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The Least Glamorous Spy

By (March 1, 2008) No Comment

Signed, Mata Hari

by Yannick Murphy
Little, Brown and Company, 2007

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

By Pat Shipman
William Morrow, 2007


Mata Hari is a name without a story. That is, “Mata Hari” stands for something – seductress and spy – even though most of us couldn’t name the most basic facts about her. Her myth has bled down through the years, shaping the spy fiction of the 1930s and then the Mona Lisa in evening dress who reclines under the tag “Keep Mum – she’s not so dumb” in the famous British WWII poster. She’s the root of the ruthless, glamorous double agents preying on James Bond through the Cold War years and a byword for seduction, danger, and duplicity.

Now, appropriately for a culture in love with scandalous biography and the celebrity exposé, two recent books work to strip away the century-long accretion of legend. Yannick Murphy’s novel Signed, Mata Hari attempts to give our heroine a voice and, in theory, some autonomy in telling what is in many ways an exemplary tale of exploitation – of Mata Hari by her admirers and persecutors, and by Mata Hari of the Orientalist infatuation of her audience. Pat Shipman’s Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, also published last year, is a biography that goes beyond the boundaries of its subject’s life to explore the complicated historical cross-currents in which Mata Hari was trapped. Both versions tell the story but neither can quite get at the question of why she became the myth she did. The truth is an ugly story, short on glamour and intrigue.

Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands in 1876, Mata Hari was executed in October 1917 by a French firing squad, having been found guilty on eight charges of passing “information of interest” to Arnold Kalle, the German naval attaché in Madrid. After she was executed her corpse was not buried but donated to a Paris teaching hospital, which led to irrepressible popular fantasies of her miraculous escape and survival. The files on her case were closed until the 1960s, ensuring that the details of her crimes did not emerge to interfere with the general haze of guilt that surrounded her name.

Shipman gives an exhaustive account of Mata Hari’s various run-ins with the French and British intelligence services, while Murphy’s novel vividly imagines the interrogation process she underwent during her final imprisonment at the hands of a relentless investigative magistrate Pierre Bouchardon. Shipman quotes from the interrogator’s personal notes on the trial: “From the first interview, I had the intuition that I was in the presence of a person in the pay of our enemies. From that time, I had but one thought: to unmask her.” Murphy uses her heroine’s acute physical perception to paint a sinister picture of the same man through his victim’s eyes: “Bouchardon put his face so close to hers that she could see where the bit of nail that he had chewed off lay white and ragged on his lip.” Having previously been arrested and released by the British, who mistook her for a different German spy, Mata Hari did not think her arrest was a serious matter, and refused a lawyer. What is clear is that the information she did pass on had no military or political value, and although she admitted receiving advance payment for information, all she ever supplied to anyone, appropriately enough, was a little gossip and rumor.

Several important points emerge from the tangled and incomplete record of Mata Hari’s war, and in some combination they damned her. She had no clearly discernible national loyalties (even if she’d felt some allegiance to her birthplace, the Netherlands remained neutral during World War I) and apparently only the haziest understanding of what was happening with the war at any point. She was asked to spy for Germany, France, and Russia despite the fact that her flamboyance and fame made her, as Shipman puts it, “a ridiculous candidate for a job that required clandestine behavior.” She was motivated in general by her need for money – “and money meant lovers” – but in particular she happened, improbably but apparently sincerely, to have fallen in love with a 21-year-old Russian officer whom she planned to marry, and she was passing significant sums of money on to him. Her life in 1915 and 1916 amounted to a flagrant flouting of the rules of proper wartime behavior, yet before she was condemned it was that way of life that had opened up the possibility of espionage. Shipman puts it bluntly – “she was incriminated, recruited, and suspected for her readiness to sleep with men for money rather than anything else.”

As Julie Wheelwright suggests in her 1992 study The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage, on which both Murphy and Shipman draw, Mata Hari’s death was a useful tool in wartime social control: “The demonization that followed her execution in 1917 made her a convenient pillory for women’s attempts at sexual, economic and marital independence.” Her central crime was that of being an “international woman,” a euphemism that incorporated any number of social bugbears but which essentially meant that the woman in question was unbound by the secure marital or national identities. Border crossing, something Mata Hari continued to do despite the changed circumstances of wartime, was enough to get you noticed.

  At the sudden outbreak of war Mata Hari was trapped in Berlin, where she had gone to perform. By 1914 her career was on the wane (she was 38, and had been dancing on the stages of Europe for nearly ten years), but she had become used to behaving – performing – as though she were resiliently wealthy, indestructibly powerful. She failed to appreciate that everything she represented had become suspect, as Wheelwright explains, understating the case: “the exotic images that she had nurtured – Oriental dancer, cosmopolitan, adventuress, mistress of high officials – were now considered distasteful – even dangerous.”

