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 intelligence contact, 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.