Marguerite Harrison: A woman of suspicion

Once she settled in New York, she soon accepted several speaking engagements that took her to lecture halls throughout the Northeast and Midwest. During these appearances, Marguerite carefully avoided mention of her intelligence work. Once, when a woman in the audience asked about rumors that Marguerite had been a double agent, she replied coyly: “Don’t you think that if I had done any secret service I would have stuck to it?”

Her speeches were well attended, and a lecture bureau gave her a contract to tour the United States the next year.  Audiences might not have been interested in learning the finer points of American-Russian diplomacy, but they leaped at the chance to see the strange woman who could joke about life in a Soviet prison.

The idle curious weren’t the only ones filling the lecture halls. Agents and informers from the Justice Department also showed up to hear what she had to say. The woman who had been one of America’s most prized agents now became a target of suspicion.

As early as September 1921, an informer went to the Pennsylvania Hotel to observe a meeting of the New York Committee for Russian Relief, where Marguerite was scheduled to appear. Also on the program were Louise Bryant, the widow of John Reed, and Lewis Gannett, associate editor of the Nation magazine. Marguerite unexpectedly did not show up, but Bryant told the audience that Marguerite would speak in coming days.   In March, another informant was in the audience when she spoke at Bryn Mawr College on Russian art and education. The agent concluded that the lecture was “disguised Soviet propaganda.”

Max Eastman, editor of The Liberator

Raising money for Russia orphans and speaking to college audiences was one matter, but even Marguerite’s defenders must have wondered why she spoke at an event sponsored by Socialist magazine, The Liberator. The magazine, founded by Max Eastman, counted among its contributors revolutionary John Reed. At the time of Marguerite’s speech, another familiar Communist was on the staff—Robert Minor, the cartoonist and journalist whom she had helped catch for distributing propaganda in Germany. The program at the Arlington Hall community center in New York’s East Village was billed as a “Russian Evening.” Marguerite told the audience she was imprisoned for breaking the law and that her stay in Russia was a “highly pleasant one.” She went on to speak well of Soviet officials and blamed conditions in Russia on the Western blockade. This time, the agent watching her was not from the Justice Department, but the U.S. Army.

Yet even as agents spied her on lectures, Marlborough Churchill contacted her to make a mysterious proposition.

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