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Image of a newspaper clipping of Marguerite Harrison.
"Held as 'Spy' by Bolsheviki," Americus Times-Recorder (Americus, GA), December 21, 1920.

Marguerite Harrison: Debutante, Newspaperwoman, and Undercover Spy

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Marguerite Harrison was an American debutante, journalist, linguist, and foreign spy who worked overseas during the years between the two world wars. She was also one of the only American female spies at a time when women were generally not permitted to do this type of work. 

Early Life

Marguerite was born shortly after the U.S. Civil War into a wealthy family in Maryland– the Bakers. Bernard Nadal Baker and Elizabeth Elton Baker (née Livezey) were socialites– the former a shipping magnate. Marguerite’s sister Elizabeth married Albert C. Ritchie, who would later become Maryland’s 49th governor. During her childhood, the family spent much time in Europe and it was during that time that Marguerite honed her language skills, becoming fluent in French and German and conversational in Italian and Spanish.

She married Baltimorean Thomas Bullitt Harrison II in 1901. According to The Times (Washington, D.C.), the affair was “the most elaborate wedding that has taken place in Baltimore in many years.” The Harrisons were one of the oldest families in Baltimore and Thomas’s father and namesake was well-known in the cotton industry.

Marguerite and Thomas’s son, Thomas Bullitt Harrison III, was born in 1902. In 1915, the newspapers reported that the elder Harrison “died from what is believed to be a tumor of the brain” leaving Marguerite a widow and single mother. Feeling obligated to repay her late husband’s debts, she used her persuasive powers to land a job at the Sun (Baltimore, M.D.) as an assistant society editor, thus beginning her career in journalism (“Marguerite Harrison’s Nine Lives,” New York Times, November 10, 1935, p. BR17). During WWI, she took on many jobs formerly held by men who were then serving overseas and regaled those experiences in the newspaper. 

European Correspondent for the Sun

According to the Baltimore Sun, “in the summer of 1918, she offered her services as a spy to the Military Intelligence Department, was accepted, and, shortly after, left these shores for Germany, presumably as a correspondent for her newspaper” (The Sun, October 19, 1935, p. S04). She was the first American woman to successfully enter Germany since the start of World War I, as reported by the Sun on September 5, 1919. After her time in Germany, she moved on to Poland where her reports on post-war conditions made the front page of the Sun.

Clipping of a newspaper page with visible headline, Propaganda Used by Germans to Discredit Poles' Ability to Rule.
“PROPAGANDA USED BY GERMANS TO DISCREDIT POLES’ ABILITY TO RULE: Huns Doing All In Their Power To Create Trouble In New Poland–They Think All Will Return Into The Fold,” The Sun (Baltimore, M.D.), September 5, 1919.

 

According to the New York Herald Tribune, “she went to Russia on the same arrangement that sent her to Germany, outwardly a newspaper correspondent, actually a spy for the Military Intelligence Department.” While in Russia, according to the Washington Post, Times Herald (July 18, 1967, p. B3), she was arrested and imprisoned at the Lubyanka prison in Moscow on “charges of being a secret agent with the U.S. Government and of attempting to leave the country without permission” (October 13, 1935, p. F6). 

“A newspaper clipping with black and white picture of Mrs. Marguerite Harrison, with visible text, American Newspaper Woman Released from Soviet Prison."”
“American Newspaper Woman Released from Soviet Prison,” Alaska Daily Empire (Juneau, A.K.), August 11, 1921.

 

Senator Joseph Irwin France of Maryland and Secretary of Commerce and Chairman of the American Relief Committee, Herbert Hoover, secured her release after 10 months in exchange for American aid to Russia.

“A newspaper clipping with black and white picture of Senator J. I. France and Mrs. Marguerite Harrison both wearing hats. Visible text under picture reads, Home After Months in Russian Prison."
 “HOME AFTER MONTHS IN RUSSIAN PRISON,” Telegraph-Courier (Kenosha, W.I.), August 13, 1921.


In 1922 she was once again arrested by Soviet authorities because of a past encounter with a double agent in Germany and
returned to prison in Moscow. Once again her byline appeared in her hometown newspaper and again, she was released for diplomatic reasons (New York Herald Tribune, October 13, 1935, p. F6). Her experience was later published in Marooned in Moscow: The Story of An American Woman Imprisoned in Russia.

Newspaper detail of black and white image of Marguerite Harrison with visible text, Wrote of Russia After Jail Term.
“Wrote of Russia After Jail Term,” The Washington Herald (Washington, DC), January 22, 1922.
Clipping of a newspaper page with visible headline, Horrors of Solitary Cell in Moscow Prison Told By Marguerite Harrison.
“Horrors Of Solitary Cell In Moscow Prison Told By Marguerite Harrison.” The Sun (Baltimore, M.D.), October 2, 1921.

The Martinsburg Journal (Martinsburg, W.V.) correctly predicted that Mrs. Harrison would “be besieged by lecture bureaus on her return.” Fittingly enough, her name ended up back in the Sun’s society pages for a speaking engagement for the Junior League.

Detail of a newspaper clipping with visible text, Society Junior League Will Hear Illustrated Lecture By Former Mrs. Marguerite Harrison.
“Society,” The Sun (Baltimore, M.D.), April 10, 1926.

 

Later Years

After her undercover days, she shifted “her desire for adventure” to a different medium–film. She collaborated with Merian (sometimes spelled ‘Merion’) Cooper, a filmmaker and former aviator whom she first met in Poland. Along with Cooper, she was listed as a director, producer, and cast member of the documentary film, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, which was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1997. In addition, she was instrumental in the founding of the Society of Women Geographers in 1926. 

Clipping of a newspaper clipping with full image of Marguerite Harrison with a hand on her hip looking to the right.
“The Most Inquisitive Women,” The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, N.D.), May 17, 1928.


She also married Arthur Blake in 1926 and continued to write during their travels. They later moved to California where Arthur died in 1947 (Washington Post, Times Herald, July 18, 1967, p. B3). 

She died in 1967 and left an immensely fascinating (and because of the nature of her career, quite mysterious) life to be further explored. Search Chronicling America* for additional newspaper coverage of Marguerite, undercover spies, and more. Let us know what you find in the comments!

Clipping of a newspaper with picture of Mrs. Arthur Blake. Visible text above image reads, Mrs. Arthur M. Blake, Author, Dies.
“MRS. A.M. BLAKE, JOURNALIST, DIES,” (The Sun, M.D.), July 17, 1967.

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