Book review: ‘Flirting With Danger,’ biography of Marguerite Harrison

Book review: 'Flirting With Danger,' biography of Marguerite Harrison

“Feminism has never appealed to me,” Marguerite Elton Baker Harrison once wrote. Yet as portrayed in Janet Wallach’s rousing biography “Flirting With Danger,” Harrison not only blurred the constraints on women in her heyday — the 1910s and ’20s — but also sought out adventure as avidly as any man. A better title for this book might be “Courting Disaster.”

Harrison’s immense self-confidence was rooted in her aristocratic Baltimore lineage, the fortune made by her shipping-magnate father and her good looks. She attended Radcliffe College but not for long; on learning that she was engaged to her landlady’s son, the Bakers ordered their daughter back to Baltimore. A few years later, she wed her fellow blue blood Thomas Bullitt Harrison for love, not money, of which he had little. She seems to have been a contented wife and mother, but in 1915 Thomas died of a brain tumor, leaving his widow to raise their 14-year-old son, Tommy.

A ’50s mom finds her calling as a spy in the captivating novel ‘A Woman of Intelligence’

Harrison went to work for the Baltimore Sun, rising quickly from society-function scribe to drama critic and then general reporter. When the United States entered World War I, she wrote articles on the phenomenon of women taking over — and performing capably — jobs formerly monopolized by men. As part of her research, Harrison herself worked as a riveter for a shipbuilding firm, an interlude she summed up in the Sun as “the most wonderful, the most unforgettable experience of my life.”

As a girl, Harrison had often visited Europe with her parents. Now she parlayed her international connections and remarkable gift for languages ​​into complementary roles: foreign correspond for the Sun and spy for the American and British governments. As for Tommy, she parked him in a Swiss boarding school.

Harrison reported presciently on the burdensome reparations imposed on Germany after the Great War and the hyperinflation afflicting the Weimar Republic, but it was in post-revolutionary Russia that she took the biggest risks as a spy — and paid the price. She went against public opinion at the time by advocating US recognition of the Bolshevik government. She wangled an interview with Leon Trotsky and, while covering a speech by Vladimir Lenin, admired his “quiet power.”

But someone ratted her out, and the head of the Cheka (the national secret police force), Solomon Mogilevsky, gave her a choice: Go to jail or spy for us. She tried to finesse the situation by providing just enough information about her fellow foreigners in Moscow to keep Mogilevsky happy without endangering them, but he eventually saw through her.

What Book World critics and editors are reading now

In prison, she found herself keeping company with the likes of Fridtjof Nansen, a renowned explorer of the Arctic; the prominent Russian writer Maxim Gorky; and Merian Cooper, later to win fame as the producer of the movie “King Kong.” Conditions were appalling, and Wallach evokes them memorably. Harrison used to spend “much of her morning … hunting for the typhus-bearing vermin that crawled through her bed and her clothes and nested in her hair,” but she endured and was eventually released.

A year or so later, however, she took advantage of a journalistic visit to Japanese-controlled Sakhalin Island to reenter — yikes! — neighboring Russia. Again she ran afoul of Mogilevsky, again she couldn’t bring herself to betray other Westerners with reckless abandon, and back to jail she went.

Harrison had other, only slightly less harrowing adventures as a freelance traveler, including a physically demanding sojourn with Cooper among the Bakhtiari nomads of Persia that resulted in the extraordinary 1925 documentary film “Grass.” She settled down after remarrying in 1926, and Wallach covers the rest of her subject’s long life — Harrison died in 1967, at 88 — in a mere five pages.

Such cursory treatment keeps “Flirting With Danger” from being a fully satisfying portrait. Wallach, whose other books include a biography of the daring British travel writer Gertrude Bell, concentrates so intensely on Harrison’s lust for adventure that the other facets of her life get short shrift. For example, Harrison wrote seven books, but the reader learns little about them. And even though Wallach interviewed some of Tommy’s descendants, she only touches upon what seems to have been a fraught mother-son relationship.

At the end of Harrison’s spying career, her Washington handler praised her for giving “the Military Intelligence more information about Russia than any other agent.” Like it or not, she was an exemplary feminist, if only by example.

Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.

The Mysterious Life of Marguerite Harrison, Socialite Spy

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *