- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

As World War I becomes a fading memory, the name Mata Hari conjures up the sinister image of a shadowy, seductive spy who ruthlessly betrayed the allied cause to the Germans. In reality, Mata Hari was not shadowy or sinister. She was the first of the 20th century’s female superstars. In

her time, she was as famous as Madonna and as morally infamous as Paris Hilton. By the time she was executed by the French for espionage in 1917, she was perhaps the most famous non-royal in Europe if not the world.

In addition, she was not much of a spy, and she did her attempted espionage for France, not Germany. The Germans did try to recruit her as an agent, and she took advance money from a German lover; then she spent it, scamming the Germans. Pat Shipman has written what will probably be the definitive biography of this fascinating and star-crossed woman.

Born Margaretha Zelle in late 19th-century Holland, she lived an idyllic early life, doted over by her adoring father. However, while she was still in grade school, her life crashed down around her when her father was ruined by a series of bad business deals. Disgraced, he left town and abandoned his now-impoverished family.

She was passed from one family member to another, where the spoiled child quickly wore out her welcome and was bundled off to boarding school, where she promptly had the first of her amorous adventures by seducing the headmaster. For this indiscretion she was expelled, but not before she had received some degree of cultural and social refinement, which she would sharpen as the years went by.

She liked men in uniform, if they were officers, and eventually she married Captain MacLeod of the Dutch colonial army. They moved to Indonesia, where he was posted and where she gave him no end of grief with her free spending and affairs with other officers. He, in turn, gave her syphilis; it was not a marriage made in heaven, and their only son died of complications from attempts to treat him for the congenital form of syphilis he inherited.

She left her husband after the turn of the century. Again penniless, she moved from Holland to Paris and reinvented herself as Mata Hari, a practitioner of exotic Indian ritual dances that usually ended up with her nearly naked. In this, she took advantage of her beauty, athletic prowess and dusky complexion to take Paris, and many of its more wealthy male residents, by storm. Within a few years, she was the toast of Europe; she was a genuine superstar by the dawn of World War I.

Through legitimate theater earnings and affairs with the rich and powerful, she made and lost fortunes. She apparently had a remarkable personality, as almost all of her lovers thought well of her years after her death. She was remarkably brazen about her love life, and she openly boasted about running out of places to put notches to mark her sexual conquests.

The Guns of August that signified the beginning of World War I also signaled the beginning of the end for Mata Hari. As the French’s fortunes waned, so did hers. The loose morals of the first decade of the new century gave way to a grim Puritanism in the beleaguered French capital, and the French were looking for scapegoats for the failures of their once-glorious army. As a foreign citizen with lax morals, she was an easy target, but she was blissfully unaware of the precariousness of her situation.

She was also nearly broke once again, and she accepted a French offer to spy for purely mercenary motives; she did pass information to the French, mostly gossip picked up on trips to Holland and Spain. Unfortunately, her handler, who was also the head of French counter-intelligence, appears to have been a double agent who framed her to divert suspicion from him. She was arrested, given a kangaroo military tribunal and shot as a spy. She died well, throwing a kiss to her incompetent defense attorney and refusing a blindfold.

Pat Shipman, an accomplished biographer, has written an extremely well-researched tome, although her frivolous and vacuous subject may not deserve that level of effort. The reader may want to skip through the exhaustive sections in which the case against the subject is dissected. Mata Hari was meteor that briefly lit up the Paris sky and then crashed, leaving nothing in its wake but a fleeting flash.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Officer who also lectures at George Washington University.

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