she made fools of us all

If there is one man who has truly burrowed into Mata Hari's life, then it is Sam Waagenaar. He was a remarkable man: a shoe salesman, actor, publicist, writer, journalist, opera singer, photographer, organiser, adventurer, lover of women, hedonist. A clever young man, vain, excitable, optimistic, inspiring, and always the centre of attention, he was a Jewish Amsterdammer, who lived almost all his life abroad: New York, Paris, Rome, Berlin.

Sam Waagenaar met de Franse versie van zijn Mata Hari boek

Filmmaker Pim Zwier was fascinated by Waagenaar and made a film about him titled Never a Dull Moment. Waagenaar shared anecdotes in the radio programme Nooit meer slapen (‘Never Sleep Again’) about, for example, him performing the role of an SS officer during the Second World War in American films while his parents were in Auschwitz – they did not survive.

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Trailer Never a Dull Moment

Or about the photographer Waagenaar travelling with the American troops to Normandy, witnessing D-Day and photographing the liberation of Paris. Fifteen years later he made the photobook Vrouwen van Rome (‘Women of Rome’), followed by Vrouwen van Israël (‘Women of Israel’) and other photobooks.

Waagenaar’s interest in Mata Hari was piqued while he worked as a publicist for MGM film studios. A melodramatic feature film{tearjerker} was made about Mata Hari in 1931, with Greta Garbo – then the world’s best-known film star – in the lead role.

He went to visit Anna Lintjes, Mata Hari’s former domestic servant. ‘We looked at each other. Her face was serious, her wrinkled hands were clasped together on her clean apron. ‘I still have this’, she said. I took the books from her. ‘Are these...?’ I asked, but did not finish the sentence. ‘Take them’, she said, ‘Somehow, I feel I can trust you.’ And thus did Waagenaar come to own two of Mata Hari’s thick scrapbooks. He was immediately hooked and began investigating her past: he trawled archives and interviewed all kinds of people who had known her.

When I first heard that I was related to Mata Hari, I immediately bought his book, by then translated into 26 languages and sold around the world. In fact, he wrote two books. The first, Moord op Mata Hari (‘The Murder of Mata Hari’), in which he established her innocence, and the second version, Mata Hari niet zo onschuldig (‘Mata Hari, Not So Innocent’), in which he adjusted his opinion slightly based on new data.

Later he gave his entire Mata Hari archive to the Museum of Friesland, including the scrapbooks. When I collected the archive with Yves Rocourt, guest curator of the forthcoming exhibition in the Museum of Friesland, we almost collapsed under the mass of paperwork: 57 files, stored in cardboard boxes.

Letters and cards from all over the world are included, drafts for a play that was never performed, requests for interviews, reviews of his book: ‘Sam Waagenaar has done more than anyone to tell the truth about her’ (Times Literary Supplement).

As ‘Mr. Mata Hari’ became older, he also became more difficult. He accused and sued author Jan Brokken for plagiarism, but lost spectacularly. That caper cost him a lot of money. It wasn’t the only court case. ‘Waagenaar really thought that Mata Hari was his property’, says Brokken. When author Julie Wheelwright wanted to interview him for her book about Mata Hari, he grumbled that it was unnecessary, as he had already written her definitive story.

And he fell out with with Gerk Koopmans, then conservator of the Museum of Friesland, over his donation. It was about money, something he desperately needed to see out his waning years in the Rosa Spier Huis, a home for ageing artists, in Laren.

He was grumpy, but do bear in mind he was 85 years old and struggling with his health. ‘They were tough negotiations and because he felt like he was being short-changed, he became very het up’, recalls Gerk Koopmans. ‘But we also shared some very funny moments.’

Sam Waagenaar died in 1997 at the age of 89. He was 9 years old when Mata Hari was executed. His fascination with her never abated after he was given her scrapbooks at the age of 23. His declaration: ‘She's the only woman in my life who has spied. She made fools of us all. There is no other person in the world whose name is as associated with espionage as hers.’