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America’s Lenin Plot

The curious case of spies Marguerite Harrison and Stan Harding in Russia
By Barnes Carr
Published on September 15, 2020

Lenin Plot Cover

Allied armies invaded Russia in 1918, fought a war against the Red Army, and conspired to overthrow the Soviet government, assassinate party boss Vladimir Lenin, and replace him with an Allied-friendly dictator to get the country back into the World War against Germany and the Central Powers. The plot was rolled up by the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, in August 1918. One of the main American conspirators, U.S. State Department spy Xenophon Kalamatiano, a University of Chicago track star and former tractor salesman in Russia, was sentenced to death. The plot against Lenin resulted in thousands of deaths, both civilian and military. Despite that, America had no intention of stopping their covert operations in Russia. They next sent in a Baltimore socialite and newspaperwoman, Marguerite Harrison, as a paid spy for the U.S. Army.

Harrison’s Russian adventure is explored in my new Cold War history, The Lenin Plot: the unknown story of America’s war against Russia, to be published in the UK by Amberley Publishing, and in the US by Pegasus Book. The following narrative recounts Harrison’s very strange dealings in Russia with a mysterious British female journalist named Stan Harding, who might have been a double agent for both London and Moscow.

Marguerite Harrison (née Baker) was not America’s first woman spy. According to the U.S. Army, hundreds of women spied for the Union and Confederate governments in the American Civil War. The CIA adds that later on, during the Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson administrations, additional women collected foreign intelligence for Washington as “casuals” – civilians returning to America from foreign travels. But casuals were not trained; nor were they paid. Marguerite Harrison didn’t receive any professional training either, but she was put on the U.S. Army payroll.

Marguerite Harrison A younger Marguerite Harrison

Marguerite came from a wealthy old Southern (and Yankee) shipping family in Baltimore, a city said to have had one foot in the South and the other in the North. Marguerite grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, learning several languages at an early age. She occupied a world of fox hunts, mint juleps and cotillion balls, and married Thomas Harrison, the “most handsome boy in Baltimore.” Tom died of a brain tumor after they were married fourteen years. She described those as the happiest years of her life and she kept her married name.

In her autobiography, There’s Always Tomorrow: The Story of a Checkered Life, Marguerite described herself as attractive but not beautiful. Pictures show a slim young woman with dark hair and eyes, a pleasant open face with strong features, and a winning smile. She wrote that languages were her only real talent in life. That, and her independent spirit. She never joined any political groups.

“The woman suffrage movement left me cold,” she wrote. She believed women should vote but she was “not prepared to lift a finger” to help the movement.

Restlessness was another one of Marguerite’s traits. She got caught up in the patriotic spirit after America entered the war in 1917 and she looked around for something to satisfy the tapping of her foot. A family friend got her an interview at the Baltimore Sun. As soon as she walked in the newsroom, she fell in love with the place. Reporters were talking on phones and banging out stories, editors yelled for copy, and the air was heavy with the “exhilarating” smells of paper, ink, and tobacco smoke.

It was a good time for women to enter journalism. Millions of men had been called up in the draft, and women were recruited to take their places. Marguerite was hired as an arts critic, at $30 a week ($646 today).

But Harrison craved real adventure. In August 1918 a family member arranged a meeting between Marguerite and U.S. Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill, a New Englander “very remotely” kin to Winston Churchill. Marlborough was chief of the Military Intelligence Branch, Executive Division, General Staff, better known as the Military Intelligence Division (MID).

Marguerite met the general beneath the potted palms in a Baltimore hotel lobby and offered to go to Germany as a news correspondent and take a look around for the army. She had traveled through Germany as a child and was fluent in the language. Churchill said fine. He felt it was America’s “manifest destiny to play a leading role in world affairs.” She “heartily agreed.”

After this interview, Churchill opened an army file on Marguerite and wrote that she seemed a “very competent person” for a spy’s job. Following a background check, she was hired on September 30, 1918. As a spy she drew an army captain’s pay, $38 a week, just $8 more than the Sun paid her. She was 39 years old.

After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, Churchill sent Harrison to occupied Germany. She left her only child, Tommy, with their faithful cook Rebecca, whom she described as “shrewd, intelligent, kindly, and absolutely devoted to my boy and me.”

