Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

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In 1917, the notorious Oriental dancer Mata Hari was arrested on the charge of espionage; less than one year later, she was tried and executed, charged with the deaths of at least 50,000 gallant French soldiers. The mistress of many senior Allied officers and government officials, even the French minister of war, she had a sharp intellect and a golden tongue fluent in several languages; she also traveled widely throughout war-torn Europe, with seeming disregard for the political and strategic alliances and ...

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Femme Fatale: A New Biography of Mata Hari

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In 1917, the notorious Oriental dancer Mata Hari was arrested on the charge of espionage; less than one year later, she was tried and executed, charged with the deaths of at least 50,000 gallant French soldiers. The mistress of many senior Allied officers and government officials, even the French minister of war, she had a sharp intellect and a golden tongue fluent in several languages; she also traveled widely throughout war-torn Europe, with seeming disregard for the political and strategic alliances and borders. But was she actually a spy? In this persuasive new biography, Pat Shipman explores the life and times of the mythic and deeply misunderstood dark-eyed siren to find the truth.

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
“Both suspenseful and shocking . . . Shipman tells her story with interest and spirit.”
Bloomberg News
“[E]ngrossing . . . casting Mata Hari’s rise and fall against the background of her life, the turmoil of World War I and, ultimately, the moral standards of the era. . . . Shipman teases out the details with a novelist’s skill.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“An engrossing tale that sheds new light on a mysterious woman.”
Publishers Weekly

Executed as a German spy by the French in 1917, the notorious Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in 1876, the spoiled daughter of a prosperous Dutch merchant who would later abandon her to the care of relatives after a humiliating bankruptcy and his wife's death. She married a much older, jealous, heavy-drinking and insolvent officer stationed in Indonesia who probably gave her and her children syphilis; the disastrous union ended after her young son died of poisoning, possibly from a botched syphilis cure, and Margaretha relinquished custodial rights to her daughter. Financially destitute, Margaretha reinvented herself in Paris as Mata Hari, gaining fame and fortune performing in various stages of undress in exotic dances that evoked the East, and she collected a series of highly placed, fawning lovers. Shipman (The Man Who Found the Missing Link) makes a good case that Mata Hari was a naïve, innocent scapegoat for a demoralized French military that had endured heavy losses and mutinous troops, and that she was also the victim of a hypocritical, rigidly moralistic patriarchy offended by her shameless sexuality. Shipman offers an engrossing biography of an unusual woman for whom, she says, the truth was whatever she wanted it to be; unfortunately, the book is somewhat marred by repetitious prose and digressions. Photos. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Versatile biographer Shipman (To the Heart of the Nile, 2004, etc.) explores the life of an ineffectual undercover agent who was considerably more adept under the bedcovers. Born in Holland in 1876, Margaretha Zelle had a teenaged escapade with her schoolmaster that made it urgently necessary to escape home and her disagreeable family. Answering an advertisement, the girl who was to be Mata Hari wed extravagantly mustachioed Captain MacLeod, stationed in the fetid Dutch East Indies. Her squalid colonial life led to motherhood and divorce; she resurfaced (without her daughter) in 1903 in Paris, where she resorted to prostitution to pay the bills until she began to make a sensation as Mata Hari, an exotic, erotic, scantily clad dancer. "[People] like to see much of a pretty woman," she remarked. "I have never been afraid to catch a cold." As the Great War raged, she received favors and gifts, including cash, from battalions of lovers; she was especially partial to officers of various armies. The British suspected her of being a German agent-more because she was wealthy and sexually independent, Shipman suggests, than because of anything she'd done. Given these suspicions, however, it was odd that a French intelligence officer would recruit her as a mole in the summer of 1916. Undeniably clever, Mata Hari was a dreadfully inept spy, soon branded as a double agent. Though a German lover may have rewarded her for services rendered, the author argues, Germany did not pay her to spy. But the war was going badly for France in the winter of 1916-7, and it was convenient to blame traitors. A kangaroo court condemned Mata Hari based on documents that were probably altered by her French intelligencecontact, who may have been a German spy himself. The vain, formidable woman whose casual way with the truth played a role in her undoing was shot on October 15, 1917. The melodramatic true story of a mythic grand horizontal, told with clarity and understanding.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060817312
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/5/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 698,584
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Pat Shipman is the author of eight previous books, including The Man Who Found the Missing Link and Taking Wing, which won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for science and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1998. Her numerous awards and honors include the 1996 Rhone-Poulenc Prize for The Wisdom of the Bones (written with Alan Walker). Her most recent book is To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa. She is currently an adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and lives in State College, Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt

Femme Fatale
Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

Chapter One

The Little Orchid

He taught her to think of herself as special. She was his little princess and he loved to show her off. He bought her wonderful dresses in vivid, flamboyant colors—once a dress of scarlet velvet that she wore to school. She twirled to show her father how the skirt flared out, and he beamed and told her she was beautiful. She did the same for her friends at Miss Buys's exclusive school, and they looked at her with wide eyes. They pretended to be shocked, to think it was a scandalous dress for a girl her age, but she knew they were only jealous. They were better suited to the subdued colors they habitually wore. They could have afforded a dress like hers easily, but they never could have worn such a garment with her flair. Their pallid skin and colorless hair and lack of personality condemned them. Only someone like her, with thick, darkly waving hair, compelling eyes, and café au lait skin—only someone whose very essence cried "Look at me!"—could get away with it.

