crazy about mata hari

Mata Hari? Give it a rest! It’s not at all interesting, say a lot of people when I start talking about her. Once they learn more about her, they too are hooked.

I follow Jan Brugman upstairs to his workroom, where he keeps some of his books. The floor could very well collapse, he thinks, possibly today, maybe tomorrow. A thick beam above the door struggles to prop up the bookcase. The room next door, well, Mrs Brugman isn’t happy about it: it’s full too. It's the fate of a collector's partner: films, photos, postcards, books, paintings…

His computer is downstairs. He uses it to communicate with the outside world via the Facebook page The International Mata Hari Appreciation Society (Jan: ‘I can’t even pronounce it properly’). It’s about history as a whole and Mata Hari in particular. He knows her story inside out. She's a connecting thread, just like Churchill or Lincoln. People can follow it.

The postmen in Leeuwarden know his address well. Things arrive almost daily, usually purchased at Internet auctions. Unique finds sometimes. He was already collecting clippings from the Leeuwarder Courant about Mata Hari when he was 20, during his hippie period. And why? Because of that thread. ‘Look at 1905, the year of her momentous rise to fame. You see shifts elsewhere in the world, including the Russo–Japanese War, which Japan won.’ He adds that he’s crazy about cliffhangers.

There’s a lot of philosophising on the Emmakade. ‘Mata Hari intrigues me. I want to know all the ins and outs. There are just as many lies as truths. Sometimes you stumble upon a piece of the truth, and that's wonderful.’ He’s fully aware that Leeuwarden isn’t losing any sleep over this. ‘Just mentioning her name here gets peoples’ eyes rolling.’ That’s also part of a collector’s fate.

In this jubilee year he has several irons in the fire, including an exhibition in Leeuwarden’s city hall and a Mata Hari media monument on the Mata Hari square. What exactly that will be he isn’t saying, and I can't help but wonder whether it'll come to anything. The municipality isn’t exactly jumping for joy, so that hurdle still has to be taken.

Last question: What would he most want to have in his collection? Aha, here we go: the bottles of invisible ink she threw into the North Sea Canal: ‘They could easily float up from the depths.’ Optimism is also a trait of the true collector.

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Jan Brugman

If only this underwear could speak

I hear the sound of sniffling in the hallway of De Zwaan auction house in Amsterdam. I see a woman in her early 40s with a handkerchief in her hand. Can I do something for you, I ask. No. These are tears of joy, of someone deeply touched. She’s just bought something that once belonged to Mata Hari. She doesn’t say what it is. But she’s waited a long time to have something of hers and that’s why this is such a special moment.

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Auction house de Zwaan

Inside, a white gold choker is being auctioned. A pendant on a chain. It’s on a somewhat shabby serving tray. Estimated at between 300 and 500 euros. Someone in Switzerland offers 1050, Julia bids 1150 by phone, 1300 from a lady in the back of the hall, 1500 on the phone, 1600 from a man in the first row, 1700 online from Switzerland, 1800 from the lady at the back of the room. The hammer comes down. ‘Going…going…gone!’

There is a second auction a year later. It’s a reunion of happy addicts. Most of them also bid at the first Mata Hari auction. Someone says: ‘I'm last year's cutlery man.’ Cameras whirr, journalists scribble in their notepads, there’s coffee and tea aplenty.

Just after seven, auctioneer Babette van den Brink starts the proceedings. She enters, her black skirt rustling under her light green silk jacket, her long hair bouncing on her back. ‘If only this underwear could speak,’ she says, appraising a bundle of fabric. It sold for 320 euros.

Next to me is number 446, with her husband. Halfway through there is some confusion because the Internet bidder from Italy increases his bid just as the hammer falls. The notary is resolute. The Italian bid counts. ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ grumbles Mr 446, ‘this is nonsense.’ His wife seems calm, but her lip quivers. She persists. With Mata Hari it’s all or nothing.

I would cling to a man like that

Dollhouse architect Conny van den Dungen lives in Ridderkerk. Her husband has to share her with a tiny version of Mata Hari. Upstairs, in her exhibition space, she tells the story of Mata Hari’s life in episodes, using miniatures. Everything is to scale. Her husband: ‘Conny thinks in terms of 1:12.’

It started with a visit to the Museum of Friesland. ‘I looked at the photos as a builder would. The canal, her father's shop, the Musée Guimet in Paris. Mata Hari's character gradually emerged along with my fascination with her. Her husband: ‘Actually, it all went rather quickly.’

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Film by Conny van Dungen

She was obsessed with Mata Hari for eight years, virtually day and night. Lots of research. Also because she had to interpret the black and white photos in colour. Her husband: ‘We went to Bronbeek to look at uniforms. She copied MacLeod’s uniform exactly, down to the buttons and decorations. And we went to the grave of MacLeod and Non, the daughter he had with Mata Hari.’

Conny: ‘I admire her because she did so much. She just carried on, and that was quite something for a woman back then. I would never dare. That's not who I am, it’s not in my character. I'm a housewife. Fazant 110 in Ridderkerk, that’s me. She had what I don’t. I would cling to a man like MacLeod, afraid of being alone. Not her. She thought it was fun; she had boundless imagination and was very deceptive. Not me. Somebody once said to me: ‘You’d be that nun who took care of her in prison.’

‘At first, I thought she was innocent and not a spy. But once I began to understand her, I no longer believed she was innocent. Then it came to me: I'm making models of a spy. And then I hit a dip. Later I thought, so what?’
Her exhibition in the Museum of Friesland was extended at the time due to its popularity.

Just that one step further

Actress and dancer Tet Rozendal initially fell for Mata Hari the dancer. She took dance classes in Indonesia, but it was in Musée Guimet that Mata Hari really came to life for her. ‘My entire body tingled. I got under her skin, trying to feel what she felt as a woman who was very limited in what she was allowed to do. And I thought, if she dared, I should be more daring too, and take a more courageous stand. I identified with her. I too was stuck. She gave me the push I needed.’

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Film of Mata Hari - by Erik de Reus

Like Jan with his Mata Hari society, and Conny and her miniatures, Tet also thought about what she could do with this new knowledge. She turned it into a theatre performance. Joop van de Ende's casting director was enthusiastic, as was the composer. They decided to work with her: ‘With me, an ordinary girl from Friesland!’ She did a 50-show tour of the Netherlands.

‘For the performance I went in search of the sadness in her life. How did leaving her child behind affect her? As a woman she wasn’t allowed anything. She was all alone in the world and wanted money and power so she could reclaim her child.
As a free woman she made choices and in my show she passes this knowledge on to her daughter, Non: if you free yourself of your fears, you're a free woman. It's a universal theme, the story of all women.’
Tell me Tet, I ask, how would you describe Mata Hari in one sentence? She ponders, then: ‘She’s a woman who encouraged other women to take that one step further.’

This year, Tet Rozendal will perform throughout Europe during de Mystery Tour. The highlight will be a performance in Musée Guimet in Paris, the place where it all began for Mata Hari. ‘That's a gift from Mata Hari to me.’

The performance Mata Hari will be staged in The Harmonie in Leeuwarden on Sunday 15 October.