Sunday, December 26, 2004

On the missing head of Mata Hari

I was surprised to read in the newspapers about that underground movie theater they recently found in Paris, in one of the restricted areas. A whole theater, unknown but to a few! But that is another story.

The real enigma had a name: Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. A Dutch girl, no less. Born in 1876, she married the wrong guy when she was 18. Then, tragedy engulfed her life with the death of her eldest child. The boy, Norman John, was poisoned by a vindictive servant whose wife had been wronged by Campbell MacLeod, Margaretha's husband.

All of this happened in Sumatra, where she caught the Oriental influence and learned the exotic belly dancing that would bring her fame and eventually, an untimely death. Her nude performances in Paris and all over Europe made her reputation soar. It was a scandal that met a predictable end, when she was executed by a French firing squad in 1917 for engaging in spying activities for the Germans. Her final words, before they took her away, have been quoted to be: "Death is nothing, nor life either, for that matter. To die, to sleep, to pass into nothingness, what does it matter? Everything is an illusion."

When you look closely at the picture, you will see her by the side of a hill, ready to meet her end. Yet she was shot in the inner garden of Chateau Vincennes. Now, Chateau Vincennes was a military prison fort back in those days, by the Bois (Forest) of Vincennes on the edge of Paris. So I wondered, if the garden grounds were flat inside the prison fort, what is this steep hill? It didn't make sense. The answer to this small mystery: the picture belongs to an movie about Mata Hari, shot at a different location than the execution spot. I don't think it's the 1931 Greta Garbo movie, but an earlier classic; of course I could well be wrong and it might be the Garbo version. Over the years, many seem to have confused it with the real event. One wonders how many other true facts and movies will face the same problem in the future...

After the execution, her body was taken to the Musée d'Anatomie Delmas-Orfila-Rouviere (no one claimed the corpse). And then, at some point, we lose track of it - although it seems to be a confirmed fact that it was lost there. As a student, Professor Paul de Saint-Maur remembers seeing the head of a red-haired woman that everyone called Mata Hari. His memory was right. In fact, Museum Curator Roger Saban had found a document recording the arrival of her corpse in 1918.

Professor Saban thinks that her mummified head was stolen in 1954 by an admirer when the museum moved to its present site in the 8th floor at the Paris V Rene Descartes University at 45 Rue des Saint-Pères, 6th Arrondissement, Paris. However, if anyone is interested in seeing any of the more than 5,000 criminal skulls they exhibit and runs out of things to do in Paris (unlikely!), the Museum's phone is 00 331 42 86 20 47. It seems they open by appointment only.

And if you happen to visit Leeuwarden, make sure to visit number 28, Grote Kerstraak - Mata Hari's birthplace.


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