One of her school friends in a moment of genius called her an orchid in a field of dandelions, and she was, even then. And she knew it. She knew it because she was different from everyone else. She knew it most of all because of the way her father treated her, as if she were infinitely precious. His love gave her a wonderful feeling.

She was born on August 7, 1876. Her younger brother, Johannes, was born two years after her, on November 26, 1878. Then in 1881, on September 9, came twin boys, Arie and Cornelius. The birth of her brothers never displacedMargaretha from her place in their father's affection; she was always the favored child in his eyes. She probably believed he loved her more than he loved her mother.

On her sixth birthday, her father surprised her with a goat cart, a bokkenwagon. It was the most marvelous gift she had ever received. The vehicle was an exquisite miniature phaeton as fine as the ones the rich drove with their superb horses. Hers was pulled by a matched pair of stout goats with fine horns. All her friends clamored to go for a drive in it, and she loved indulging them. The neighbors clucked their tongues at the extravagance of such a gift, and for a little girl too! It would only make her vain and give her ideas about her own importance. They should have known that she already had those ideas, that she had learned them at her father's knee.

The extraordinary goat-drawn phaeton was remembered by Margaretha's former classmates and many others in the town decades later. "It was an amazing bit of foolhardiness, which put Margaretha absolutely in a class by herself!" So said one of her former friends in 1963, when she was well over eighty years old and Margaretha was long dead. Others spoke of the gift of the bokkenwagon as the most unforgettable event of their childhood years.

But that was typical of Adam Zelle: he loved to be noticed. His daughter was in some ways his most becoming accessory. He was vain about his full beard and his good looks. He always dressed well, in a top hat and flowered waistcoat that flattered him, to advertise the quality of the goods produced by his hat factory and for sale in his haberdashery. Some people called him "the Baron," as a jibe at his pretension and posing, but he rather liked the nickname, assuming it was a recognition of his natural superiority.

In 1873 he had his greatest social triumphs, the first of which was marrying Antje van der Meulen from nearby Franeker. Although Antje was thirty-one years old, only two years his junior, and not a young woman in her first flush of marital eligibility, she was from a family with higher social standing than his. He felt the marriage was a major step up for a rising young merchant in a provincial capital in northern Holland. Later that year, Zelle was selected to be in the mounted Guard of Honor when King Willem III visited their town, Leeuwarden, in the province of Friesland. Zelle prided himself on his horsemanship and was honored to be selected to represent his town. He had his own portrait painted, showing him on horse-back and in full uniform. Many years later Zelle presented it to the new Fries Museum as an important work it ought to display. It is a mediocre piece of art but an excellent example of Zelle's personality.

Ten years after these triumphs, in 1883, Zelle's haberdashery business was doing so well that he moved his growing family into a beautiful old brick house at 28 Groote Kerkstraat. It was a fine residence and doubtless he felt himself established as one of the most important burghers of Leeuwarden. He hired more servants and sent his pretty daughter to learn elegant manners, music (both singing and piano), exquisite handwriting, and French at Miss Buys's school; his sons were growing into strong and good-looking boys, and he planned a good education for them, too. Although Amsterdamers might claim that Leeuwarden was rural and unsophisticated, Zelle felt the town in which he had been born and raised was an excellent place. It boasted nearly 27,000 inhabitants.

After another six years of acting the baron, Zelle found that Leeuwarden no longer seemed so splendid. His investments and business ventures went so far wrong that on February 18, 1889, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The failure must have been a bitter comedown to a proud man. The news was probably a great shock to his family, for men of his background did not discuss financial matters with their wives and children. Leeuwarden was no longer a place where Zelle could live and hold up his head.

Femme Fatale
Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari
. Copyright © by Pat Shipman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vii
Prologue     1
The Little Orchid     3
Different Lives     14
Object Matrimony     37
Indies Life     58
The Fatal Move     74
Death of a Child     93
Death of a Marriage     119
The Birth of Mata Hari     142
The Toast of Europe     155
Living Like a Butterfly in the Sun     172
In Time of War     192
The Tangled Web     205
Maelstrom     223
Stepping into the Trap     235
Secrets and Betrayal     251
Caught in a Trap     263
Grinding Her to Dust     279
Suffering     300
Telegrams and Secrets     309
The Lowest Circle of Hell     324
The Kangaroo Court     335
Waiting     357
Dying Well     363
References     377
Notes     379
Index     429
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