It is my pleasure to introduce Liz Atwood, a “triple threat” in the world of words. Liz and I have been friends for years, actually decades. We first met when we were newspaper reporters in our 20s for the Richmond News Leader in Richmond, Virginia. She first told me about her book project a few years ago and I’m delighted to announce that The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America’s First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent will be available from Naval Institute Press September 15th and is available for pre-order now.
Here’s more about Liz:
Liz Atwood is a former reporter and editor at the Baltimore Sun, where she first learned about Marguerite Harrison, the Baltimore socialite and Sun reporter who worked as a double agent in the 1920s.
A few years ago, Liz decided to find out all she could about this fascinating woman. She read her military files at the National Archives in College Park and traveled to Moscow, Russia, to see Harrison’s prison records at the archives of the Federal Security Bureau. She pored over Harrison’s writings and interviewed one of her granddaughters who had vivid recollections of the woman she called “Granny.”
The result is the first published biography of Harrison’s life. Although other authors had written articles and chapters about Harrison that relied heavily on her memoirs, Atwood discovered that Harrison was not always truthful in reporting the extent and nature of her work for the U.S. Military Intelligence Division and the State Department. Harrison’s story is one that is more complicated and more important than she previously revealed.
Atwood grew up in Luray, Virginia, and received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. She earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia and a PhD in public communications from the University of Maryland.
She is an associate professor of journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Md., where her research focuses on how journalists contribute to political and social change.
She lives in Catonsville, Maryland.
More information about Liz can be found on her website.
THE LIZ ATWOOD INTERVIEW
What was your writing process like? Did you have any rituals or favorite workspaces?
I had a fairly short time to write this book. I was on sabbatical for one semester in the spring of 2018. I also had heard that another author was working on a biography of Harrison and I really wanted to be first. As a former journalist, I’m used to writing on deadline, so I set myself a goal of writing a 30-page chapter every week. I usually started around 9 in the morning and wrote until afternoon. I wrote most of the book at a desk in my bedroom, although I proofread pages wherever I happened to be—on the patio, at my father’s house and at the beach. I don’t have any particular rituals, except forcing myself to sit down and write, even if what I put down is not very good. I like to get my ideas on paper and then go back and rearrange and refine.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Yes. I’ve been writing stories since I was in second grade and this passion was behind my decision to study journalism and work as a newspaper reporter. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be teacher. I’m lucky that now I can be both.
What motivated you to write this book?
When I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical at my college, I decided I wanted to use that time to write the best story I knew that had never been written. That was the story of Marguerite Harrison. I had heard about her when I was reporter and editor at the Baltimore Sun and saw her photograph outside a conference room door. When I started to look at what had been written about her, I found book chapters and articles and an unpublished doctoral dissertation, but no published biography. In addition, previous authors had relied heavily on Harrison’s memoirs, and I discovered she was not always truthful, or at least not forthcoming.
How did you first learn about Marguerite Harrison?
I probably first heard about her in conversations with other reporters and editors at the Sun, but as I noted above, I really became aware of her name and what she had done when I saw her photograph and a brief description of her work outside a conference room door at the newspaper office.
Did you learn anything about Marguerite Harrison that surprised you?
The most surprising thing for me was how important she was as a trailblazer in the foreign intelligence service. Women have always been spies, even in this country, but our government was reluctant to send women overseas for fear they would fall in love with their targets or not give accurate information on military matters. Harrison was a talented linguist who knew Europe well. She persuaded the Army’s Military Intelligence Division to hire her at the end of World War I.
She later described herself as a newspaper reporter who dabbled in espionage. Her accounts make her seem almost foolish. But she was actually quite shrewd and sophisticated. The top men in Military Intelligence trusted her with some of the nation’s most sensitive missions and she spied for our government for several years beyond what she admitted to in her books.
Did you learn anything about the world of espionage that surprised you?
I had no idea how complicated it is. While I was researching this book, I also read John le Carré spy novels for insights. The intelligence services operate on a need-to-know basis. Harrison’s files are filled with letters from government officials wondering if she can be trusted or if she was a Communist spy. So while she was working for one office in the Army or State Department, those in other offices didn’t necessarily know about it.
What was your research process like?
I started reading her extensive files at the National Archives that describe her mission and reports on her two imprisonments in Russia. I then went to Moscow, Russia, to review her prison files. At the same time, I was scrutinizing her memoirs and newspaper articles. When I started to compare her accounts with the official records, I realized she often did not reveal the complete picture of her work. For example, she wrote that she had no idea that traveling to Russia in 1920 would be risky. That’s absurd. There were at least a half dozen Americans held in Russian prisons at the time and the Bolsheviks had broken up at least two American spy rings. It was a risky mission and she and her commanders knew it.
Why do you think Harrison had never been the subject of a published book-length biography?
I think many authors were fooled by the superficial story line: spoiled and headstrong Baltimore socialite, bored and grieving after her husband dies, decides to become a newspaper reporter and then a spy. She comes off as a woman who flits from one thing to the next. But she actually was rather ruthless and calculating. She knew how to be what she called “charming” and she played her seeming naiveté to her advantage.
Describe your path to getting a publisher, difficult, easy, something in between?
I first tried to find an agent. I wanted to sell the book to a trade publication rather than an academic press because I thought the story had popular appeal. Also, the academic publishers tend to price their books very high and that discourages sales. I tried for almost a year to find an agent, but without luck. Then I started to look at the academic presses. Johns Hopkins University declined the book, but an editor there suggested Naval Institute Press, which published Tom Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October. The editors at Naval Institute Press were enthusiastic about this project from the start and I was very glad they agreed to work with me.
What do you want people to think about as they’re reading or after they’ve read the book?
I want readers to appreciate that Marguerite Harrison played an important role in the creation of our intelligence services. Most women spies had previously relied on exchanging sex for secrets. Most famous, of course, was German spy Mata Hari. Harrison used her brains, not her body to gather information. She was not always nice and she was a terrible mother. But she set an important precedent. By the time of World War II, thousands of American women were working for the foreign intelligence service and of course today a woman is in charge of the CIA.
What’s next for you, another book project?
Yes, I’m working on a book about journalists who have died in America as a result of their work. I was moved to do this after the Annapolis Capital Gazette shooting in 2018. I knew one of the victims. This is going to be my love letter to journalism. Not all of the victims are heroes, but America should know that despite our guarantees of freedom of the press, nearly 70 journalists have been killed in this country because of their work.