An undercover life

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Emily Barton is the author of two novels, "Brookland" and "The Testament of Yves Gundron."

Femme Fatale

Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

Pat Shipman

William Morrow: 450 pp., $25.95

UNTIL a few weeks ago, much of what I knew of Mata Hari I’d gathered from an eponymous pinball machine I’d played as a child. Its cartoon backdrop showed a brunette, supine on a tiger-skin rug and wearing bejeweled underwear, offering a debonair fellow a secret map. I knew Mata Hari had been a spy, though for whom, and when, remained hazy.

Uncertainty, it turns out, is a vital part of Mata Hari’s story. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, as she was known before reinventing herself as a glamorous and overtly sexual dancer, was executed by a French firing squad in 1917 after being convicted of spying for Germany. Yet as Pat Shipman makes clear in her new biography, “Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari,” the case was prosecuted chiefly on grounds of immorality and her conviction based on questionable evidence.

Shipman prudently resists racing ahead, like a teen reading “Lady Chatterley,” to the steamy bits and begins with a thorough investigation of her subject’s early life. She writes, “[P]revious biographers had neglected her married years in the Dutch East Indies. Because I had researched the colonial period in Indonesia extensively for another book


I was convinced that the roots of the later, better-known part of her life lay in her years in the Indies.”

Margaretha Zelle was born in 1876, the eldest child of Antje and Adam Zelle, her father a merchant in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden, whom some called “ ‘the Baron’ as a jibe at his pretension and posing.” He spoiled his only daughter. For one childhood birthday, he gave her “an exquisite miniature phaeton

pulled by a matched pair of stout goats with fine horns,” a gift a friend later described as “an amazing bit of foolhardiness.”

When Zelle went bankrupt, he and his wife separated, and when Margaretha was 14, Antje died. One of Margaretha’s brothers was shipped to relatives of their mother’s and her twin brothers went to their father, but Margaretha was sent to live with an uncle; Shipman speculates that Zelle’s new lover may have found it “less onerous to take on twin ten-year-old boys than a spoiled teen-aged girl who loved extravagant clothes and being the center of attention.” Margaretha found her new life intolerable and, a few years later, answered a newspaper personal ad placed on behalf of a Dutch army officer serving in the East Indies. She married the man, Rudolf MacLeod, within months of meeting him, and they shipped out when their first child was a few months old.

Shipman’s research illuminates the MacLeods’ unhappy marriage. The author reads “[c]ircumstantial evidence of the influence of a wise nyai” (native mistress) into Rudolf’s premarital career successes and postulates that his long-term illness, which he called diabetes, may have been syphilis. If she is correct in her diagnosis and Rudolf passed the disease along to his wife and children, this might explain the bitter hatred between Rudolf and Margaretha as well as the mysterious deaths of their two children, Norman at age 4 and Nonnie at age 21.

Though Margaretha eventually returned to the Netherlands and sued for a divorce on grounds of battery, one was not granted until Rudolf sued because of marital infidelity. (Both charges seem to have been true, though Margaretha’s affairs may have begun only when she returned penniless to Europe and sought the attentions of wealthy men.) She was free from the strictures of marriage, and with a “superb sense of what would succeed, she developed a series of ‘sacred dances’ that she ostensibly learned in the Indies.”


Margaretha chose a new name for herself, a Malay phrase that meant “ ‘sunrise’ or, more literally ‘the eye of the day.’ ” About this period, she said, “I never could dance well. People came to see me because I was the first who dared to show myself naked to the public.” (Shipman remarks that at one of Natalie Barney’s “notorious lesbian garden parties in Neuilly

Mata Hari made her entrance as Lady Godiva naked on a white horse.” ) The photographs Shipman includes -- showing a quirkily beautiful brunette in a metal bra, spangly headgear and various kinds of transparent veiling -- are worth the price of admission; and the accounts of her early dances, all related by male viewers set atremble by the intoxicating mixture of striptease and the supposed Mysteries of the East, are a hoot.

But the beginning of World War I put a damper on Belle Epoque gaiety, making it harder for Mata Hari to earn a living. Around this time, her ensnarement in espionage began. She was approached by Karl Kroemer, a German diplomat, who asked her to spy for him, provided her with invisible ink and a code name, and gave her a sizable advance. Mata Hari recollected, “My 20,000 francs in my pocket, I bowed Kroemer out the door, but I assure you that I never wrote him anything. . . . “ She was in the habit of taking large sums from a succession of men and viewed Kroemer’s gift in the same light.

Yet this visit would haunt her. By 1916, two Paris detectives were tailing her, and she had the misfortune to meet Georges Ladoux, a leading French espionage officer, who may himself have been a double agent (which could explain why he hounded Mata Hari so mercilessly). Hoping to smoke her out as a German spy, he persuaded her to spy for France -- though, as Shipman rightly points out, “it is difficult to imagine a woman less likely to be able to go unnoticed or to be able to engage in clandestine activities than Mata Hari” -- but when she seduced a German captain, obtained secrets from him and attempted to present them to Ladoux, her spymaster was mysteriously impossible to reach.

In February 1917, the French police arrested Mata Hari and took her to the rat-infested prison of Saint-Lazare, where, ill and mistreated, she lived until her execution that October. The story of her unfair treatment at the hands of the authorities, who seem clearly to have cut their case against her from whole cloth and chiefly because of “her lack of shame,” is both suspenseful and shocking. Her trial was a flagrant miscarriage of justice and serves as a grim reminder of how tainted a judicial system can be.

Shipman is a better researcher than writer. She ends her chapters with declarative sentences meant to sound like pulp-fiction cliffhangers (“For Mata Hari, the trap had been set, but she had not yet felt the snap of its teeth”; “Real disaster came swiftly”); the unvarying predictability of this tactic makes it seem a little silly. Individual sentences are sometimes muddled, and the final one -- “Butterflies who live in the sun must die young” -- is such a clunker you have to wonder if the author didn’t just give up. (At dull moments, I found myself wondering whether the trend of nonfiction books having tripartite subtitles would ever, ever end.)


But overall, Shipman tells her story with interest and spirit; and her research does shed instructive light on Margaretha Zelle’s transformation into Mata Hari. Though “Femme Fatale” may not be a great biography, it is an interesting book, and Mata Hari’s story is lively enough to soften the impact of her biographer’s flaws. *