A Woman Before Her Time

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There are few women better known, or more misunderstood then Mata Hari. Various movements and groups have claimed her as either heroine or villainess over the years. The truth, as is typical, is far more clouded then the fiction.

Scholarship into who she was and why she was however is beginning to heat up, with several new biographical works on her life appearing.

I have taken the liberty of reposting the following book review by Mr. Jonathan Yardley at The Washington Post, both for it’s merits as a review, and as an examination in it’s own rights of Mata Hari’s legacy.

FEMME FATALE

Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

By Pat Shipman

Morrow. 450 pp. $25.95

These days Mata Hari’s name probably pops up most frequently in crossword puzzles, where solvers come across clues such as “Spy Mata” or “Infamous Hari” or, for the full eight letters, “Executed WWI spy.” Her name has been reduced to one of those essentially useless bits of information with which the modern mind is cluttered. That may be true of most people who were in the headlines nearly a century ago, but in her case it’s a pity, because her life’s story is a humdinger and because the charge that sent her before the firing squad and into popular lore — that she actively and effectively spied for Germany — almost certainly was false.

Despite the relative obscurity into which she has fallen, her story has been told innumerable times and continues to attract biographers. Early ones tended to toe the French line and argue that she was indeed a spy for the kaiser’s Germany and that her execution was warranted. More recently, as unknown or suppressed information has surfaced, doubts have been raised both about her culpability and about the motives of the French officials who hounded her. Pat Shipman (who teaches anthropology at Penn State and has published several other books) falls very much into the second camp, with the additional twist that she reads Mata Hari’s tale from a contemporary feminist vantage point. Though as a rule I recoil from what some historians have called “presentism” — interpreting the past according to the fashions and convictions of the present — in this case it is valid, for Mata Hari paid a very high price for being what her French interrogators called “an international woman.”

The phrase was a euphemism. “An international woman,” Shipman writes, “was a worldly woman, a cosmopolitan woman, and by extension, a woman of loose morals.” Not to mince words, the French thought she was a whore, as did many others. For starters she was a famous exotic dancer whose “flimsy garments did little to conceal her naked body.” For another, all her life she had had “a nearly insatiable longing for male attention” and had sought to fulfill it, after the end of her unhappy marriage, with a long succession of men, especially military officers. It didn’t matter to her what uniform they wore so long as they were “strongly built,” or, as she put it herself:

“Those who are not officers . . . do not interest me. An officer is another being, a sort of artist, living outdoors with sparkles on his arms in a seductive uniform. Yes, I have had many lovers, but it is the beautiful soldiers, brave, always ready for battle and, while waiting, always sweet and gallant. For me, the officer forms a race apart. I have never loved any but officers.”

The explanation for this must be largely a matter of conjecture, but Shipman argues convincingly that Mata’s hunger for male attention can be traced to the abandonment of her family by her adored father when she was a girl. She had been born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands in 1876, the first of four children. Adam Zelle was a “prosperous and handsome” hatter and haberdasher who suffered business reverses and fled to The Hague in 1889. Her mother died two years later, but rather than take care of his daughter himself, Zelle sent M’Greet (as she was called) to live with her uncle and his wife. They were strict, and she was “headstrong.” When they sent her off to boarding school, she may or may not have had a sexual relationship with the headmaster. The blame fell on her, not him.

She was 15 years old. Two years later, when she met a handsome army officer named Rudolf MacLeod — “cynical, confident, and tough, a true officer” — she was ready to tumble: “She was in an odd way innocent. She still expected a magical love to transform her world. Still she knew instinctively how to flirt and please a man. At seventeen, M’Greet was deeply romantic, frivolous, and terribly vain. She longed for experience — to burst out of the strict world of propriety and regulation so she could have fun — and she craved admiration from an older man.”

For a while that’s what he gave her, marrying her in 1895 and taking her off to the Dutch East Indies. At first, too, she was occasionally happy with her marriage and excited about being in the “exuberant, wild, exotic, and very beautiful” Indies. By late in 1898, though, the marriage had “deteriorated into sharp quarrels, too much drinking, heavy spending, and suspicions of infidelity.” Their 2-year old son died in 1899, possibly as a result of his father having contracted syphilis. They had a daughter who died at the age of 21 (two years after her mother’s execution), of “a cerebral hemorrhage or aneurysm, which can be a consequence of congenital syphilis.” Whether M’Greet had the disease as well is unknown, but one is left to wonder why it didn’t spread through the armies of Europe considering her post-marital adventures.

The marriage was over in the 1890s, though a divorce was not granted until 1906. By then M’Greet had metamorphosed into Mata Hari — a Malay phrase often used in the Dutch East Indies to mean “sunrise” or, more literally, “the eye of the day” — and had become the sensation of Paris. Her dances, very loosely fashioned after those she had seen in the Indies, were a mixture of pop religiosity and open sexuality, and soon she became known as “exotic, hyperbolic, emotional, and fascinating: a star.” What she performed onstage she practiced in the boudoir, as an endless string of men offered their favors and received hers.

By 1914, though, she was beginning to show her age. Into the bargain, “a darker, more puritanical mood was sweeping across Europe and the days of exuberant living were drawing to a close.” Ever in need of money to underwrite her extravagant desires, and always dependent on men to supply it, in 1915 she accepted 20,000 francs to spy for Germany but, Femme Fatale argues, never acted on it. “She always had taken money from men because she needed money and they had it,” Shipman writes; “she always felt she deserved it. The matter was over and done with as soon as she got the money, at least as far as she was concerned.”

The French felt otherwise. In 1916 and 1917 ” ‘spy fever’ had broken out all over Europe, and people were encouraged to look for, and report, any potentially suspicious actions.” Mata Hari, too self-absorbed to act rationally at all times, tried to play one side against the other but had the misfortune to come to the attention of Georges Ladoux, head of French intelligence. He recruited her to spy for France, which she did halfheartedly and ineptly. Then Ladoux “abandoned and betrayed his own agent” with the enthusiastic collaboration of Pierre Bouchardon, the investigator in the case, who “was convinced that she was a predatory woman, deliberately tricking men,” Shipman writes.

Femme Fatale’s central contention is that “it is difficult to imagine a woman less likely . . . to be able to engage in clandestine activities than Mata Hari.” She was a star, and “while she was certainly seductive, which might be viewed as useful for a spy, she was never on any occasion invisible”; in fact, she was “a ridiculous candidate for a job that required clandestine behavior.” Yet her persecutors “believed firmly that Mata Hari was guilty because she slept with many men and traveled widely in wartime. Such a woman must be a spy.” A kangaroo court agreed, and on Oct. 15, 1917, at the age of 41, she was executed. Shipman reports that many years later, the prosecutor, André Mornet, talked to a writer about the case and said “with a supreme indifference, ‘Between you and me, there wasn’t enough [evidence] to flog a cat.’ “

There’s more mystery about the woman than about the charges that cost her life. Shipman probably is right that “she was convicted not for espionage but for her lack of shame,” but how she got that way — defiantly, exuberantly, spectacularly — simply can’t be explained. ·

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2 Comments

  1. Yet her persecutors “believed firmly that Mata Hari was guilty because she slept with many men and traveled widely in wartime. Such a woman must be a spy.”

    It’s always the way. Any female who is open-minded about sex is tainted with societal disapproval, even on the grid. It’s persistent. And somewhat personally annoying. :)

  2. Very true. God help you as a woman if you don’t conform to how others believe a woman should be.


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