Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Marguerite Harrison ~ Not an 'explorer', but interesting nonetheless!

Marguerite Elton Baker Harrison (1879–1967) was a reporter, spy, film maker, translator and one of the four founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers. One of two daughters of wealthy Maryland businessman Bernard B. Baker and his wife Elizabeth Elton Livezey, she was born into inherited wealth and raised as a society princesses amidst opulence. Her father built, and would later lose, his lucrative Atlantic Transport Line. She adored him, but her relationship with her overprotective and all-controlling mother was distant and cold.

In 1907, her sister Elizabeth married Albert C. Ritchie, who would later become the 49th Governor of Maryland. When Marguerite’s first and only semester at Radcliffe College was punctuated by an affair with someone of a lower class, her mother abruptly shipped her to Italy to forget the landlady's son. In June 1901, despite her mother's vehement protestations she did succeed in marrying a non-wealthy young man, Thomas B. Harrison. Their son Thomas B Harrison II, was born March 1902.

In 1914 her husband died of a brain tumor, leaving Marguerite and her 13-year-old son not only penniless but deeply in debt from medical bills. In an effort to repay this debt, she turned her large home into a boarding house, which did not quite make ends meet. In 1915, despite having only one semester of college and no appropriate training, she used her brother-in-law's influence to get hired as an assistant society editor for The Baltimore Sun. This brought in an additional twenty, later thirty dollars a week. Coming from a society background and having a great facility with languages learned from European jaunts with her family, she was oddly qualified for this job and advanced quickly within the newspaper. By 1917 she was writing features about women's wartime labor and exposing the true fact that women work as well or better than their male counterparts.

Marguerite was 39 in 1918, and with the U.S. still involved in the war and Europe virtually one large battlefield, she became overwhelmed with the desire to report on the conditions in Germany. As women were not recognized as war correspondents, she decided to become a spy. With an introduction to chief of Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army General Marlborough Churchill, she offered her services. On her application, she described herself as five feet six inches tall, weighing 125 pounds; using no stimulants, tobacco or drugs; and without physical defects. Answering the question "With what foreign countries and localities are you familiar?" she replied:

"The British Isles, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Rome, Naples, Tyrol. I have an absolute command of French and German, am very fluent and have a good accent in Italian and speak a little Spanish. Without any trouble I could pass as a French woman and after a little practice, as German-Swiss … I have been to Europe fourteen times … I have been much on steamers and am familiar in a general way with ships of the merchant marine."

The November 11th Armistice was declared before her official hiring, but she was still sent to Europe with a new assignment: "Report political and economic matters of possible interest to the United States delegation at the forthcoming peace conference." Only her immediate family and her managing editor at the Sun knew why the War Department was sending her to Germany in December 1918. Unlike wartime spies, she would not be reporting strategic or military intelligence but political, economic and social reporting. This would not be without risks.

Marguerite spied for the United States in Russia and Japan, arriving in Russia in 1920 as an Associated Press correspondent. She assessed Bolshevik economic strengths and weaknesses and assisted American political prisoners in Russia. She was held captive in Lubyanka, the infamous Russian prison, for 10 months. While there she contracted tuberculosis, and due to pressure from her influential contacts, including Senator Joseph I. France, she was eventually set free in exchange for food and other aid to Russia. She was arrested again in 1923 in China and was taken to Moscow, but was released before her trial after recognition by an American aid worker.

These experiences, and those of her fellow prisoners, are related in two of her books: Marooned in Moscow: the Story of an American Woman Imprisoned in Russia (1921) and Unfinished Tales from a Russian Prison (1923). She expressed her views of Russia and China as world forces in her book Red Bear or Yellow Dragon (1924). With her volume Asia Reborn (1928), they comprise her major publications on Asia.

Providing much needed funding, Marguerite was an important member of the production team of Merian C. Cooper's classic ethnographic film Grass (1925). She had met Cooper at a ball in Warsaw during the early days of the Russo-Polish conflict and had provided him with food, books and blankets when he was taken prisoner, and sent to work in a prison camp, by the Russians in 1920. Grass depicts the annual migration of the Bakhtiari, an Iranian tribe who herded their livestock through snow-bound mountain passes, under conditions of great hardship, to reach high altitude summer grasslands and then return to lower elevations for the winter. In this movie, Marguerite appears as herself – a reporter. Ironically, Cooper's co-producer, Ernest B. Schoedsack, would opine, years later in a tape-recorded news interview (and totally unaware of her true activities) that she had not done "a damn thing" during the expedition!

At the time women were excluded from membership in most professional organizations such as the Explorers Club; this and Harrison's disillusionment with equality for women led directly to her participation in the founding of Society of Woman Geographers in 1925. Harrison also founded the Children's Hospital of Baltimore.

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