Harrison’s son has the last word

On May 3, 1947, Arthur Blake died suddenly in California, never realizing his dream of becoming a motion picture star. Marguerite moved back to Baltimore the following year and rented an apartment on Charles Street to be near Tommy, who also had returned to the city after his divorce and remarriage.

Marguerite she still traveled—almost always by steamer—and occasionally she gave lectures to women’s clubs. One of her granddaughters, Nancy Harrison, has distinct memories of a woman she considers complicated, even unfathomable. She describes Marguerite, whom she called “Granny,” as intellectual and cultured. Yet Marguerite was not a typical grandmother. She didn’t bake cookies or give hugs. Even though she had lost a lung to tuberculosis, she chain-smoked Camel cigarettes, and the nicotine had turned her hair the color of straw. Marguerite never told her granddaughter about her work as a spy, but she did tell stories of her travels that she thought a child would enjoy, such as seeing the large statue of Jesus in Rio. Marguerite was proud of her travels and only regretted not seeing India, Harrison said.

In her final years, Marguerite live in an apartment surrounded by family heirlooms and souvenirs of her trips, including a collection of wax seals, a tea set the Russian czar had given her father, lacquer boxes, and a mahogany writing desk. Harrison recalled that Marguerite spent hours reading Ellery Queen mystery novels and playing solitaire. “She cheated,” Harrison said.

While unconventional in many ways, Marguerite could be old-fashioned and sentimental. She took no interest in television, and she criticized her daughter-in-law, Jean, for not making mashed potatoes from scratch. One Christmas she gave Nancy Harrison a present of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales that had belonged to Tommy. In her inscription she wrote: “To dear Nancy who likes the Greek stories of Gods and Heroes as her Granny does.”

While apparently relishing her role as a grandmother, she could still exhibit the sly charm that had made British and Russian agents fall in love with her. Marguerite flirted shamelessly with Tommy’s father-in-law in the presence of the man’s wife, Harrison remembered.

Marguerite remained active almost until the end of her life. Against doctor’s orders, she continued to take long trips to South America and Africa. But in 1966 she suffered a series of strokes that left her bedridden for almost a year. At 11:30 p.m. on July 16, 1967, Marguerite died at age eighty-eight. She left a sizable estate, which included Russian and Asian art and over $100,000 (about three-quarters of a million dollars today) in cash, stocks, and bonds. She bequeathed a number of pieces of furniture to the Maryland Historical Society and her collection of textiles to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Marguerite had asked that her ashes be scattered in the ocean she loved. Tommy hired a boat in Ocean City, Maryland, to follow his mother’s wishes, but a storm prevented him from going out to sea. Instead, he tossed her ashes over a bridge into the Chincoteague Bay where the ebb tide carried them to the Atlantic.

The doctor who attended Marguerite’s death filled out the death certificate and gathered details about her parents, age, and place of birth. He asked Tommy what he should write down as his mother’s occupation. Tommy must have struggled to sum up the work of the mysterious and complicated woman. She had been a socialite, philanthropist, writer, traveler, filmmaker, and a spy, but even those closest to her never knew quite what she was about.

At last he gave the doctor an answer: “Housewife.”

At last he gave the doctor an answer: “Housewife.”

Marguerite Harrison

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