At the outbreak of war “spy mania” was everywhere, and Mata Hari’s ambiguous origins (which she reinvented whenever it suited her) and her reckless freedom of movement guaranteed that she would be an object of suspicion. Added to this, the relationships with powerful men that helped prolong her success and keep her financially afloat happened to coincide perfectly with the longstanding French cultural tradition of the courtesan as political schemer. Mata Hari was no politician, but there was an unavoidable clash between her actions and the resonances of her myth. The imaginary “Oriental” identity on which she had built her success also enmeshed her in a number of dangerous cultural associations – the vice of the Oriental somehow got tangled up with avaricious Teutonic stereotypes. She was stuck in Holland after escaping from Germany but did not stay there – in 1915 she returned to her home in France via England and Spain; in England she was arrested and interrogated under suspicion of being a different female German spy, and she was trailed by police for several months.

Understanding the fate of Mata Hari – her conviction on trumped-up charges, and the extent of her vilification – depends on understanding the panics and prejudices that were shaking Europe as the war began. Tammy M. Proctor’s Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War demonstrates the extent to which this war brought espionage and counter-espionage, spy mania, into the forefront of the way that wars were fought. In Britain this was the period of the secret service’s expansion into the modern concept of intelligence. As the spy was being defined as male, military, and loyal, he needed a counterpart, which was found in the sexualized, unreliable, foreign, female “vamp.” Common xenophobia embraced these fears, allowing people to turn in the “funny foreigner” next door who just might be a spy. The enemy within was targeted in Britain by the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act, under which men and women of German origin, Germans by marriage, or individuals suspected by nervous neighbors of too much sympathy with or knowledge about the enemy fell victim to a range of pressures, from coerced or forced repatriation to internment.

Female aliens, especially unmarried ones, were seen as a particular threat and were deported or forced to repatriate. Because a woman automatically took her husband’s nationality on marriage, her loyalties could be seen as insecure and shifting. This unreliability made them appear as natural spies, easy to recruit and capable of seducing their way into intimate, unguarded spaces. Yet the phenomenon of sexy foreign spies infiltrating the upper echelons of government remained largely a media fantasy, which may help explain the hysteria over Mata Hari. So few women were actually arrested and tried, Proctor points out, that it is barely possible to assess what kind of power they might have had. As she puts it, “espionage, treason and sedition in WWI were crimes of intent.” Intent, furthermore, seems to have been proven not by any particular word or action but – in Mata Hari’s case at least – simply by embodying a stereotype.

The vilification of the mysteriously nonexistent female spy was helped enormously by the existence of her opposite. In 1915 a British nurse, Edith Cavell, was executed by the Germans for helping Belgian soldiers escape through the convalescent home she ran in Brussels. Her image became a powerful tool in propaganda for both sides – the Germans used her as a cautionary tale for occupied peoples, while in Britain she was a spur to recruitment for soldiers urged to join up and avenge her. Although as a middle-aged, plain, unmarried nurse from a small English village, the living Cavell was unsuitable for either virginal or maternal romanticization, her death transformed her into a martyr and unleashed a flood of image-making, particularly of the moment of her execution which was imagined numerous times and circulated widely in the form of picture-postcards. Her statue stands in central London proclaiming the virtues of forgiveness and patriotism.

Cavell was not a unique phenomenon, but had Continental counterparts in Gabrielle Petit and Louise de Bettignies, both given statues and likened to Joan of Arc. Proctor argues that these statues did more than praise the virtue of courageous resistance, but served a particular function in righting the gender balance that the female spy, in whatever incarnation, threatened to upset: “their statues emphasize patriotic fervour and selfless sacrifice, reinscribing on a war-torn world the gendered separation of women from warfare.” Although they were almost definitely guilty of the crimes for which they were tried, and their actions was part of an organized underground resistance to German occupation, the image of the martyred female spy stood alone as a symbol of innocence in direct contrast to the absolute guilt of the spy-prostitute: Wheelwright notes that in France it was possible to buy a coin-purse with Cavell’s image on one side and Mata Hari’s on the other.

Yannick Murphy’s novel operates on two timelines. One is of Mata Hari in prison, the story of her gradual disintegration in solitary confinement, a self-deluding fallen woman still clinging to her past identity, with her only companion a solicitous nun who befriends her and collapses in tears at the moment of her execution. She is repeatedly interrogated by the police bureaucrat who wants to believe her more evil than she is, to destroy and expel her from a world she threatens. As this story unfolds, Mata Hari’s memories and flashbacks tell the story of her early life, her youth in Holland, her married life in the Dutch East Indies, the abuse of her husband, death of her son, and her reinvention in Europe as the most famous dancer of her age.

