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


Misperceptions about Mata Hari abound—many due to the persona that she herself promulgated with convenient lies. Though often thought to be of Indian extraction, Margaretha Zelle MacLeod was actually a young Dutchwoman married to a much older naval officer. After years in this torturous marriage, stationed with him in the Dutch East Indies, she divorced and moved to France. Here she transformed herself into Mata Hari—an exotic, sensual dancer with an insatiable sexual appetite and preference for officers. When World War I broke out, she allegedly became the most notorious double-agent in history.

Shipman attempts to clear Mata Hari, presenting evidence (some compelling, some less so) that she was innocent of espionage charges. Shipman hypothesizes that she was framed by French bureaucrats and convicted because of her unabashed sexuality and the money she accepted from men, rather than because there was concrete evidence against her. Shipman’s style is often speculative, she is righteously dismissive of previous biographers’ discernment, and she has a tendency to digress. She views events through a modern feminist viewpoint, which provides fresh insight in some cases and muddies the waters in others. With these caveats, however, this is a highly readable biography offering an interesting and, for the most part, convincing interpretation of Mata Hari’s fascinating life and tragic death.

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