the man behind mata hari

We’re in Rotterdam, near the station from where we will leave for Paris later in the day. ‘We’ is a group of journalists from all over the Netherlands. Yves Rocourt puts on his gloves, picks up a book and shows it to us. 'This brings the exhibition to an entirely new level. It proves how much she loved her children.’

Rocourt is a guest curator at the Museum of Friesland, the man responsible for the exhibition Mata Hari, the myth and the maiden, which opens in October. The book is the young mother Margaretha Zelle's baby album, Ons Kindje (Our Baby), with her children Norman and Non as the subjects.

The following morning he explains to the journalists gathered in the archive in Paris what documents lay in store for them in Leeuwarden. We crowd around the table where part of the file lies. It is ‘truly remarkable’ that we can actually even see it, French archivist Hélène Guillot assures us. Rocourt left his gloves at the hotel. Touching is forbidden. Anyone merely gesturing towards the file is met with a reproving glare from Hélène and her colleagues.

Back to the baby album… In which she wrote sentences such as ‘Our little cutie who is allowed to go out for the first time and will presently fall asleep.’ You can hardly imagine that this is the same woman as the spy who was sentenced to death. Or vice versa.

For Yves Rocourt, the album was the turning point in his opinion of Margaretha Zelle. Based on the museum's collection, she had come across as a distant, cold mother who wrote to her teenage daughter: ‘I have the right as a mother to ask you this.’ And ‘this’ was a possible meeting. And as touching as her writing about her babies is, possibly even more touching is the silence that descends when Norman, their eldest, dies at the age of two.

Nothing else was added to the album, her marriage was on the rocks, and the rest is history.

This discovery as well as finding the letters that Margaret wrote during her divorce – in the run-up to her departure to Paris and the ‘birth’ of Mata Hari – changed the tone of the exhibition. Mata Hari, the myth and the maiden strives to present an overview of her life. ‘We follow her throughout her life and stay as close as possible. And we try to answer questions, but with Mata Hari you always have to check everything she said.’

As a master’s student in history, Yves Rocourt joined the Museum of Friesland after doing an internship about Mata Hari for the documentary The Naked Spy. He began by inventorising the museum’s dormant Mata Hari collection of letters, documents, pictures, and reports. His contract was renewed and last year he was asked to become a guest curator. Now that says something!

He looks at the schedules that hang on the workroom wall. Pages full of notes, with snatches of sentences such as ‘stop following me / on my way to arrest’ and ‘info submarine Morocco / leaving Madrid, reason unknown,’ which forms the scenario of the exhibition. It is harder than it looks. Her life was extremely complex, which compounds the difficulties in assembling an exhibition such as this. Her story is told over six halls, the visitor is dropped into the deep end from the get-go: in the first room Mata Hari is being cross-examined by the French secret service, who suspect her of being a double agent.

‘Do you like her?’ I ask him. ‘That's a tough question, I don’t know. She’s a very interesting person, but she’s still hard to pin down. I admire her too. Her life wasn’t easy, with many ups and downs, which is also the thread of the exhibition. She experienced a lot in her brief life, father bankrupt, parents divorced, dad away, mom dead, all while she was just an adolescent. And later, after things improved for her, it all collapsed again. But she kept on going, she persisted. Many others would have given up. I think she was very brave.’

So, Yves, if there were something you’d like to ask her, what would it be? He has a ready answer: ‘Why in God’s name didn’t you stay on neutral territory in the Netherlands during the First World War? You could have waited for the war to pass and afterwards you could have done what you wanted. Okay, perhaps The Hague was a sober and boring village compared to Paris, but,’ his voice drops, ‘at least it was safe.’

Yves has called the most remarkable acquisition – in which she is declared officially dead (MORT!) – 'Document No. 1’. With, as a close second, the album and other pieces that the museum bought at the De Zwaan auction in Amsterdam, including the brooch that Mata Hari gave to an acquaintance, Justin Herre, just before her death, with the request that he give it to Non. Only much later did the brooch arrive in the Netherlands, but it was too late. Non was already dead. At the auction a soft murmur rippled through the room when auctioneer Babette van den Brink related this story.

Yves Rocourt was not at the auction himself, he was anxiously killing time in Leeuwarden until the call came that ended his agony: they had acquired 14 of the 17 items. Now that impressed him.