A Tangled Web: Mata Hari

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 Oct 2017

Member Reviews

Intriguing story of a spy who never really was, Mata Hari’s life was loaded with incident but underneath it all lies a sense of pathos. Trapped in Germany at t(e start of World War I she lied her way out by promising her Germán captors she would spy on the Allies for them, a commitment she likely had no intention of sticking to. Eventually she did try by spying on t(e French, but did a disastrous job, refusing to use such elements of spy craft as invisible ink and even sending her “reports” through regular mail. Her execution by the French was political, cruel and completely unnecessary. Ms. Craig does a great job of digging through the tangled rubble to mine the truth, as much as it can be told about a woman whose own relationship to the truth was slippery at best.
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I enjoyed this book it was well written and a joy to read. The authors gives insight to the subject matter that I felt was compelling and would recommend this book to a friend.
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A Tangled Web: Mata Hari by Mary W. Craig is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late October.

Margaretha (or M'Greet) MacLeod becomes Mari Hari (Malaysian for 'sun' or 'light of day') when she performs Eastern dance (with little to no clothing) in Paris, which was inspired by her travels from the Netherlands into Malaysia and India. In 1915, however, when she's straining for money, the ability to cross European borders, and the need to be compensated for her property seized by the military, she accepts recruitment to become an agent for Germany, then France, then Russia, before the French caught on to what was happening and arrested her for collusion and counter-espionage. The story itself is quite detailed, before and after her fame and infamy, though there's a whole lot of data about her being under surveillance, transcribed interviews and interrogations, and much covert non-civilian decision-making.
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Although I greatly appreciated the clear review of global history, I was surprised by the condescending and rather insulting tone used in writing about Mata Hari. Craig makes this feminist icon seem like a naive dolt who had no other skill than sex work rather than seeing the great Mata Hari as a survivor. She's a woman who began to sculpt her life as a teen after so much family rejection. She embraced sexuality and yes, used it to make a living. This doesn't make her shallow and only interested in her furs and jewelry as Craig describes when it comes to how and why Mata Hari was recruited by the Germans and the French as a spy.
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Let me begin by saying that I dearly wanted to love this book. It holds all of the elements that intrigue me: international spies, cunning and daring ladies of their era, exciting and tense world affairs, affairs in general......but I found our heroine to lack depth and was incredibly disappointed that less was done to engage the reader with her. Here was a woman ahead of her time and way over her head in her dalliances, and yet there is little to no emotion surrounding her behaviors and exploits. We get only the vaguest of notions that she cared about her children, she claims love for a number of men at various times, but there is no substance to her character as a person. Nothing to draw you in and make you love her, hate her, or some combination thereof. 
The history is clearly there, but the story lacks imagination and the rich detail that might have left us breathless or aghast at her exploits.I found it difficult to imagine why any country would have had interest in this woman as a spy, as she comes across as rather dull and cunning only in so much as it takes to get a fine dress and her next meal. 
In short, its rather like a Christmas tree without the decorations, lovely but uninteresting.
This book has been reviewed on the blog listed below, twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads on 10/23/17
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Other than the knowledge that Mata Hari had been a spy (and mistakenly assigned by my memory to WWII), I knew nothing about the woman originally born as Margaretha Geertrudia Zella. Mary W. Craig’s “A Tangled Web” helped eliminate all the false ideas I had and enabled me to come away with not only a solid knowledge of Mata Hari but also educated me on the political and moral climate of Europe in the early 20th century. Did Mata Hari receive a fair trial, or was she judged and her moral character found wanting? This, among other subjects, is fully explored in the book. 

Mata Hari is a Malay phrase that can be translated as “eye of the day,” a name that in hindsight more than adequately describes the book’s subject. Ms. Craig furnishes us with a complete story, beginning with Mata Hari’s parents and extending to the time of her execution. This book is painstakingly researched, and the author obligingly provides not only a bibliography, but also a notes and a reference section (this section includes all the papers examined from different countries).

I especially liked that the author would not take a potential incident and offer only a shred of proof while presenting that incident as fact. Whenever Ms. Craig encountered this situation, she was always careful to offer the different possibilities the ambiguous evidence might lead one to believe. Once it was established that it was not possible to prove without a doubt what had happened, the author would then lead the reader down the most logical path by using established evidence to disprove some of the possibilities. It was refreshing to read a historical text where the writer was not afraid to admit that all the facts have become blurred over time, leaving only what she believes might be the truth, based on her extensive investigations.

In the book, Ms. Craig tells us that by the time WWI came along, Mata Hari was caught up in her fantasies, believing she could do no wrong. She was supported in this belief by an adoring public and men who were besotted with her and would allow this sort of behavior. This story of her life is interesting as well as entertaining. Also enjoyable are the pictures provided, as these can be just as revealing as the text. Highly recommended. Five stars.

