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For Author Sherman, a Love Affair : Spy Novelist Falls for His Notorious Heroine, Mata Hari

December 18, 1985|JULIA BRAUN KESSLER

How she danced! From Paris to St. Petersburg, all of Europe whispered and gossiped about her during those years before World War I. She was mysterious Mata Hari, that exotic, erotic enchantress who fascinated royalty and subverted nations--until that dawn of a gray October morning in 1917 when she stood before a French firing squad, jeered by hundreds of spectators, to be shot as a traitor and convicted spy.

More than 60 years have elapsed and the details of her life are now remote, yet her notoriety persists. Her name remains a household word, an entry in Webster's, and the legend of her intrigue and treachery is a cloak-and-dagger classic.

The power of this temptress has reached across the years once again. Intensely preoccupied with her case is a young specialist of spy fiction, Dan Sherman, whose new novel is "The Man Who Loved Mata Hari" (Donald I. Fine Inc.: $17.95).

Mesmerized, and not a little in love with Mata Hari himself, he said, Sherman has spent the last several years engrossed in her life. Everywhere to be seen, patched upon the wall of his study in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, are pictures of the petite dancer in her most seductive poses. He is convinced that she is innocent of the crime she died for.

Dark, Suave-Looking

Himself a dark, suave-looking figure in a white suit and open shirt, his hair shoulder-length, Sherman could be taken for one of Mata Hari's own bewitched young pre-World War I devotees, instead of the proper, golf-playing local product that he is. He grew up in Pacific Palisades. From an early age, he was determined to be a writer. He read and studied literature at the University of Oregon.

Out of college, he did odd jobs, finally landing a spot on one of the underground throwaways, then called the Los Angeles Voice, a paper that lasted about a year. When its editor went to work for Los Angeles Peterson Publications' True magazine, he hired Sherman to write a Ripley-type monthly column for it, called "Strange but True."

Of that, he said, "After all, it was a real writing job, and I'd get around $75 for every paragraph I submitted, whether it concerned fish that drink beer, idiot savants who can barely speak but manage to solve sophisticated mathematical problems, or people buried alive who live for weeks on weeds. Besides, Trevor Melde-Johnsen, (his editor at True) and I were already at work together on a mystery novel during this period."

First Collaborative Venture

And when that first collaborative venture sold to Putnam, it launched the fledgling author. "I made more money on it than I had working at the magazine all year. And what it told me was that I could do this. I could write, and publish, and make a living at it, too."

Twenty-four years old at the time, Sherman plunged directly into a second joint effort, this time with a Scottish musician, Robin Williamson. Their novel, first published in England, was picked up by New American Library for its hardcover list. It was only then that Sherman felt ready to strike out on his own.

What resulted was his own first creation, "The Mole," published in 1977. An espionage yarn about an American investigating the death of a CIA agent in Mexico, it was largely inspired by "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which had come out just about then. Sherman now refers to his book as "a cheap version of John le Carre." But with it came new recognition, reasonably good sales, and the attention of his present publisher, Donald I. Fine, at that time the editor-in-chief and owner of Arbor House.

He has since written five successful spy novels besides his new Mata Hari. They are "The Prince of Berlin" (1984), "The White Mandarin" (1982), "The Dynasty of Spies" (1980), "King Jaguar" (1979) and "Swann" (1978).

Sherman's preoccupation with Mata Hari began one day when browsing in an encyclopedia he came across: "Mata Hari, the Eye of Dawn, nee Margaretha Gertruida Zelle, 7 August 1876, Leeuwarden, Holland . . . "

The daughter of a hat merchant, Margaretha Zelle married a Dutch officer at 18 and went with him to the Dutch East Indies. She divorced him and returned to Europe in 1905 to begin a dancing career. Her exotic Indonesian name and dancing and affair after affair soon made her famous in Paris.

Accused of being in the pay of German spies during World War I, she was tried for revealing the military secrets confided to her by the many high Allied officers who were her lovers and intimates. It was said that she provided the exact location of a secret French air base at Vittel, targeted Allied freighters for attack by German U-boats and was ultimately responsible for the lives of as many as 70,000 Allied soldiers. Margaretha Zelle pleaded her innocence to the end, insisting that she was a woman of the world devoted only to her lovers and her art.

Filled With Inconsistencies

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