fantasy

Lie? We all do it once in a while. But she was really expert at it. Or was it really just an overactive imagination that drove Mata Hari to weave the wildest stories. Where did the fantasy stop and the lies begin?

Imagine Madonna at the TMF Awards telling the audience that her father was an Italian count. A few mouse clicks later and everyone knows that Mr Siccone was an emigrant’s son from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, without a drop of noble blood. You’d know immediately that Madonna told a whopper.

Mata Hari

‘She fooled us all’, wrote Sam Waagenaar in his book about Mata Hari.And that wasn’t such a difficult thing to do in an age when things were spinning out of control in a world without the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Fibs fell from her lips like the veils from her hips:

I was born in India. My father was called Suprachetty. He belonged to the Brahman caste.’|
My father was a Javanese prince. He often took me to the temples where priestesses honour the god Shiva with their dancing.’
My father was a Dutch officer, my grandmother was the daughter of a Javanese prince.’
I'm married to a wealthy Englishman and have a castle and eight horses.’
I was born at the Cammingha Estate in Leeuwarden, my mother was a baroness.’
My mother was a famous bajadere (Indian dancer); she died on my fourth birthday. After the priests had burned her body to ashes, they gave me the name Mata Hari.’
Sixty thousand copies of my father’s book have been printed in India, where I'm very famous.’

From all over the world, from Italy to Argentina, journalists came to interview her and she sent each of them up the garden path with a different story. What made her do that? Was it because reality wasn’t exciting enough and she realised that she was actually quite good at tossing veils aside, even though she didn’t know the first thing about dancing, if truth be told? That’s highly possible. In addition, she denied her roots and invented others that were enigmatic and exotic. And she had fun doing it.

Nowadays we are concerned about the use of alternative facts, but lying (LINK 2) has always been with us, history is drenched in falsehoods. A few examples… Everything Herodotus (the father of historiography) wrote about the Persian Wars in the 5th century BCE, he sucked from his thumb. In the previous century, a certain Harry Gerguson, a trouser-presser from New York, claimed to be a cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, and got away with it for a while. Not so long ago, Dutch sociologist Diederik Stapel was exposed for his fraudulent academic research.

Mata Hari was by no means the only one who fantasised; everyone did. Major Coulson, author of the book Mata Hari - Courtisan and Spy claimed that Margreet Zelle's mother sent her daughter to a Catholic monastery and that Mata Hari danced in London, something she never did. And Basil Thomson, the head of Scotland Yard who detained her in London for three days for questioning declared that her mother was Javanese instead of Antje van der Meulen from Franeker. Journalists also wrote the biggest load of nonsense.

After divorcing Antje, her father, Adam Zelle cobbled together a book about his daughter that was riddled with untruths. But writer and ex-spy Kurt Singer managed to outdo them all. He decided to rename Margreet’s daughter Non as ‘Banda’, and claimed that she spied for Japan during WW2 and was shot by Chinese communists in North Korea. The real Non had already been dead for 30 years.

If you are used to living in an imaginary world, it's all the more difficult to hold on to reality. And reality still eluded her at the crucial moment when she needed it most, in the jail in Vincennes. ‘Je suis décidée aujourd’hui å vous dire la verité’ (‘I am determined to tell you the truth today'), she said on 21 May 1917, to Captain Bouchardon, her French interrogator. You want to shout ‘DON’T DO IT! You’ll only make it worse’. But she was all alone, caught between truth and fabrication.

There was nothing left to hold onto.