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An undercover life

August 05, 2007|Emily Barton | 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.

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