mata hari

Tall, dusky and not especially beautiful, but irresistibly attractive nonetheless. An electrifying personality with a knack for attracting publicity. Margaretha Zelle, who was born in a house on De Kelders, a canal in Leeuwarden in 1876, was a full-blown sensation in Paris before she turned 30. She bewitched high society with her exotic dances which usually involved her slowly removing her clothes. Newspapers devoted endless column inches to the mysterious Mata Hari, Margaretha Zelle’s stage name. For ten years, the name ‘Mata Hari’ was synonymous with excitement, glamour and sensuality. However, her numerous, very public affairs with men in uniform – of many different nationalities – aroused the suspicions of the secret services, and during the First World War, Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad in the forests around Paris. 

A life of adventure, sex, suspense and sensation is perfect material for a film. Fourteen years after she had been executed, the film company Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) started creating the groundwork to make a film about her life, starring two of the biggest names at the time: Greta Garbo and Ramon Navarra. A young MGM employee with a Dutch background, Sam Wagenaar, carried out the research for the film. He interviewed people who had known Mata Hari well, and ended up speaking to her personal assistant in a small village in Limburg. This lady, by then advanced in years, had worked for Mata Hari in her heyday after 1905. At the end of their conversation, she gave Wagenaar two items that had belonged to Mata Hari, and which she had taken great care of in the intervening years: heavy, thick, Moroccan calf leather bound books with the name ‘Mata Hari’ embossed in gold on the spines. These books were Mata Hari’s personal scrapbooks which she took with her on her journeys across Europe.

Wagenaar was fascinated by the scrapbooks which are Mata Hari's own account of a life in the spotlight, with lots of photographs, flyers announcing performances, reviews and telegrams. And of course, notes and letters from famous lovers and admirers such as Baron Henri de Rotschildt, the composers Massenet and Puccini, and Gaston Menier, head of the Menier Chocolate company. Mata Hari had added brief notes in her bold handwriting.

Wagenaar took the books back to Hollywood, where they were stored in the vaults at the Bank of America for the duration of the Second World War. Wagenaar bequeathed his unique collection of ‘Mata Hariana’ to the Fries Museum. The scrapbooks Mata Hari was so proud of are on display for all to see in the hall devoted to Friesland’s most famous daughter. They have also been digitised in their entirety and visitors can browse through their virtual versions from cover to cover.