Harrison used her Sun press credentials as her cover as she collected information in Berlin for the U.S. Army. At night she wrote intelligence reports in her room at the Hotel Adlon and left the papers at the front desk for her control officer, a Colonel Bouvier of MID, to pick up later. It was not a very secure way to pass documents.

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A British journalist introduced Harrison to Mrs Stan Harding, from London. Stan was going through a rough patch, and seeing her would be an “act of charity,” Marguerite was told.

Harrison found Harding to be small and frail-looking, with delicate features, an engaging smile, and hair clipped short like a man’s, a style popular in the German cabaret crowd. Stan had married a German professor before the war, but they had separated and she resumed her maiden name. She had been an amateur painter in Italy and had lived for a while in China with a brother in the British diplomatic service.

Harding told Marguerite she was a radical socialist with Communist Party connections. Socialism didn’t bother Marguerite; it had become the latest fad on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was interested in finding out more about it. But Harrison denied she was a Communist. She considered Communism simply a curious social experiment that should be studied.

Stan had been fired by the London newspaper she worked for, leaving her stranded in Berlin, “ill, lonely, and hard up.” She lived in a tiny bedroom in a cheap, cold, dreary boarding house, almost penniless and without food. Marguerite took her in as a roommate and got her American food parcels.

But according to Harrison, Stan Harding’s job as a correspondent was the same kind of cover story that Marguerite herself was using. Marguerite walked into their room one day and found Stan reading carbon copies of Harrison’s army reports. The copies had been simply tossed into a wastebasket, another serious breach of tradecraft on Marguerite’s part.

Marguerite later wrote that Harding claimed she had joined the British Secret Service in 1918 and had entered Germany to procure “certain military information” for London. Stan even took Marguerite to meet one of her contacts, Lieutenant General John Spencer Ewart, chief of the British military mission in Berlin.

Harrison said that Harding suggested they work together. Stan then supplied “many bits of correct and valuable information” for which she was paid by Colonel Bouvier. Harrison wrote that she was cautious about Stan’s Communist connections, but nevertheless enjoyed her company.

After the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, the first of five treaties to end the war, Marguerite and Stan parted company. Harrison returned to Baltimore as arts critic for the Sun , got bored once more, and went to see General Churchill again. This time, Harrison wanted to go to Russia. Marguerite now considered herself a socialist and wanted to take a look at the Soviet system.

Churchill felt that President Wilson was indecisive regarding Russia and thought a mission to Moscow by Harrison would provide a “great service” to Washington by securing information that could lead to “some definite policy toward the Bolsheviks.” But Marguerite had never been in Russia before, and didn’t speak the language. Churchill warned her it would be a risky trip.

Harrison entered Russia on February 18, 1920, by slipping across no man’s land outside Borisov, Poland. Marguerite and a Russian companion hiked across five miles of snowy fields and reported to a Red Army commandant. Harrison showed her press cards and claimed she was writing stories about the Russian-Polish war. Harrison and her companion were treated kindly and put on a train to Moscow.

There they were promptly arrested by a small, dark, nervous-looking little man with a briefcase, named Rosenberg, from the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. Rosenberg accused the two women of entering Russia illegally, which Harrison readily admitted. Rosenberg allowed Marguerite to stay, on the condition that her news stories would be censored by the commissariat and by the Cheka, now called the GPU, the State Political Directorate.

Marguerite felt very much at home with Russians. She liked their generosity, Oriental hospitality, sensitiveness to beauty, indifference to discomfort, and delight in debates. Her work as a correspondent progressed smoothly. But the Moscow theatres had been nationalized and she was appalled at their grim plays depicting suicide, white slavery, economic collapse, starvation, and the fate of a horse’s carcass picked up off the street.

She interviewed Felix Dzerzhinsky, chief of the Cheka, in his tiny Kremlin office hidden behind a door disguised as a bookcase. She described Iron Felix as the Robespierre of the Communists. He tried to justify the killing of thousands of anti-Communist Russians during the Red Terror as nothing compared to the “future happiness of unborn millions.” He was a man who had “supreme contempt for life and death alike,” she wrote. As they talked, Marguerite heard firing squads shooting enemies of the state in the courtyard below Dzerzhinsky’s window.

