How the Start of World War I Changed an American Heiress’s Life Forever ‹ Literary Hub


On the one hand, Mrs. Stan Harding Krayl, as she was known in Germany, and Mrs. Marguerite Harrison had much in common. Well bred, well educated, and well traveled, both were reddish-haired beauties with mischievous gray-blue eyes, engaging smiles, and keen intellects. They were both fluent in French and German and interested in the arts, and both worked as journalists. Both were alone in Berlin: Stan, because she was seeking a divorce from her husband, a German doctor; Marguerite because she was widowed and working.

Each of them was rebellious and unafraid: As a young woman on holiday in Florence, Stan Harding broke away from her controlling parents and fled to a group of English expats. It made her feel like a song-bird released from a cage. Marguerite broke away from her mothers social ambitions by marrying Thomas Bullitt Harrison.

Scion of an elite Baltimore family and twenty-five years old when she first laid eyes on him, Tom Harrison was considered the handsomest bachelor in Baltimore. Tall and strongly built, he rode well, danced like a dream, and was adored by all the debs. He was a regular, a member, of the bachelor balls, who stood attired in his tailcoat, aloof from anyone on his trail.

Twenty-year-old Marguerite Baker, a ripe, bright-eyed beauty and one of the birds at the debutante cotillion, stood out from the others in her blue tulle gown sparkling with silver. She claimed she had no serious interest in Tom, but his apathy was a conundrum and she took his disinterest as a dare.

The competition was keen. An abundance of rich, pretty girls would do most anything to win him over. It was known that he had already broken off one engagement, but then again, so had Marguerite. She was determined to snag a fianc before the winter was over, and Tom was her target. I had chosen my victim, she said. She made up her mind to use the same tactics on Tom that he used on all the girls. While the others threw themselves at his feet, she snubbed him, abused him, ignored him. Her wicked methods just might work.

They had their love and that seemed enough. But rumbles of war brought the carousel to a halt.

She lured him in, and then treated him with detachment. He sent her flowers and she thanked him politely; he took her for drives and she smiled sweetly; he asked her to dances and she accepted, then sometimes broke the dates and showed up with someone else. He was piqued by my indifference, she said.

The cooler she acted, the more heated his interest until, finally, he succumbed and fell in love with her. It was a surprise to Marguerite that the better she knew him, the more she found him gallant and chivalrous, loveable and charming. It wasnt long before she fell madly in love with him. In the early spring they told her parents they wanted to marry. Her father noted calmly that she was still young and might change her mind. Her mother reacted more sharply. She ranted, raved and stormed and had hysterics, said Marguerite.

Tom may have come from a prominent family, but he was five years older than her and his bank account was slim. True, he had a circle of rich friends and good connections. But he was a struggling stockbroker, not a landed nobleman, as her mother would have preferred. As far as Mrs. Bernard Baker was concerned, Tom was a nobody. Like the popular Houdini performing his magic tricks, she would have liked to make Tom disappear. Instead, for the second time she made her daughter vanish by dragging her off to Europe.

When they returned to Maryland, Marguerite found her charming fianc as warm and caring as ever. He was the love of her life, she realized, and she was his love, his Mardie. They looked forward to their future together. But her mother put up barriers at every step along the way. When she tried to entice her daughter with a Scottish marquis, Marguerite laughed it off and helped the man get drunk. When her mother stormed around the house, Marguerite hid in the closet. When she threatened suicide, Marguerite barricaded herself in her room.

Her mothers theatrics reached the breaking point. The couple announced to her father that they were going to wed and offered a choice; they would either be married with her parents permission, or they would elope. When Elizabeth Baker realized she might not even have the chance to produce a wedding, she conceded and spared no expense.

