majestic allure

Aboard the Zeelandia her dress billows this way and that. Her petticoat floats gently while she flirts with officer Jan M. Vos. One of her feet is visible, the other is probably close to his. She ignores the sign reading ‘NO ENTRY’.

Thanks to Scotland Yard, we know exactly what Mata Hari had with her on board the ship. En route from Spain to the Netherlands she was detained in Falmouth on the southern English coast and transferred to London for questioning. All her belongings were seized. When they were returned to her later she had to sign a document stating that she had received all her possessions and that Scotland Yard had kept nothing behind.

This list provides us with a useful insight into her travels through Europe. The petticoat was in one of the three hefty cabin trunks. In total, she had ten pieces of luggage of all shapes and sizes. Ten! But then, where else do you store your six hats, five morning gowns, nine pairs of shoes, six pairs of slippers, three pairs of boots, five veils, thirteen dresses, six skirts, 35 pairs of stockings, eight pairs of gloves and six jackets? Not forgetting all the other bits and pieces: feathers, fur collars, packets of cigarettes, powder puffs, jewellery, the Chinese tea service and the dirty laundry.

No wonder there was a surge of interest when the contents of her house at Nieuwe Uitleg 16 in The Hague were auctioned after her death. ‘Hundreds of pairs of eyes could leer at all that was Sinful. The huge bath, now cold and dusty, the luxurious bed and the silk-padded duvet with the Zelles’ coat of arms,’ wrote the Leeuwarder Courant in January 1918.

When I visited the house after enjoying a cup of coffee in The Hague’s Des Indes Hotel, where she regularly spent time with men, I could not find the plaque that was unveiled there in 1982. ‘A mysterious woman in a mysterious city’, is what cabaret artist Paul van Vliet had said as he tugged away the sheet and exposed the bronze relief.

I looked around. Where was it? I only saw a commemorative plaque that said that this had once been the residence of the actress Fie Carelsen who had performed as Mata Hari in a sadly unsuccessful play. Then I saw a shutter to the left of the front door. The plaque is hidden behind it. You can’t see it at all. If Mata Hari could see this, she would be really pissed off.

It’s one of those little facts that you stumble across when you start unravelling the history of Mata Hari. And actually her story is filled with them. For example, there I was in the City Archive in Amsterdam – in the vault of an old bank building – searching for a photo of her. And who did I see displayed in the same showcase? Queen Wilhelmina. Both of them in one showcase with photos by the Amsterdam photographer Jacob Merkelbach. How frightfully horrified the queen would have been if she knew she was mentioned in the same breath as Mata Hari. Particularly because in the photo Mata Hari looks at least as majestic as she does.

There was a rumour that Wilhelmina’s husband, Prince Hendrik, visited Mata Hari at her house in the court-capital. Some German newspapers claimed that she had even been a lady-in-waiting to the queen. The Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, Esquire Loudon, was quick to refute this.  

But Wilhelmina actually did intervene in Mata Hari’s affairs. The dancer asked her for permission to change her name from ‘Zelle’ into ‘Van Zelle van Aalden’. ‘H.M. did not see any grounds for meeting this request,’ reported De Telegraaf on 13 January 1909. In this light, it may be considered a miracle that, just like our king in the Netherlands, Mata Hari was also portrayed on stamps after her death, In Italy and Spain. Majestic allure at last! And now, in this memorial year, she is exuberantly displayed on special stamps issued in Sierra Leone, in Africa.

Another detail – and by no means hearsay – is the story about Queen Beatrix and Mata Hari. The queen, visiting the old Fries Museum, gave a wide berth to the Mata Hari Hall, where two staff members were waiting to provide her with a detailed explanation of the exhibits. It was clear. Kings and queens have no truck with spies.