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Mata Hari was a scapegoat, not a spy - biographer

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Femme fatale Mata Hari was beautiful, a compulsive liar, and without morals -- but she wasn’t a spy and suffered from syphilis contracted from her husband not her promiscuity, according to a new biography.

After pouring over declassified and other papers about the Dutch-born exotic dancer and courtesan, author Pat Shipman sided with growing research that Mata Hari was used as a scapegoat by the French who convicted her of espionage and executed her during World War I to bolster national morale.

At her trial it was charged that she was responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 French soldiers after she passed secrets from Allied officers and officials to the Germans.

“But the evidence is quite strong that she was completely innocent of espionage,” Shipman, a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters.

“When she was arrested the war was going very badly for the French and she was foreigner, very sexy, having affairs with everyone, and living lavishly while people in Paris had no bread. There was a lot of resentment against her.”

Shipman said Mata Hari’s standing in 1917 was similar to that of Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s -- she was recognizable everywhere and considered the sexiest, most desirable women in Europe.

“This is part of why it is so ludicrous to think she was a spy. She couldn’t be clandestine and sneak around. She couldn’t help but attract attention,” said Shipman, whose book “Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari” has just been released.

Shipman said she went back to Mata Hari’s childhood to try to figure out what drove this enigmatic woman.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Gertruida Zelle in the Netherlands but her parents’ divorce and then her mother’s death shattered her childhood and she impulsively married a much older man who took her to the Dutch East Indies -- with evidence he gave her syphilis which was incurable then.

Her own unhappy marriage ended after her son died of syphilis and she fled, reinventing herself as Mata Hari, a sensual dancer with techniques learned in the Indies.

“She was a self-made, self-created woman. She made herself someone she was not and was brilliant at it. She was very good at dancing, at being a courtesan and had no morals about sex. All her lovers went away happy,” said Shipman.

“But in the process she also probably infected many of them with syphilis.”

Shipman, who has written eight previous books, said Mata Hari was to be admired for her beauty and her ability to reinvent herself time after time.

But she lied all the time and had an extraordinary arrogance about her power of men -- even though only one came to her defense after she was arrested.

“She had a magnetism that was incredible,” she said.