In September 1918, World War I was nearing its end when Marguerite E. Harrison, a thirty-nine-year-old Baltimore socialite, wrote to the head of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division asking for a job. The director asked for clarification. Did she mean a clerical position? No, she told him. She wanted to be a spy.
This blog chronicles the extraordinary career of Harrison, who was America’s first female foreign intelligence agent. It is meant to be a supplement to my book, tentatively titled the Liberation of Marguerite Harrison, which is due out next year from Naval Institute Press.
Harrison was a complicated woman. She founded a school for sick children and wrangled her way onto the staff of the Baltimore Sun. Fluent in four languages and knowledgeable of Europe, she persuaded the director of Military Intelligence to hire her.
For seven years, she traveled to the world’s most dangerous places—Berlin, Moscow, Siberia, and the Middle East—posing as a writer and filmmaker in order to spy for the U.S. Army and U.S. Department of State. With linguistic skills and knack for subterfuge, Harrison infiltrated Communist networks, foiled a German coup, located American prisoners in Russia, and probably helped American oil companies seeking entry into the Middle East. Along the way, she saved the life of King Kong creator Merian C. Cooper, twice survived imprisonment in Russia, and launched a women’s explorer society whose members included Amelia Earhart and Margaret Mead.
Her superiors in the intelligence agencies found her work in Germany and Russia invaluable, but her service was tainted by accusations of treachery and treason.
In this blog, we will look at the evidence of her work and consider the accusations against her. Was she one of America’s most successful spies? Or was she a traitor? Was she a woman whose patriotism prompted her to abandon her son for service of her country? Or was she an adventurer who found motherhood stifling? Did she have an affair with her sister’s husband? Did she betray a lesbian lover?
Certain answers may never be known, but we can explore, speculate and consider this extraordinary woman who set the precedent for the women who later worked for the Office of Strategic Services and the Central Intelligence Agency.
I am a former newspaper reporter and editor, who worked more than 20 years at the Baltimore Sun, where I first learned about Marguerite Harrison, the newspaper reporter turned double agent. I am an associate professor of journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. My research focuses on the ways in which journalists contribute to social and political revolutions.