Jessica Voeten and Angela Dekker

The Life and Times of Mata-Hari

Leven en tijd van Mata-Hari

A myth-busting portrait of Mata-Hari

Famous actresses have portrayed her and to this day the name Mata-Hari (1876– 1917) is synonymous with seduction and female spies. She has become a legend, the archetype of the femme fatale — so much so that the glamorous myths sometimes obscure the historical truth. Who was she really?

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in a provincial town in the north of the Netherlands and spent several years in the Dutch East Indies as the wife of a Dutch military officer. Only a few months after turning her back on her unhappy marriage, she created a new life for herself in Paris as the mysterious Mata-Hari. In the decade that followed, her sensual Oriental dances made her the embodiment of the Belle Epoque. The Great War brought an end to her dazzling career and eventually led to her death. In the early morning of 15 October 1917, she was executed by a French firing squad after being convicted of spying for the Germans.

This biography draws on previously unknown letters, photographs and documents from private collections, newly accessible documents from the French state archives and other sources. Readers will gain new insights into the seductive persona of Mata-Hari and the stark contrast with the vulnerable woman behind the veil, as revealed by a letter written by Mata-Hari to the investigating judge from her cell in Saint-Lazare on 5 June 1917: ‘There is something else I would like to bring to your attention, namely that Mata-Hari and Mme Zelle MacLeod are two completely different women. […] What Mata-Hari experiences does not happen to Madame Zelle. Those who speak to one of the two are not addressing the other. In their modes of conduct and ways of life, Mata-Hari and Madame Zelle cannot be one and the same.’

The authors approach the figure of Mata-Hari from a 21st-century perspective. They re-examine her life in the light of women’s status in early twentieth-century Europe as second-class citizens, lacking basic rights. And they unearth shocking new facts: papers from French state archives show that no one was convinced of her guilt. Her execution could easily have been prevented, but not one of the powerful men stood up in her defence.

‘Fearless and Reckless is a fascinating portrait of Mata-Hari and the people who crossed her path in the turbulent period that would shape the twentieth century.’

Jessica Voeten

Jessica Voeten (b. 1956) is a journalist. She published Het Witsenhuis (2003) and was the co-author of Isaac Israels in Amsterdam, about the Amsterdam Impressionists.

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Angela Dekker

Angela Dekker (b. 1959) writes for major Dutch newspapers and magazines. She published The Unknown Soldier (2003), about missing soldiers of the Great War, and Lost Past (2007), about Russian émigrés in Paris.

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Moed en overmoed. Leven en tijd van Mata-Hari (2017). Non-fiction, 488 pages.

Themes: espionage


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