Friday, August 07, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mata Hari

Mata Hari will live forever in crosswords, but if all you know about her is that she was a spy, well then, everything you know is wrong. She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (and if she'd kept that name she'd probably never have shown up in a single crossword puzzle ever) in Leeuwarden, Holland. She invented the whole Mata Hari (Malayan for Sun) persona, claimed to be from the mysterious land of Java, raised by temple priests, et cetera. None of it was true, of course, and neither were any of the espionage charges pressed against her. Her prosecutor, AndrĂ© Mornet, stated without apology in an interview forty years later: “There wasn't enough evidence to whip a cat.” And a German general concluded: “Innumerable tall tales were concocted about the German secret service … like the one about the unfortunate Mata Hari, who, in reality, did absolutely nothing for the German espionage effort.” She just happened to be in the wrong place at the time when France needed a scapegoat. She was executed by firing squad -- she refused the blindfold -- in 1917. I understand she's always going to be around, and I'm fine with that, but can we please stop besmirching the poor woman's reputation? She was a fascinating woman and she had morals that shocked the French who are notoriously lenient in that department, but she wasn't a spy. With a little luck, Mata Hari would have been 133 years old today.

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