When Harrison interviewed Georgy Chicherin, commissar for foreign affairs, she found a former tsarist diplomat, an elitist who looked down on the proletariat and refused to address anyone as “comrade.” Chicherin, too, was a hardened defender of the Red Terror, but he and Marguerite both came from wealthy backgrounds and they got along on a social level. Chicherin scolded her for entering Russia illegally, but let her go, this time.

Harrison took the government press handouts every night at 11, then wrote secret reports to the MID. On October 20, 1920, she was arrested by the GPU, then interrogated by Solomon Mogilevsky, a GPU official. She described him as a courteous, slender man with a mustache and a dark face like a “black puma.” His English wasn’t too good, and Marguerite was just learning Russian, so they conversed in French, the international language.

Mogilevsky accused her of spying for America in Germany and Russia. He brought out one of her army reports and said it had been leaked by somebody at MID headquarters in Washington. Later, Army G2 said the Soviets had also been given a transcript of a conversation Harrison had conducted in Washington with a Colonel Grant and a Colonel Eichelberger. The leaks suggested a Soviet mole, or at least a Communist fellow traveler, was inside MID headquarters.

But over tea and cigarettes, Mogilevsky pitched a deal. If Harrison would supply information on foreign visitors to Russia, she would not be shot as a spy. She could continue working as a correspondent while collaborating with the GPU.

Marguerite had new information to send to MID. She needed to get on with that. “I accept your proposition,” she said. She was released the next day.

Marguerite later reported that she gave Mogilevsky only “partial or misleading” information while charming him with news of an (imaginary) socialist revolution brewing in America.

Mogilevsky was a government hack who regarded the Red Terror as the “inevitable consequence of a state of civil war,” Marguerite said. She kept supplying him with “harmless gossip” while covertly sending intelligence reports to U.S. military attachés in Riga and Berlin via couriers and other news correspondents.

Then Rosenberg, from Foreign Affairs, appeared again, with his briefcase. He said a colleague of Marguerite’s from Germany had applied for admission to Russia as a U.S. correspondent. Could she be trusted? It was Stan Harding.

Marguerite suspected Stan had been a double agent in Germany, working for both the Soviets and the British, though Harrison wasn’t sure which side held Harding’s true loyalty. She saw Stan as a delicate, weak figure who might not be able to survive in Russia. Marguerite pitied her at the same time she distrusted her.

Harrison told Rosenberg that Harding was a “well-known journalist” but not a “serious person.” Marguerite advised against allowing her in. At the same time, Marguerite tried to warn Stan through a British correspondent who was going to Riga, telling her that she should “on no account” try to enter Russia.

Nevertheless, Stan was admitted. Mogilevsky got on her train at Narva, Estonia, and rode down to Moscow with her. “She did not suspect my identity,” Mogilevsky told Harrison. “She was rather indiscreet and I learned quite enough from her to justify her arrest without anything you might be able to tell me.”

Mogilevsky then had Harding locked up in the Lubyanka on a spy charge. He told her that Marguerite had denounced her. Stan in turn claimed Marguerite was a spy for both Britain and America.

Mogilevsky finally realized that Marguerite had double-crossed him with useless information. He warned her to get with the program. She didn’t. So he had her thrown into prison, too. She was in the Butyrka for a while with Kalamatiano, the U.S. State Department spy. She got sick and almost died. A fellow prisoner had medicine smuggled in.

Harrison, Kalamatiano, and other Americans held by the Soviets were all freed in 1921 in Herbert Hoover’s deal for U.S. famine relief to Russia.

Stan Harding offered a different take on what happened. In The Underworld of State, the book she later wrote, she admitted that she sympathized with Soviet Communism as an “experiment of cooperative community.” Like Lenin, she had no patience with liberals. They were in league with “money power.”

Harding charged that the Soviets had set a “trap” for her, and she accused Harrison of denouncing her as a spy. Harding admitted she had met with Major General Sir Neill Malcolm, head of the British mission in Berlin, but she denied any connection with the Secret Intelligence Service.

“Tell that to your grandmother,” Mogilevsky replied.

Stan demanded to see Dzerzhinsky. Mogilevsky refused.