The danger of writing about a character like Mata Hari is in the continuing seduction of myth, and Murphy never quite manages to rise above the desire to see in Mata Hari something extraordinary, something identifiable in the women herself that will make sense of her fascination. Her sexuality is one option – is she extraordinarily attractive, magnetically sexual in ways that transcend conventions and norms, even now? The many photographs in Shipman’s book don’t show a woman with a perfect face or body but a determined and deliberate construction: a solid figure with a strong, slightly masculine face, draped in jewels and posed to her best advantage. Inevitably, legend had it that nobody could feel the power of the woman from the photograph and that her seductive appeal eluded the camera lens.

Ultimately her greatest skill seems to have been her intuition of how her world worked. But her limited understanding of the implications of that – the ripple effect of her presence and her fame – is also what limits Murphy’s novel. By telling the story from within Mata Hari’s head, Murphy can’t grapple with the forces at work around her. She chooses a childlike voice and a recurrent image of childish rebellion to ground and identify her character. The story that opens the novel establishes both of these:

I cheated death. I walked across the sea. When the tide was low I went over the furrowed sandbanks in my small bare feet. I skipped school one day and traveled to an island near my home called Ameland. I had heard stories, every child who lived in the Netherlands knew the stories, about the mud like quicksand and about the water like a great gray wall when the tide came in and how it could catch you and knock you down and pour into your mouth and drown you so that you couldn’t ever return, no matter how hard you tried to climb out of the mud like quicksand and over the great gray wall. But I returned.

The voice established for Mata Hari is consistent – even as a grown woman she still, in Murphy’s hands, uses the breathless sentences and exhausting syntax that here could characterize an excited young girl. The problem is that this makes her sound pretty stupid. “I skipped school” has a note of modern American insouciance that sits uncomfortably inside this voice that purports to be that of a child in 1880s Holland, and Murphy’s version of Mata Hari’s voice never quite sounds believably at home the strange worlds she needs to invoke – a rigid, restricted northern European backwater and a small colonial community in the steaming Sumatran jungle.

The phrase “I walked across the sea” echoes again and again through the novel, but it bears no really compelling relation to the story as it unfolds. It suggests rebellion and miraculous survival, but that is hardly the point of this story, which has far more to do with conformity to some of society’s most degrading pressures. Young Margaretha Zelle, nicknamed M’Greet, was born into a wealthy family that slipped into poverty, and her dashing, adoring failure of a father abandoned the family when she was 12. Sent to uncaring relatives she wound up boarding as an apprentice kindergarten teacher at a school in Leiden, where the headmaster abused his authority over the unprotected teenage girl in predictable ways. To escape, she married a much older army officer named Rudolf Macleod, who had placed an advertisement in the newspaper, and after a year in which she gave birth to her son, Norman, the family shipped out to Indonesia in 1897 where MacLeod was an officer in the Dutch garrison.

For both Murphy and Shipman, it is the East Indies that exerts the strongest pull of fascination – the place where the name “Mata Hari” originated, where the child-bride was robbed of all her romantic delusions and learned that her world cared nothing for her heart and mind and everything for her body. The book shadowing Murphy’s novel is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, but by sticking to the facts Murphy has to tell an even grimmer story. Shipman’s dispassionate documentary prose tells it more effectively, particularly the mysteries surrounding the poisoning of the two young children, which killed Norman at the age of two. In Murphy’s novel there is no accident, and her servant admits as much. The character as envisioned by Murphy easily believes that her own husband is at the root of the horrific events, and specifically, his sexual rapacity: “And then I pieced together what I thought must have happened. Maybe MacLeod had forced himself on her [a female servant], and this was his punishment.”

Shipman’s investigatory method precludes any flights of fancy. According to her, while it was technically possible (given the easy availability of a particular arsenic compound used in a local religious ritual) for the children to have been poisoned by their female servant as revenge, either for Macleod raping her or for Mata Hari sleeping with her husband, none of the “local and gossipy” newspapers reported on it. Shipman judges it “wildly improbable” that any such crime would be overlooked “when the ruling class in society was so anxious to maintain its superior status.” Far more likely, Shipman concludes, the children either contracted food poisoning, or – the new argument Shipman convincingly advances here – they were accidentally overdosed by a doctor in the course of treatment for congenital syphilis inherited from their father.