My thanks to NetGalley and Trafalgar Square Publishing for providing me with an advance copy of this book.
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This biography of Mata Hari is an enjoyable read, revealing the woman behind the myth. Her turbulent youth, miserable marriage, and her re-invention of herself comes to life in the hands of author Mary Craig, who has meticulously researched the facts about this famous enigma of a woman who did what she wanted to do in order to live the life she dreamed. In many ways, Mata Hari was a trailblazer in her frank sexuality in an era that condemned women for any kind of acknowledgement of their own sexual identity; in other ways, she was a selfish woman who had no insight into the greater realities of her actions in early-twentieth century Europe. From her native Netherlands (I didn't know she was Dutch!) to her execution as a spy in France, Mata Hari created her own story as an exotic dancer and international sensation, and Craig documents the tale well, though the book gets a bit bogged down near its end with the transcripts of conversations during the French investigation of Mata Hari's espionage. The addition of photos at the end of the book is a delightful plus!
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Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

	Perhaps the first thing one learns about Mara Hari is that she was dancer and a slut.  Then, perhaps one learns she was a slut because she danced naked and slept with a great many men.  Then one hears that she was spy and was shot for it.  But the important thing that one is told is that she was very, very sexy.  In fact, she seems to be the spy that gets remembered not so much because of the doubt of her guilt, but because she was a sexpot. 
	She also wasn’t a very good spy.  She got caught after all
	Mary W. Craig’s new book tries to present a more nuanced picture of Mata Hari, or at least as much as one can giving the problem of sources.
	Margrethe Zell was born in the Netherlands, where she lived until her marriage took her to the Dutch East Indies.  Her early life, Craig points out, was nice until her father suffered a major loss in business.  What then followed as an unclear life plan and, what today, we would consider at the very least statutory rape – an affair with an instructor.   Craig’s details about Hari’s early life -  her struggles after the family bankruptcy and her time spent with relatives are related in a matter of a fact way.  There is pity in Craig’s writing, but Craig isn’t turning the biography into a more sinned against than sinning story.  Hari isn’t portrayed as a victim, but as a woman who took control of her life.
	Or if she is, she is doing it by taking a brutally honest about Mata Hari.
	Nowhere is this more obviously in the discussion of Zell’s marriage with MacLeod.  It is a marriage that produced two children, possibly infected Zell with an STD, and was abusive.  While not excusing MacLeod’s behavior, Craig also places the man in context, in particular with his treatment of Hari after separation and divorce, noting that MacLeod’s actions had more to do with protecting his daughter than anything else.
	Hari was no saint, and in addition to her sexual activities (less shocking today than when Hari lived), Craig does closely examine and places Hari’s dancing in the times.  The discussion of whether Hari was lying or promoting a fantasy with her “Eastern” dancing.  How much of her dancing was imply an illusion that everyone brought into, like the body stocking she wore?  Craig can’t give a definite answer but she does truly address the issue, even reading books about Hari that were published during the height of her popularity.
	Craig, in part, is hampered by the self-serving purpose of some her sources (and she is clear about this) as well as a lack of sources.  Yet, despite these drawbacks, Craig does paint an interesting, more revealing portrait of a woman who is usually known simply for sex.
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Mary W. Craig has done a great disservice to Mata Hari. The last thing Mata Hari wanted was to be seen as the "teary wife" that was a victim of so many rotten things in her life. She was never like that and did not see herself in that role.

First and foremost we should remember her as the greater innovator of dance in the twentieth century. Without any formal training she recognized the unique and deeply engaging Hindu dance that she came into contact with. She engaged Indian musicians as well as studied the dance technique to give performances that changed dance forever. She crossed borders and changed minds and sensibilities. 

That Craig is too dismissive about Mata Hari and her dancing technique, discussing none of what made it brilliant and innovative, she again and again refers the unwarranted accusation that the Indian style dance was a mere excuse to get around censorship laws so she could sell her erotic nudity on the Parisian stage. 

If this was the case then she should not have been so successful. More naked flesh could be found in other well known theatres without such a pretense. Much more important was Mata Hari's vocal and persistent plea for audiences to understand the religious and cultural meaning of the dances she performed. This was her great discovery, that something wonderful existed outside of European culture, something that had to be engaged because it was part of a much richer ocean of human experience, than just the Parisian stage. 

That Mata Hari was condemned merely for being the wrong person at the wrong time to sell gossip about who was sleeping with who to the wrong side is merely an accident of history. Many during the First World War were sentenced to die senselessly. Mata Hari was a bright and brilliant spirit whose intellect and skill changed the world and how we perceive the world. Read this book for the facts of her life but do not pay much attention to Craig's editorial speculations.
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