Chicherin, then. No.

Mogilevsky made her the same offer he had made to Harrison: confess to spying and supply information on foreign correspondents in Moscow, and she would be allowed to continue reporting with the “advice” (censoring) of the foreign commissariat.

Harding demanded a trial.

“Never,” Mogilevsky said.

Then Harding made two serious mistakes. In order to get an audience with Chicherin, she signed a statement saying she was a British spy. Chicherin came to see her. But when she said her confession was “wholly fictitious,” he walked away.

She signed a second statement admitting she had been offered a job spying for the British in 1918. But she didn’t say she refused the offer. She only said it “fell through.” If Harding really had been helping out British intelligence, even as an unpaid casual, she violated a cardinal rule of spying: never sign anything.

Following a series of hunger strikes in prison, Harding was released on November 26, 1920, after five months in the Butyrka. The British government secured her release as a condition for trade talks with Russia.

Mogilevsky had been playing a game as old as spy work itself —turning two subjects against one another in the hope of converting them both into double agents. Unfortunately for Mogilevsky, it didn’t work. Harrison fed him chickenfeed. Harding clammed up.

Marguerite was later denounced to the American government by a Bostonian, Grover Shoholm. He’s quoted in an April 15, 1921, MID report as claiming Harrison had become an “agent” of the Soviet secret service while in Moscow and that she “betrayed her accomplices to the Soviet government.”

Shoholm was a conscientious objector who was sentenced to a work farm during the war. Then he went to Moscow and worked for the Soviet foreign office correcting wireless telegrams. But he offered no evidence of any collusion on Marguerite’s part with the Soviets. He might have misunderstood the double-cross that she said she had cooked up against the Soviets. Later on, a note from U.S. Army G2 in Washington to one of Marguerite’s uncles in Baltimore denied that Harrison had been involved with Harding’s arrest.

Another army report said Harrison was heard defending (or at least explaining) the Soviet system in talks she made after returning to America. But Harrison wrote that she did not believe in Communism, though she did favor recognition of the Soviets as the de facto Russian government. She was praised by Winston Churchill and Major General Peyton March, army chief of staff, and was debriefed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.

After returning to London, Harding demanded compensation from both the Soviet and American governments for her arrest and imprisonment. The British government published a white paper on the case, and the matter got argued in Parliament for years. At first, Moscow refused to pay. They said that “great numbers” of Russians had suffered under the British and that compensations could work both ways.

Sir Burton Chadwick, MP for Wallasey, asked Ronald McNeill, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, if “redress” had been sought from Washington for Harrison’s alleged “misdeeds.” McNeill replied that “sufficient evidence” had “not been received” to warrant such action. McNeill also issued a “categorical denial” that Harding had worked as a British spy. Again he denied that compensation would be sought from Washington.

“If one lady chooses to slander another, that is not an international question,” he said.

The Soviets finally backed down. In 1925 they paid Harding ₤3,000 – about ₤172,500 or $224,000 today.

Marguerite Harrison spent the rest of her life as a roving correspondent for American newspapers. She also made a documentary film, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), with Merian C. Cooper, founder of the Kosciusko Squadron (American volunteers who flew with the Polish Air Force in the Polish-Soviet War) and Ernest B. Shoedsack, about a tribe of Iranian nomads. Sometimes her son accompanied her on her travels. She never remarried, though the press suggested that she and Cooper were an item for a while.

Stan Harding returned to London and worked as an interior decorator. She said she had suffered both mentally and physically from her Russian ordeal and that her health was permanently damaged.

Xenophon Kalamatiano knew both Harrison and Harding. They all served time together in the Butyrka. Kal later wrote that Marguerite Harrison would have done anything to obtain information in Russia, including ingratiating herself to Communists.

“Just how far she went, neither Stan Harding nor anyone else has proof of. Anyway, she showed remarkable ability ... and I don’t know but what I would have done the same.”

Harding, he added was “something of an emotional and hysteric type” who exaggerated and acted irresponsibly. “They had her goat,” he said, and it wasn’t at all beyond the Soviets to turn the two women against one another.

“I personally wouldn’t trust either of them in Russia,” Kal concluded.

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Marguerite Harrison An older Marguerite Harrison

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