Mata Hari and Pham Xuan An: The Spies Who Loved Differently

The most intriguing souvenir I picked up during my recent Vietnam trip was Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy, a biography of Pham Xuan An, a journalist working clandestinely as spy during the Vietnam War.

Hanoi’s H.63 intelligence network maneuvered to make Saigon government to send An to study in California on August 1957, when Vietnam was divided and the US had started to meddle in. The long-term scheme ordered An to study “the enemy” while building his future cover. The curious yet pleasant young man soon charmed the Americans he met, many became lifelong pals, and the journalism degree got him a strategic job upon returning to Saigon, then seat to liberal South Vietnam that was America’s springboard in the war with the communist North.

The position with Reuters, then TIME, granted An access to briefings and communiques issued by Saigon government and US Embassy. Added his intimate knowledge of Vietnam and keen understanding of American mindset, An became an effective go-to for everyone trying to make heads from tails. South Vietnam’s espionage bureau CIO considered him their own, the CIA tried to recruit him, foreign journalists thought he worked with either or both, while all along An was spying for North Vietnam—feeding analysis smuggled in meat rolls to be carried by a female liaison.

An was never caught because he was disciplined to take advantage of two lives while keeping them separated. He used media training to dissect various information coming his way for composing astute analysis for Hanoi, yet never veered from publicly-available information while objectively writing for media. When An’s cover was revealed in 1976, most people were shocked. An, who never bothered to learn Marxism-Leninism until after the reunification or hide his dismay over the Soviet system implanted, maintained two things to his death in 2006; all he’d wanted was to see his country reunited, and American free thinking was such a gift he wanted it for his kids. Loving his country while openly admiring the enemy, Sun Tzu would be proud.

Such a stark contrast to Mata Hari. Born to Dutch-Frisian parents in a Dutch town, on 1895 Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married an army officer stationed in East Indies (now Indonesia) in hopes for adventures. While Gerda was enchanted by the local cultures, domestic boredom and son’s death befell upon the couple. Repatriation to Amsterdam in 1902 was followed by a bitter divorce where she was denied spousal support and child custody. Gerda decided to finally seek the dream life, arriving with outdated wardrobe and little money in Paris that had just hosted World Fair which included the building of Eiffel Tower.

The belle epoque movement gave Gerda the window to sell her new persona as Mata Hari, means “eye of the dawn” or “sun” in Malay, an Oriental-descendant dancer raised in ancient Hindu rites and Javanese mystique. What she did really was draping on layers of costume that would be peeled off as she moved rhythmically to an appropriated repertoire, climaxing show by falling to the floor barely covered. A highly tasteful burlesque-y number at best yet passed on as a cultural fest to Parisians hungry for any exoticism from the Orient.

She gained fame and fortune she’d coveted, simultaneously moonlighted as an elite courtesan. Her desire to continue living grandly after her career dimmed supposedly got her into German performance halls and later, as World War I intensified, the hands of their intelligence network. Mata Hari reportedly either tried to alarm the French, or angled to be recruited as double agent. More ironically, her alleged status as agent H21 was blown when she tried to rescue her lover, a Russian soldier who later testified against her in French court. Facts and fictions would mar any war, yet Mata Hari’s own love for boasting or blurring her life accounts effectively surpassed efforts to prove her claim of innocence.

Vietnam awarded Pham Xuan An medals for well-noted contributions, while the Dutch let Gerda Zelle be executed in October 1917 with little evidence of actual espionage for fear of jeopardizing their “neutral” status in WW I. Most of An’s American friends came to forgive him, nobody came to Gerda’s rescue. I finally deduce it’s because An loved Vietnam, while Gerda loved Mata Hari. An worked to free his beloved from foreign intruders, and succeeded; Gerda needed the foreignness of Mata Hari to feel loved and free, and failed. In the age when we’re constantly told to reach for individual dreams and recrafting personas as needed, Mata Hari’s fate couldn’t have felt more strangely.

As strange as pop culture’s continued spotlight on her. This year alone two books are published, Michelle Moran’s Mata Hari’s Last Dance and Paulo Coelho’s The Spy—the latter which, while sweetly featured an autographed tribute in the Indonesian edition, didn’t offer much beyond what I’d read in Richard Skinner’s 2001 The Red Dancer where a chapter was dedicated to Javanese gamelan orchestra that had inspired Gerda greatly.

Tragedy sells, yes, but as this year already sends endless tragedies, I yearn for stories with real meat rolled in it. The spies loved differently, and we deserve different spy stories—more of the likes of An, and less of Mata Hari.

As published:

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