Marguerite selected a bridal wardrobe and gown fit for a princess: her trousseau of forty outfits included elaborate silk sleepwear, morning peignoirs and jackets, and afternoon lingerie dresses of linen and lace embellished with ruffles and bows; reception gowns and loose tea gowns, dinner dresses, dcollet evening dresses, and lavishly decorated ball gowns; twenty-four hats; nineteen pairs of shoes; and gloves, belts, shawls, and enough handbags to accessorize each outfit. For her wedding gown she chose a dress of heavy ivory satin embellished with Belgian lace, set off with a veil that floated from the crown of her head to the hem of her train.

A brilliant Baltimore sun gleamed on Marguerite Elton Baker the morning of June 5, 1901. With her father, who just returned home from England while arranging a merger with J. P. Morgan, standing beside her, the bride posed at the entrance to the Emanuel Protestant Episcopal Church. White roses and lilies blossomed everywhere, from the brides bouquet to the bunches tied with white ribbons attached to the end of each pew, forming a path to the masses of flowers on the chancel. A chorus of the Wedding March from Lohengrin rang out, and ten bridesmaids in yellow dresses and white picture hats alongside ten groomsmen in tailcoats marched down the aisle.

Beatific in her satin bridal gown and lace veil, her auburn hair crowning her face, her eyes dancing like soft clouds in a dazzling sky, with her hand on the arm of her father, Marguerite glided down the carpeted path.

Reaching the altar, she stood alongside the adoring groom, and as the chorus sang out O, Perfect Love, they were officially wed by two reverends and blessed by the bishop. Newly anointed husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Harrison returned down the aisle while a grand chorus from Aida filled the church. At a cost of sixty thousand dollars, the wedding was one of the most sumptuous ever held in the city.

A breakfast followed at the Bakers brick town house on St. Pauls Street, where the rooms were adorned with roses and marguerites, and the stairs were covered in laurels. The bride and groom welcomed the guests in the drawing room and then led them upstairs, where twenty-four people were seated at the brides table, others at small tables scattered around the room. Family and friends feasted on oysters and birds, the bride cut the first slice of wedding cake, the couple was toasted with champagne, and cablegrams including congratulatory messages from the Lord Chief Justice of England and the famed British actor Sir Henry Irving were read aloud.

Among an array of gifts laid out for show, the guests ogled a pearl collar necklace with diamond clasp from the groom and strands of pearls with diamond bows from the father of the bride; unseen was a thousand-dollar check from her grandfather Elias Livezey. The festivities concluded, the bride and groom waved farewell and left on her fathers ship, Knight Commander, for their three-month, round-the-world honeymoon while Elizabeth Baker collapsed in her bed. The relationship between mother and daughter had sunk to its nadir.


Mr. and Mrs. Tom Harrison settled into their new four-story town house on elegant North Charles Street with a cook, a maid, and a new perspective. Pregnant just days after their wedding, Marguerite, who considered travel an indispensable part of her life, fixed her attention on home. Her interests, once worldwide, turned domestic.

Rather than reading literature she read recipes; in place of concerned conversations on foreign affairs, she focused on sewing curtains and cushions and making her own clothes. No longer staying at grand hotels and viewing the latest art exhibitions in Paris and London, she went shooting and fishing with Tom, bagging piles of canvasbacks, spending weekends in a rough cabin on the Eastern Shore. And instead of flirting with men, she doted on her husband and her son, Tommy, born in March 1902.

While Tom Harrison worked to build his brokerage business, Marguerite took on the role of a proper young married: she played the piano with exceptional skill, made a good partner at bridge, entertained graciously, and dished up gossip over lunch with the ladies. Monday nights she and Tom attended the germans, the society dances where they waltzed, danced the quadrilles, and joined in the party games. Some evenings they attended concerts and theater; other times they welcomed guests at home or dined at the homes of friends. As expected in their set, she volunteered for charity work. Following in family footsteps, she worked first for the Home of the Friendless, but the causes mournful name disheartened her. Bored with the Volunteer Nurses, she started a charity of her own.

