Mata Hari, the femme fatale convicted of espionage and executed by the French during World War I, is hardly a virgin subject for biography. She is a perennial of children's books devoted to famous spies and secret agents and no less of a draw in biographies for adults. Greta Garbo played her on the big screen as the subversive siren redeemed by love. Mata Hari's recent biographers doubt the evidence against her. French intelligence, it seems, fabricated a case, determined to find a scapegoat in an exotic courtesan who happened to be in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.
She began as the "little Dutch girl," Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, to borrow a phrase from Toni Bentley's entertaining and authoritative "Sisters of Salome" (2002). Adam Zelle treated his daughter like something special. She adored her wayward n'er-do-well dad with the gift of gab, and she grew up looking for a handsome man in a uniform to marry. Rudolf MacLeod, 20 years her senior, and a veteran of 20 years of slogging it out in vicious wars in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), obliged her. But MacLeod turned out to be a tyrant and Gretha, as she was known then, could not suppress her flirtatious nature. They parted in acrimony after several years together in the tropics.
Although Gretha had an almost matronly figure, she moved well and seems to have made a keen study of native dancers. Her complexion was swarthy, and in costume resembled one of those goddesses hanging off of Indian temples. Her adopted name, taken from a Malay phrase, means something like "sunrise." With the dim lighting and a pair of small, cymbal-like cups covering her mammaries, she was able to enchant European audiences for the better part of a decade, claiming to offer dances that had their origins in the sacred rites of the East. She combined, as Pat Shipman notes in "Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari" (William Morrow, 448 pages, $25.95), the sacred and profane. Her titillations could be enjoyed as — shall we say — a cultural experience.
World War I changed everything. France was losing the war. Who was to blame? Rather than accepting responsibility for the catastrophe, the French government, especially its intelligence branch, claimed that spies informing Germans of French military plans had undone the nation. And Mata Hari — a so-called "international woman" — came under suspicion. Why did she travel so much to Germany, England, and France, always consorting with military men? The answer is simple, Ms. Shipman replies: Mata Hari was a sucker for a uniform, relied upon men to give her money to support her extravagance, and took no notice of what others made of her itinerary.
Determined to convict, French intelligence agents got Mata Hari to admit she had taken money from a German officer, and after they in turn offered her money to spy on the Germans, they accused her of being a double agent. Sentenced to death by firing squad after a trial in which her former lovers reported she had never even talked about the war, she went to her death with dignity, all the while proclaiming her innocence. So what is unknown in the story? According to Ms. Shipman, Mata Hari may have had syphilis — which would account for her erratic behavior and her husband's equally bizarre actions. He had probably infected her. Ms. Shipman devotes many pages to making such a case, but then, really, so what? How has the story changed? Yet Ms. Shipman persists with tag lines such as, "No previous biographer has noticed."
One especially dubious move is Ms. Shipman's reliance on Adam Zelle's book about his daughter, a tendentious narrative that Mata Hari herself ridiculed. Ms. Shipman acknowledges that Zelle's work is self-serving, but then she quotes Mata Hari's letters, which are available only in Zelle's narrative. Who is to say that Zelle did not alter or even invent some of this correspondence? Other biographers, such as Erika Ostrovsky in "Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari" (1978) find Zelle so compromised that they hardly mention his book.
As Toni Bentley points out, the significant event in Mata Hari's life occurred in 1985 when the sealed dossier of evidence against her was opened for biographer Russell Warren Howe. This disclosure established that the case against her amounted to very little indeed.
Although Ms. Shipman belittles previous researchers it is hard to see how her book could exist without them. Certainly she has discovered a few nuggets and provided some riveting passages on what it was like for that poor little Dutch girl in the East Indies, but only devotees of femme fatales need trouble themselves over her biographer's lucubrations on the intricacies of her possible disease.