners, are related in two of her 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 Russia and China as world forces in her book Red Bear or Yellow Dragon (1924). These, with her volume Asia Reborn (1928) comprise her major publications on Asia.

Providing much needed funding, Harrison was an important member of the production team of Merian C. Cooper's classic ethnographic film Grass (1925). Harrison had met Cooper at a ball in Warsaw during the early days of the Russo-Polish conflict;[7] she had 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.[8][9] 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 return to lower elevations for the winter. In this movie, Harrison appears as herself – a reporter. Cooper's co-producer, Ernest B. Schoedsack, opined years later in a tape-recorded news interview (and totally unaware of her true activities) that she had not done "a damn thing" during the expedition! [10]

At the time women were excluded from membership in most professional organizations such as the Explorers Club; this and Harrison's disillusionment with equality for women led directly to her participation in the founding of Society of Woman Geographers in 1925. Harrison also founded the Children's Hospital of Baltimore.[4]


  • 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. ^ a b Griggs.
  5. ^ Young, Hugh. (1940) Hugh Young: A Surgeon's Autobiography NY:Harcourt Brace. pp.455
  6. ^ Sherwood. 1921
  7. ^ Brin, David. (2005) King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape, BenBella, ISBN 1-932100-64-4
  8. ^ Brownlow. 2005
  9. ^ Wakeman, John. (1988) World Film Directors. NY:W.H. Wilson. ISBN 0-8242-0757-2 p.148
  10. ^ Marguerite Harrison at The Internet Movie database Retrieved: 13 April 2008