Whatever the cause of Norman’s death, it is no surprise that it destroyed what was left of the MacLeods’ marriage. The family moved back to Amsterdam in 1901 and lived with MacLeod’s sister, who bitterly hated Mata Hari and no doubt conspired with her brother when on August 26, 1902 Macleod took his daughter Non and left the apartment, never coming back. Mata Hari went to Paris because, she later explained, “I thought every woman who had been abandoned by her husband went to Paris.” The tone of this claim – its tough humor and its acknowledgment of both her own ill treatment and its endless repetition elsewhere – demonstrates more layers to the character than Murphy allows in her entire novel. It suggests not so much the daydreaming vagueness of that character but a determination to follow a path that others had mapped out; with nothing left, with the identities of wife and mother forcibly torn away, she had no choice but to try to establish herself as the most glamorous possible kind of prostitute.

“Mata Hari” means “eye of the day” or “dawn” in Malay and was adopted in consultation with M. Emile Guimet, owner of the Museum of Oriental Art, where Mata Hari danced on March 13, 1905. Her act drew on the island dances she had watched in Indonesia but the stories she wove around it were less specific – she was an Indian temple dancer, an Oriental priestess, a virgin initiated into knowledge amid the sensual depravity of the East. She understood – perhaps because to some extent she shared – the powerful belief in Orientalist myths, and her act was presented as quasi-anthropological theater. Although Paris courts were suppressing nude dancing at the time, Mata Hari’s act – draped in veils and translucent sarongs – was left alone. Exotic, erotic dancers who often performed to private audiences were an Edwardian phenomenon, and paintings and literature about them made them interchangeable and emphasized their evanescence. Yet they were ever more culturally visible and famous, dining with aristocrats and encouraging upper-class women to imitate them, thus threatening class structures and morals.

Mata Hari’s rise was meteoric, but the elements of her act that made her successful – her exoticism, her constantly shifting accounts of her own origins – were eventually to undermine her. She danced at all-female parties thrown by the American hostess Natalie Barney, so was later associated with the “homosexual licentiousness” considered quite seriously by the British establishment as a reason why the war was going badly. In 1918, with the memory of Mata Hari still casting a shadow of suspicion over dancers, this paranoia resulted in a sensational libel trial involving one of her chief rivals, the phenomenally successful Canadian dancer Maud Allan. A British Member of Parliament alleged (in an article awe-inspiringly titled “The Cult of the Clitoris”) that members of Allan’s private audiences were in a German “black book,” which supposedly named 47,000 prominent people who were secretly homosexual and thus liable to blackmail. The article had currency in part because it targeted Allan’s performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, an international cult hit in 1908 that Mata Hari desperately wanted to perform. Rivals like Allan and Diaghilev’s Russians constantly threatened Mata Hari’s fragile position, threatening to expose her lack of formal training and the essential amateurishness of her act. But her attempts at other poses were never as successful – if anything, her single, unique talent was in endlessly repackaging the Orientalist mishmash which had made her famous. In her introduction Shipman succinctly sums her up as “a creation from beginning to end, a character in a play that she continuously rescripted.”

Once she was arrested, however, the woman who had built her life and career on a series of fantasies was forced to answer to her given name and to tell the truth about her actions. Murphy’s novel is most effective in these sections evoking Mata Hari’s struggle to accommodate her exotic past and her degraded present, her fantasies with the cold facts of imprisonment. Shipman quotes from a final letter that Mata Hari wrote to her nemesis Pierre Bouchardon just before her execution. It is, she notes, “the moment of her greatest self-understanding” when she writes, “That which is permitted to Mata Hari – dancer – is certainly not permitted to Madame Zelle MacLeod. That which happens to Mata Hari, they are the events which do not happen to Madame Zelle. The people who address one do not address the other.”

Mata Hari never managed to make contact again with her daughter, who died at age 18 of a cerebral hemorrhage in August 1919, and never received the last letter her mother wrote her from Saint-Lazare prison. This grim final coda escapes a novel that instead ends with a jarring fragment of authorial overreach:

If you want to be a good ghost, stay quiet for almost a century. Then on the anniversary of your death, begin to haunt the dreams of a writer so that the writer tells your story the way it should be told.

The way it should be told is a bold claim, and this novel, while atmospheric and charming, is too slight and self-absorbed to really tell the story, which is bigger than Mata Hari and has as much to do with the world in which she lived as the decisions she made within it. She created something bigger than herself, so her “story” cannot just be hers alone, and her viewpoint is insufficient to tell it. Shipman’s account is heavily detailed and makes for less beguiling reading than Murphy’s, but only with both can we begin to do some justice to the tragedy of Mata Hari.

Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.

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