Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pat Shipman's "Femme Fatale"

Pat Shipman is the author of eight previous books, including The Man Who Found the Missing Link and Taking Wing, which won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for science and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and named a New York Times Notable Book for 1998.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, and reported the following:
Page 99 is an excellent page to look at because it is one in which I present some evidence that has been overlooked about the cause of death of the future Mata Hari's son and start to evaluate it. This is a crucial point in her life that had an enormous impact on her future. Whereas most biographers have been interested in the question "Was she a spy?," I am more deeply interested in WHO the future Mata Hari was and WHY she transformed herself from an ordinary girl in rural Holland to the sexiest woman in Europe. To answer my own questions, I concentrated on researching her life in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and how that might have influenced the persona of Mata Hari which she created for herself.

One of the discoveries I made in researching this book was that, emotionally, the keys to her identity seem to be tied up with her father, her husband, and her son. As a child, Margaretha (the future Mata Hari) was her father's favorite child, ridiculously spoiled with magical gifts, extravagant clothes, and the best education. When he left his wife and family during Margaretha's adolescent years, ostensibly because of bankruptcy but also because of another woman, Margaretha's golden world collapsed. The man who loved her more than anyone else, who praised her and spoiled her, had abandoned her and left her (and the rest of the family) in miserable poverty and humiliation. When her mother died of grief and shame a little over a year later, Margaretha's beloved father returned, as she had doubtless been hoping. But instead of taking her back to Amsterdam with him, he pawned her off on reluctant relatives and took her twin, younger brothers. Psychologically, this is a classic set up for becoming a woman with an enormous need to seek and win approval and admiration from men -- which is what she did.

Her first attempt at gaining such admiration was her impulsive marriage to a much older career officer, Rudolf MacLeod. Doubtless in part the attraction was that he had many of the features of her father and that he treated her as a highly desirable partner and sexual prize. She knew so little about the man to whom she became engaged 6 days after meeting him that she did not realize he was hugely in debt, drank too much, would be wildly jealous of any man who looked at her (and there were many), and was most unlikely to be a faithful husband. The marriage was probably doomed from the start by their difference in age and experience. He gave her a good name, a rank, a home, but he also gave her syphilis, then an incurable and much-dreaded disease. Rudolf probably believed that the treatment he had received before meeting her had cured him, as many did in that era. From Margaretha's point of view, the man who had promised to provide a magic world of luxury and adulation had cruelly disappointed her, again. From Rudolf’s, the young, pure bride he had sought to enhance his status had proved to be a whore. Both were angry, bitter, and outraged.

On page 99, I am describing how her son, then not three years old, died in Sumatra. The story she and Rudolf gave out at the time was that he had been poisoned by his babu or nursemaid who conveniently died 2 weeks later and confessed on her deathbed -- a story that is so patently improbable that it must have been disbelieved at the time. There was no police investigation of the death, no newspaper stories about it, and no mention of a death by poisoning of a European child in that province in that year (though European deaths were meticulously registered and their son was the only such child to die at all during that year). The true story, for which I present the evidence, is more probably that the child, like his infant sister, was inadvertently poisoned by the garrison physician who was treating them for congenital syphilis. That he had congenital syphilis had to be covered up lest his parents' reputation be ruined and they refused to permit an autopsy; that the garrison physician was to blame had to be covered up lest his career be ruined. Despite the cover-up, Rudolf was demoted and transferred to another post within weeks of the child's death. Clearly his superiors were highly suspicious and disapproving. Rudolf and Margaretha each blamed each other for their son's death and their marriage went from quarreling and anger to a horrible bitterness in which each wished the other dead. Rudolf started beating Margaretha and refusing to let her have any money beyond the minimum to run the household; his drinking and rages increased in frequency; and she gave vent to her resentment and anger on every possible occasion.

From her Javan experience, Mata Hari was born. She was determined never to put herself at another man's mercy, which drove her to seek an independent career. There were few options available to a woman in the early twentieth century. The one she was good at -- the one she had practiced from the time she was a child -- was charming men. From her Javan experience, she borrowed a name, a general style of dancing, and colorful costumes more revealing and transparent than any ever worn in traditional Javan dance. But she knew how to charm, and charm she did. Her brilliance was shown in how well she calculated how to dance and how to dress -- and how to explain that hers were sacred temple dances from the mysterious East. Those who thought them "dirty" were too ignorant to recognize art when they saw it! But everyone recognized her beauty and sensuality, which were the keys to her success.

She became a true celebrity on the order of Marilyn Monroe -- a woman recognized and desired by every man in Europe, a star whose daily goings-on were reported in gossip columns of the newspapers. Why then was she recruited as a spy by the head of the French Deuxieme Bureau, the counter-espionage unit? How could he hope she would be clandestine? And did she ever spy against France, for Germany, as she was accused of and executed for? Ah, for those secrets, you must read the book!
Read more about Femme Fatale at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue