Mata Hari: When we hear espionage, our minds become abuzz with a kaleidoscope of different images and delicious concepts – fancy cars, ingenious gadgets, international intrigue, mysterious encounters. Many, myself included, have long been involved in a love affair with the idea of being a spy, of having different identities, of living a risky life. Most spies we become enamored with on the silver screen are men – dashing, handsome, charming. However, one of the most notorious spies in history was a woman. A woman so shrouded in veils of mystery that one encounters difficulty in discerning fact from fiction when it comes to her life. A seductress. An exotic dancer. A courtesan. An involuntary puppet in the hands of men. Mata Hari.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in 1876 in the Dutch city Leeuwarden. After her mother’s death and father’s remarrying, the young girl’s family fell apart completely, and she was sent to live with relatives. Initially, she was a kindergarten teacher but was forced to quit her job because of the headmaster’s inappropriate advances. He, unsurprisingly, retained his position.
Her first romance started out in a pretty peculiar way – the Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolph McLeod had put an advertisement in a newspaper announcing his search for a wife and Margaretha’s application caught his eye. The couple rushed into matrimony and set sail for the East Indies, finally settling on the island of Java. An exotic home, a distinguished military man for a husband and two beautiful children? One would think that advertisement was the best thing that could have happened to the young girl from Leeuwarden…
Euphemistically speaking, her life was far from happy. Rudolph McLeod was a monster. He was an abusive alcoholic who relentlessly humiliated and degraded his wife, beat her, and openly admitted to cheating on her with his concubines. He even threatened to kill her. Margaretha’s children suffered a violent illness related to complications from syphilis, which they had contracted from their parents. Rudolph’s endless whoremongering brought about his son’s death. Their daughter, Jeanne Louise, survived.
As a means of escapism, the young Margaretha absorbed herself in Indonesian traditions and during her affair with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer, she joined a dance troop. She studied local dancing and became more comfortable with her sexuality. At last, Mata Hari was born. Her nickname translates to the eye of dawn. And a fitting name it was too, for she would soon reach the zenith of her fame, rising over Europe like a brilliant sun.
Around the turn of the century, Mata Hari returned to the Netherlands with her husband and daughter and, after getting divorced, entered what would be one of the many severe battles she would come to fight during her short life – the battle for her daughter. Though she initially gained custody of Jeanne Louise, Rudolph refused to support her financially, making it almost impossible for her to provide for her daughter. In the end, Hari lost the battle for her little girl. She would try to stay in touch with her and write numerous letters to her, but Rudolph prevented any visits of Jeanne Louise who died from complications from syphilis at the age of twenty-one.
Mata Hari moved to Paris in 1903 and it was in the City of Lights that she blossomed into one of the most desired women in Europe. Not being able to earn enough with demure professions such as a piano teacher, a German tutor, and a lady’s companion, she turned to more bohemian pursuits. For some time, she worked as a circus horse rider under the name Lady McLeod and as a scantily clad artist’s model. However, her true potential lay neither in front of the aisle nor in the arena. It was her exotic and sensual dances that rapidly gained popularity and, almost overnight, turned her into one of the most celebrated oriental performers of her time, gracing some of the grandest European stages.
Her trademark dance involved removing layer after layer, veil after veil, uncovering more and more of her voluptuous figure, until she was clad in nothing but a jeweled breastplate. She never appeared bare-chested. Why? Even a seductive vixen like Mata Hari had her insecurities, being naturally small-breasted. She quickly assumed the identity of a Javanese princess born in a sacred temple and learned in various exciting dance rituals. Risqué, semi-nude postcards were being passed around. She was enraptured and enticed. Nonetheless, she would soon be criticized for being nothing but an exhibitionist without any talent or artistic virtue. She performed her last dance on March 13, 1915.
Leading a bohemian lifestyle, Mata Hari had a prolific number of sexual relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and diplomats on both sides of World War I which, at the time, was sweeping the continent. She traveled between France and the Netherlands through Britain and Spain and it was these voyages that first got her noticed by French intelligence agents. One of her affairs was with the Russian pilot Vadim Maslov, whom she called the love of her life. It is this liaison that got her involved in the deep, dark web of espionage. When she tried to visit him after he had been gravely wounded, she was denied access due to her neutral Dutch nationality. The French offered her a deal – they would enable her to see Vadim if she became a French spy. A sum of one million dollars is also rumored to have been used as an incentive. Her mission would be simple – to meet and seduce the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia and pass on any information he shared with her involving German military plans. What the French had not anticipated was that the Prince’s role in the war was purely nominal – he was a figurehead with little involvement. The French were fooled by German propaganda.
At this stage, Mata Hari’s story becomes even more shrouded in intrigue and replete with danger. In 1916, she is said to have met a German military army attaché to schedule a meeting with the Crown Prince and to have made a deal to pass French military secrets to the Germans, effectively becoming a double agent. Why? Some believe her motive was greed – they argue the Germans must have offered her a stupendous reward. Others believe it was all part of a scheme thought up by the French – becoming a German spy would let Mata Hari gain the Germans’ trust. One thing, however, is certain – at one point her German employers became aggravated by the fact that Hari had been passing on largely banal, but entertaining information about the sex lives of French politicians. A message was sent to Berlin describing the actions of a certain German spy – Agent H21. It was intercepted by the Allies and Mata Hari was dubbed the culprit. Curiously, the message was sent in a code that the Germans already knew that the Allies could decode – they rid themselves of Mata Hari by exposing her as a German spy.
Hari was charged with espionage, even though the French had virtually no evidence against her – allegedly, a secret ink was found in her possession. Her attempts to prove it was a cosmetic product were futile. She was accused of having passed information to the enemy, causing the deaths of 50 000 Allied soldiers. People, who were once her employers and supposed allies, testified against her. Remember Vadim Maslov, the love of her life? He refused to testify on her behalf, stating his impartiality to her fate.
Was she guilty of committing the crimes she was accused of committing? No.
Was she a saint? No. Most historians do believe she was a small-scale spy whose sentence was entirely unjust.
Many say that Mata Hari’s involvement in the war was grossly over-exaggerated. But why? Some believe that the French needed a scapegoat – somebody to blame for things like the failure of the Nivelle Offensive. And a “loose, immoral woman” was naturally the ideal target.
Mata Hari was sentenced to death. She spent the last days of her life as an inmate of the Saint-Lazare prison in Paris.
On October 15, 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was executed by the firing squad. She was only forty-one years old. She refused to wear a blindfold or to be bound. Staying true to her theatrical personality, she is said to have blown a kiss at the firing squad before she was shot down. Some say she never altered her facial expression. A non-commissioned officer supposedly took out his revolver and shot her body to make sure she was truly dead.
Margaretha could not find peace even after her death. Her remains were used for science, but her head was embalmed and exhibited in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. Curiously, it disappeared in the fifties and has been missing ever since. Morbid, indeed.
Mata Hari, much like many of the other female icons women idolize, is often reduced to being the archetypical femme fatale. We see Mata Hari: erotic dancer and seductress turned double agent. We do not always see Mata Hari: devoted mother, abused wife, fearless woman to the very end. Yet, it is precisely these aspects of her life that make her more human, more real. We will never know the complete truth about her – even though the documentation from her trial was released one hundred years after her death, there are many questions left unanswered.
But do we really need the answers? Is it not better to not shed the last veil?
-By C. Rocher
More on “The Spy Who Seduced Them” in Diamonds Production Magazine MARCH 2021