Being Underestimated Was Her Secret Weapon

FLIRTING WITH DANGER: The Mysterious Life of Marguerite Harrison, Socialite Spy, by Janet Wallach


Anyone complaining about a canceled Delta flight would do well to channel Marguerite Harrison. The United States’ first international female spy, Harrison crisscrossed the globe by rickshaw, propeller plane, camel, inflated goatskin raft and rail freight car and once brightly described a trans-Siberian voyage, in which she was wedged between sacks of tea and oats on the back of a troika in a blizzard, as “a rare and delightful experience.”

The daughter of a Gilded Age shipping tycoon, Harrison thwarted her mother’s lofty social ambitions (she’d hoped for a title) first by marrying a homegrown banker, and then, when she was abruptly widowed at 37, by talking her way into a position as society reporter and culture critic for The Baltimore Sun. At the end of World War I, motivated by patriotism and wanderlust, she applied repeatedly to the Navy, then the Army, to be considered for military intelligence appointments, knowing, when she was finally hired, that she would be embarking on “a career that promised nothing but danger and uncertainty.”

Thanks to a childhood of continental summers and education by European governesses, Harrison spoke impeccable German and French; she later picked up Russian and Turkish. Just as important, one particular governess had trained her in the language of small talk: “Be intellectual if you must but learn to be charming. It will take you much farther.”

As a spy, journalist, filmmaker and inveterate explorer, Harrison was present for many of the most pivotal moments of the tumultuous and consequential interwar period. Janet Wallach, who has written biographies of the explorer Gertrude Bell and the property magnate Hetty Green, recounts the remarkable exploits of her subject with suspense, élan and a generous helping of glamour: Think George Smiley in a mink-trimmed coat.

Wallach draws heavily on Harrison’s own writing, which provides delightful firsthand descriptions of some of history’s most influential characters. Wallach’s extensive research is as well-deployed, whether she is discussing the rise of the Freikorps in postwar Berlin or detailing the selection of oysters and champagne at the city’s louche nightclubs.

Clothes are no afterthought: For Harrison’s trek across the Gobi Desert, she packed a fur coat and silk stockings, and when searching for nomadic tribes in central Turkey, she joined camel traders for dinner, we are told, dressed in a corduroy safari jacket and pith helmet draped with a billowing scarf.

The book begins in Berlin shortly after the 1918 armistice, where we meet Harrison filing dispatches for The Sun about postwar life — as well as coded reports to U.S. military intelligence. As we soon learn, on this beat she infiltrated proto-fascist, antisemitic societies during the day, then hastened by night to clandestine cabarets where she danced with British naval officers, discreetly tossing her drinks into potted plants.

Harrison’s next appointment was Russia. She was one of the first American women to visit the newly Bolshevik state, having entered on foot via Poland after her press request was rejected. Once in Moscow, in the guise of a popular journalist, she took in the opera with Lenin and accosted Leon Trotsky for an interview after conning her way into the Kremlin; charmed, he kissed her hand.

Exposed as a spy by a mole in American intelligence, Harrison spent 10 months in the infamous Lubyanka prison, the descriptions of which are riveting. When she was moved from solitary confinement into a group cell, she was the only American; one fellow prisoner was a countess whose former home had helped inspire “War and Peace.” “Prison friendships are about the most real thing in the world,” Harrison later wrote.

She made front-page news in the United States when she was released in 1921 as part of a political exchange — the American public believed her to be an unlucky civilian — and shortly after returning to America, Harrison embarked east to Japan, Korea, China and the contested province of Siberia, which was ceded to the Bolsheviks while she was there. She traveled to Outer Mongolia and onward to the Siberian border, where she was promptly rearrested and returned to a Soviet prison, her release hastened by tuberculosis and a collapsed lung.

Moving onto the newly split Ottoman Empire, she observed the birth of the Middle East as a petroleum power hub. She joined the “King Kong” filmmaker Merian Cooper to document the annual migration of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe across modern-day Khuzestan, traveling by mule as they traversed 150 miles of snow-capped mountains — with a malaria-induced fever of 106 degrees. Harrison claimed merely to be funding a documentary; she may well have still been working for the government.

Some of Wallach’s descriptions rely too heavily on cliché — “sparkling eyes” and “sharp tongues” proliferate — while others are deliciously over-the-top: When briefly pressured into operating as a double agent for the Bolsheviks, Harrison “was no longer flirting with danger, she was dancing with death.” On the hedonism of the early Weimar era, the author writes, “Like big-breasted women in corsets pulled too tight, Berliners burst through their restraints, releasing their stress.”

Wallach is wise to keep the focus firmly on Harrison’s espionage career, by far the most exciting part of her varied résumé, but may leave some readers with lingering questions. What propelled this seemingly reasonable woman toward risk and danger? How did her son feel about being constantly abandoned for Soviet prisons? (He wrote to a friend about his mother’s “apparently incurable desire to get into jail.”) Scores of fruitful friendships with male sources are described, but all we learn is, “She always had a flurry of men who held her close on the dance floor, and undoubtedly there were a few whose limbs entwined with hers in the night: but she never allowed the liaisons to go beyond the transitory.”

Harrison herself wrote five books, including “Asia Reborn,” long used as a Harvard textbook, and “Marooned in Moscow,” about her Soviet imprisonment, inspiring this newspaper to describe the author as “plucky and lucky.” After more than 300 pages spent with the redoubtable Harrison, it is hard to disagree.


Chloe Malle is a contributing editor at Vogue.


FLIRTING WITH DANGER: The Mysterious Life of Marguerite Harrison, Socialite Spy | By Janet Wallach | Illustrated | 342 pp. | Doubleday | $30


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