After learning that children hospitalized for long stays were not receiving their education, she raised funds for their cause: she leaned on her father to donate part of a large farm he was selling, beseeched friends to contribute money, organized bake sales, and borrowed furniture. With the help of her sons physician, in 1905 she opened the doors of the Childrens Hospital School. It became one of her proudest achievements.

Despite occasional troubles, from the time of her marriage and for more than a decade, Marguerite was completely absorbed in her own domestic bliss. The debutante who once chatted with princes was now more engrossed in family matters. The young woman who once sparkled as an intellectual now cared more about the sparkling crystal on her table. The lady concerned with international issues now gossiped about local affairs.

One of those affairs, and the most important political event for Baltimore, took place in June 1912 when the National Democratic Party held its convention in the city. The Harrisons good friend Albert Ritchie, a groomsman at their wedding and afterward the husband of Marguerites sister, was active in the party and invited them to attend.

Marguerite was intrigued by the political machinations taking place at the Fifth Regiment Armory. She listened to the brilliant orator William Jennings Bryan, who declined the offer of vice president, and she heard Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, the dark-horse candidate who won the partys presidential nomination. He had been, she noted dryly, an undistinguished classmate of my distinguished father-in-law at Johns Hopkins.

The assassination was, Marguerite believed, one of the most momentous events in history.

Other than the convention, there was little beyond daily life that roused her attention: she had caught the brass ring and remained content riding the carousel. She and Tom may not have been as rich as some of their friends, and certainly not as rich as her mother would have liked, but they lived on his earnings and money did not concern her. She was an heiress, after all. Some day, she knew, she would inherit a substantial sum from her father and grandfather. The couple never thought to save, never worried about the rainy day. They had their love and that seemed enough. But rumbles of war brought the carousel to a halt.


Ever since their victorious battles against France in 1870, the German states, under the guidance of Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, had been united. At the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, where the German conquerors announced their demands while the French hung their heads in shame, Bismarck declared Wilhelm II the kaiser of a new German empire. The domain brought together the areas of Prussia, and its capital Berlin, in the east; Bavaria, with Munich as its capital, in the south; Hanover in the west; and Holstein in the north. Combined, they had become a world power and demanded their share of world markets and raw materials, Marguerite explained.

For years she had heard friends in England talk about the Germans need to expand economically, though they insisted on Englands need to keep control of the seas. She knew that the kaiser was ready to rattle his saber at England or France or Russia or any given country at any hour of the day, but it was said that he feared confrontation and did not want to fight a war.

Then, on June 18, 1914, her attention turned to faraway places. Americans learned that a nationalist student with an unpronounceable name committed an appalling act in an obscure European city against two people with incomprehensible titles.

The Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, who earlier that same day had escaped a bomb attack, were killed in a double homicide. The murder took place in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and was carried out by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian member of a terrorist organization called the Black Hand.

Around the country, headlines proclaimed the news: Peace of Europe Endangered by Servian Hate, cried the Baltimore Evening Sun. Heir to Austrian Throne, Archduke Ferdinand, and his Wife Slain by Assassin, said the Washington Post.

For Marguerite the significance of the Austrian assassination was clear. The double murder changed everything. Not only were the Balkans familiar to her, she knew Bismarck had predicted that some damn foolish thing in the Balkans would set off a great European war.

As days passed, she watched tensions increase. The world waited to see if Austria, which had seized control of Bosnia from the Ottoman Turks, would declare war on Serbia, which wanted Bosnia for itself. Leaders worried whether Germany would come to the aid of Austria, with which it had signed an agreement, and whether Russia, which supported the Serbs, or France, which had lost land to the Germans, would become involved, and, if so, whether those two countries, signatories to a pact, would ally against Germany. The assassination was, Marguerite believed, one of the most momentous events in history.


Excerpted from Flirting with Danger: The Mysterious Life of Marguerite Harrison, Socialite Spy by Janet Wallach. Copyright 2023. Available from Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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