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Biography of Mata Hari Reveals New Information, Casts Doubt on Her Execution for Espionage

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Mata Hari was the prototype of the beautiful but unscrupulous female who uses sexual allure to gain access to secrets. In 1917, the notorious dancer was arrested, tried, and executed for espionage. It was charged at her trial that the dark-eyed siren was responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 gallant French soldiers. Irrefutably, she had been the mistress of many senior Allied officers and government officials, even the French Minister of War: a point viewed as highly suspicious. Worse yet, she spoke several European languages fluently and traveled widely in wartime Europe.  But was she guilty of espionage? And what propelled Margaretha Zelle, destined to be a Dutch schoolteacher, to transform herself into Mata Hari, an international symbol of sexuality?

In a new biography, Femme Fatal; Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, award-winning author Pat Shipman addresses Mata Hari's guilt and motivation with new evidence. Shipman, a well-known writer and an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State University, researched the background and early marriage of the woman who was to become Mata Hari. She also reviewed hundreds of pages of declassified documents in France and England about Mata Hari's arrest and espionage trial. The book will be published on 1 August 2007, by HarperCollins, New York.

Femme Fatale has already been selected as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week. Excerpts from the book will be read aloud daily this week, prior to the book's publication date, can be heard on-line then at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/. Shipman also will be interviewed on the Diane Rehm Show on 1 August 2007 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon on many National Public Radio stations.

As a child, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle learned that the way to happiness was to please powerful men. She became very good at it. Her mother dead and her adored father bankrupt, teenaged Margaretha was sent to train as a kindergarten teacher, only to be seduced by the headmaster. Disgraced and bored, the girl answered a newspaper ad to meet and marry a career colonial officer twenty years her senior who would be soon returning to the Dutch East Indes. Rudolf MacLeod offered her a name, a home, and a good position in society. The marriage dissolved in a nightmare of drinking, gambling, and vicious hatred following the death of their son from treatment for syphilis.

Margaretha fled the Indies and her marriage, recreating herself several times and finally settling on the persona of Mata Hari. She posed as a mixed-race princess trained in sacred and sexual temple dances of the east, an identity that fitted her exotic good looks and society's romantic notions. Her erotic dances and her flimsy, revealing costumes soon made her famous as the most desirable woman in Europe and the glamorous mistress of many famous and powerful men. She danced before enthusiastic crowds in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Monte Carlo, Milan and Rome, inspiring admiration, jealousy, and bitter condemnation.

Mata Hari entertained many officers after World War I broke out, but she fell in love with a Russian captain fighting for the French. He was injured severely in battle, so Mata Hari agreed to spy for France to earn enough money to support them. She never suspected that her recruiter — Georges Ladoux, the head of the Deuxieme Bureau — was a German double agent. Did he really think a famous and instantly recognizable dancer, one who drew attention wherever she went, could really be a spy?

In 1916, French defeats had mounted and the army was in revolt. Mata Hari's lavish lifestyle, her open sexuality, and her foreignness made her the perfect "fall guy" to blame. Tangled in a web of moral condemnation, framed by evidence manufactured evidence produced by Ladoux, Mata Hari was convicted of espionage and executed on October 15, 1917. Four days later, Ladoux was himself arrested as a double agent, but it was too late for Mata Hari.

Shipman reinterprets the later parts of Mata Hari's life as a dancer in Europe and a potential spy. She presents detailed evidence of Mata Hari's childhood and married life, including documents suggesting she was given syphilis by her husband; new evidence about the death of her son in the Dutch East Indies (the catalyst for the breakup of her marriage), as well as new information and insights into her life in the colonies, the prejudices against women like her who appeared to be of mixed race, and the prevalence of native mistresses and their influence on colonial officers like her husband.

The book reproduces a previously unpublished photograph of Mata Hari in the Dutch East Indies, as well as historic photographs of some of the places where her husband was stationed, and incorporates newly-available information from original French and British documents now declassified.

A brilliant biography, Femme Fatale pinpoints the powerful, yet dangerous, attributes that evoked such strong emotions in those who met Mata Hari. Hitherto the focus of her biographers has been on espionage. This is the first account to explore the events that shaped her life and caused the transformation from rural Dutch girl to international femme fatale.

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Pat Shipman: pls10@psu.edu, (+) 814-231-1549
Barbara K. Kennedy (Penn State PIO): science@psu.edu, (+1)814-863-4682

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