On to Bagdad where Harrison meets Gertrude Bell

Having no luck filming the Kurds in Turkey, Marguerite Harrison, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack decided to press on to Persia.

The new plan took them by train to Aleppo and then by car to Bagdad, where they arrived at the end of February. Marguerite was disappointed in her first view of the city, which she described as a straggly collection of ugly, semi-modern houses arranged along unpaved streets. But while lacking aesthetics, Bagdad held no shortage of intrigues. Keeping watch over it all was one of Britain’s most unusual spies, Gertrude Bell.

For decades Bell had worked for British intelligence service in the Middle East while pursuing her passion for archaeology. She was smart, energetic, and engaging. During World War I she was assigned as a political officer in the British Army’s Expeditionary Forces in Mesopotamia. With her extensive travels in the desert and her knowledge of local culture, she gained the trust of the Arab leaders, including Iraq’s King Faisal I, to whom she became an influential adviser.

Gertrude Bell

Not surprisingly, Marguerite was anxious to meet this extraordinary woman, who turned out not to be what Marguerite imagined. “I pictured her as a hard, masculine type of woman,” she recalled. Instead, she found “a slender figure in a smart gray velvet frock which looked as if it had just come from Paris. A daintily manicured hand was stretched out to meet mine, and I looked into a pair of keen gray-blue eyes set in an oval face with regular features, crowned by a mass of softly waved, perfectly dressed hair.”

The two women had much in common. Both had been born into privileged families, sought adventure in foreign lands, and written popular accounts of their travels. And both were spies.

“It was a beginning of a warm friendship between us,” Marguerite wrote after Bell’s death from an apparent suicide several years later.

Bell also was impressed with Marguerite. She wrote to her father: “I had a dinner party in the evening to meet a Mrs. Harrison, an American traveller and writer and an exceptionally brilliant woman.”

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