Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale: love, lies, and the unknown life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman.  Normally, I don’t read biographies.  My attention span just can’t handle 400+ pages on one person and I find that most biographers, like most film documentarians, struggle to keep their own prejudices about their subjects out of their work.  However, I like spy and espionage stories and so, in a moment of weakness, I picked up this biography of Mata Hari.  I didn’t know anything about the Dutch adventuress born Margaretha Zelle beyond the romanticized film portrayals and her conviction as a spy for the Germans in World War I.  After reading this volume, I certainly know much more. 

The first third of the book covers her life before she became the famous dancer, including her upbringing in Holland and her difficult marriage to a Dutch Army officer.  This section was incredibly tedious with page after page on the use of concubines in the Royal Dutch Indies Army and the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis.  However, the last two thirds are much more enjoyable as Shipman gives a detailed and interesting account of Mata’s life as an international celebrity prior to the war, her interactions with intelligence agencies during the conflict, and her imprisonment and trial at the hands of the French.

Shipman’s interpretation of each piece of evidence and action by the players in this drama is based on a sympathetic view that Mata was too much a celebrity to be an effective spy and was naïve about the game of espionage.  Shipman discounts her own observations that Mata was an expert seducer with little regard for the truth when a lie could be self-serving and was always in need of money.  However, her research into the case and its participants is exemplary and should make readers rethink their own beliefs about this complex “international woman” who is too often presented as a one-dimensional villain and about how governments should treat detainees.

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