Mata Hari: the Making and Breaking of a Spy
On February 13, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris and charged with spying for the Germans, and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Found guilty, she was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, at the age of 41. But what was her crime?
- Margaretha Geertruida Zelle
- The caterpillar
- The butterfly
- Critics and intrigue
- The breaking
- Aftermath and doubts
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, alias “Mata Hari,” was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876.
The eldest of four children, Margaretha’s father was an affluent haberdasher who’d made successful investments in the oil industry, allowing him to provide his family with a lavish lifestyle, with Margaretha attending only exclusive schools until the age thirteen.
When her father went bankrupt in 1889, however, Margaretha’s parents divorced and her mother died a short time later. Although her father remarried soon after, the family had come apart, with Margaretha moving to Sneek to live with her godfather.
At Leiden, Margaretha studied to be a kindergarten teacher, but when the headmaster began to make overt sexual advances toward her, her godfather removed from the institution, after which Margaretha fled to her uncle's home in The Hague where she lived until she was nineteen.
In July of 1895, Margaretha married a Dutch Army Colonial twice her age named Rudolf John MacLeod, and moved to Amsterdam. Subsequently, the couple moved to Java in the Dutch East Indies and had two children, Norman-John (in 1897), and Jeanne-Louise (in 1898.)
A violent alcoholic who openly kept both a native wife and a concubine, MacLeod blamed Margaretha for his lack of promotion, and often physically abused her. Increasingly disenchanted, she abandoned him, moving in with another Dutch officer named Van Rheedes. During this time she studied Indonesian traditions, joining a local dance company.
In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider, using the name “Lady MacLeod.” Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as a nude model. By 1905, she had transformed herself into the exotic stage dancer she would forever be known as, adopting the artistic stage name, “Mata Hari,” Indonesian for "sun" (literally, "eye of the day"). A contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, who were also looking to Asia and Egypt for artistic inspiration, the renowned booking agent Gabriel Astruc took her on as a client.
From the moment Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on March 13th of 1905, her promiscuous, flirtatious, and open way she flaunted her body captivated audiences; she was an overnight success. Soon becoming the mistress of the Lyon millionaire industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet (founder of the Musée), she mingled among the untra-wealthy, presenting herself as a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in sacred Indian dance since childhood. (At the time, most Europeans were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies and had no reason to doubt Mata Hari’s exotic pedigree.)
Achieving wide acclaim for her provocative stage act during which she slowly removed her costume until wearing only a bejeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head, Mata Hari’s spectacular success elevated exotic dance to a respectable status, breaking new ground in the style of entertainment for which Paris would later become associated.
Photographed seemingly nude numerous times during this period, she became the very icon of feminine sexuality; pictures MacLeod would use against her in divorce in 1906, which subsequently allowed him to maintain custody of their daughter. (Daughter Jeanne-Louise also died from complications of syphilis at the age of 21.)
Critics and intrigue
By 1910, the stages of Europe were filled with Mata Hari imitators. But, critics began to speak out that Mata Hari’s success was only due to cheap exhibitionism--and that any wanton women could do it. Although she continued to be in high demand at important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions, seen as a performer lacking true artistic ability.
Becoming widely known as a courtesan--a high-paid “kept” woman--she cultivated numerous relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries including Frederick William Victor Augustus Ernest, the German crown prince. Mata Hari’s open relationships and secret trists with such powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a harmless, free-spirited Bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton seductress with more than fame and sex on her mind.
In 1916, Mata Hari sailed from Spain to the English port of Falmouth, at which time she was arrested and brought to London for interrogation by Sir Basil Thomson, Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard, on a charge of espionage.
Eventually admitting to working for French Intelligence, she was then released.
(Today, it is unclear if she lied on this occasion, but it is widely believed that she concocted a story to make herself sound more intriguing.) Some historians contend that French authorities were using her to spy but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.
In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named "H-21." French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified "H-21" as Mata Hari. Unusually, the messages had been in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leaving some historians to suspect that the messages were fabricated.
Aftermath and doubts
On February 13, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris and charged with spying for the Germans. Although both French and British intelligence suspected her of espionage, neither could produce definite evidence with much of their suspicions focused around secret “disappearing” ink said to have been found in her hotel room, which for that period, was sufficient incriminating evidence. Found guilty, she was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, at the age of 41.
In later years, it was discovered that Georges Ladoux, the army captain who headed French counter-espionage during World War I, and said to have recruited Mata Hari as a French spy, was subsequently arrested as a double agent himself--casting great doubt on Mata Hari’s actual involvement.
While the facts of the case remain unclear, in 1985 biographer Russell Warren Howe convinced the French Minister of National Defense to open the file which had been sealed as top secret since that time, supposedly revealing that Mata Hari was in fact innocent of the charges of espionage, and only encouraged the characterization to further promote her mysterious image.
Mata Hari, the True Story, J. Blitz
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