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Erotic, Exotic Mata Hari

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 0

Eye of Dawn

Part 1 of 2

The femme fatale: man-eater, destroyer of empires, toppler of kingdoms.  Only havoc and ruin lies in her wake.

The sad truth is most of history’s truly great femme fatales (Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Lola Montez, et al), these Brides of the Apocalypse, were usually no more than adventurous women

Mata Hari (postcard, 19080

living in extraordinary times.  Unfortunately, through their own machinations or accidents of the time-line, such women find themselves at the eye of a swirling hurricane of deceit, rumor, fabrication, and intrigue.

The term “femme fatale” may be a bit misleading. It came into common usage around 1912, and its literal French translation is “disastrous woman”. 

This meaning seems to tend toward describing the opposite of what most take as its meaning today.  A disastrous woman would be more a hapless train wreck, a woman who, no matter what she does, always stumbles or fails, and not the coldly calculating, conniving opportunist one generally envisions when hearing the phrase (more in line with Typhoid Mary than Eva Peron). 

Such a “disastrous woman” was the enigmatic Mata Hari – kindergarten teacher, wife, mother, exotic dancer, promiscuous courtesan, and free-spirit.  Her name, however, is infamous and synonymous with another occupation, that of femme fatale double-agent during war time.

The “disastrous woman” known in the human experience as “Mata Hari” was not born or teethed on a life of drama and international intrigue.  Even her name (as “Frances Gumm” became “Judy Garland”) is rather pedestrian: Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. 

She was born into the family of a well-off haberdasher on August 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Friesland, in The Netherlands.  She had three brothers.  Her childhood nicknames were “Grietje” or “M’Greet”. 

Grietje’s early childhood was one of privilege.  Her father parlayed some of his earnings into oil investments.  The family lived well, and Grietje’s circumstances were such she only attended private, exclusive schools until she was 13 years old.

The young teen girl’s life turned completely around when her father went bankrupt in 1889. He had made many bad speculative investments in the stock market, and they were forced to sell their beautiful home and move into a shack in a very bad part of the city. 

The financial strain tore the family apart; her father abandoned Grietje and her three brothers and his wife while he went off to Amsterdam to try his luck.  Grietje’s mother was strained by their dire straits – she was a fragile woman, and she sank into a deep depression followed by physical illness.  She died in 1891 when Grietje was fifteen. 

Although Grietje was more of what one calls a “daddy’s girl” she was close enough to her mother to be devastated by the loss.  Her father came back long enough for her mother’s funeral, but he did not take possession of his children.  Instead, he farmed them out to whatever friends and relatives would take them and returned to Amsterdam.  [In February 1893, Grietje’s father remarried in Amsterdam, but did not retrieve his children.  He died in 1910; he had no further children with his new wife, who died in 1913.]

Grietje went to live with her godfather when she was 17 years old.  She was horrified by her situation, having to suffer as a charity case because of her family’s circumstances.  Her godfather only grudgingly took her in.  This sense of helpless dependency, being at the mercy of another, would later greatly affect the character of Mata Hari, making her strikingly independent for her times.  Grietje went to school to learn the teaching profession in hopes of finding a place as a kindergarten teacher as a first step toward her independence.  

She was developing into a woman.  By Dutch standards she was an odd-looking duck.  She was not the typical fair-haired Germanic Dutch fräulein.  Instead, she was very swarthy, with dark hair and dark, almost black eyes.  Her face was heart-shaped, and pretty in an off-kilter way. This exotic quality led many in her community to often wonder aloud is she were Jewish or of some other “foreign” extraction.  This ambiguity about her physical appearance would help her pull off her later imposture with great success.

There were a couple of things extraordinary about Grietje, compared to her female Dutch counterparts.  She was very tall for her day – slightly over 5’10” (1.8 m).  She was actually taller than most Dutch men, and she tended to slouch to hide this.  She must have been shamed on occasion with comments about her height.  [Even today, there are men who shun taller women because of the visual “oddness” of the pairing.] 

The was also another thing that was a strike against her; actually, it was two more things.  Her breasts were small, and in today’s world that would be meaningless.  In the Dutch realm of the Rubinesque, billowy female, however, Grietje was not considered desirable.  [Later in life her breast size would be her biggest sore spot and her biggest point of vanity.  She had no qualms about nudity, and posed many times wearing only a jeweled bra.  The bra, however, rarely came off.  Some critics had said she covered them because they were saggy or particularly ugly.  Her embarrassment is unfounded: in an extremely rare photograph where she consented to be shot topless—at roughly the age of 32—her breasts are fine.  They are largish A-cups; they do not sag nor are they disfigured or otherwise unattractive.  But, thanks to the times in which she lived, she was belittled and made to feel “flat-chested” although she actually was not.]

Grietje may not have been Rubinesque, but her body was healthy, curvy, and attractive.  And, again, in today’s world she would not be thought of as sub-standard.  Unfortunately, she took her social ostracism about her body to heart.  She hoped to settle on a career as a teacher, perhaps thinking she would never be able to attract a husband.

By all accounts Grietje was a good student (she would later learn several languages, including a dialect of Indonesian).  Her studies for teaching went smoothly until the smarmy headmaster of the school started taking an undue interest in her.  Although Grietje, probably dying of loneliness, responded amicably, her godfather got wind of the relationship and pulled her out of the school. 

It is unknown if the relationship between the headmaster and her reached sexual intimacy, but it can reasonably be concluded it did – one doesn’t get “pulled from school” for harmless flirtations.  Most certainly, her godfather would have taken her away less out of concern for her well-being than for the vicarious aspersions the community would cast upon him for harboring a tart.  The godfather’s constant haranguing was ultimately too much for Grietje; he continually reminded her of her “charity” status in his home, and she finally ran away to an uncle who lived in The Hague.  There she worked as a domestic to help out the family as she awaited her 18th birthday.

The “ugly duckling” Grietje, perhaps despairing of ever marrying, answered an ad in the matrimonial column of a Dutch newspaper. 

Oddly, the “placer” of the ad, Dutch Army Captain Rudolf John MacLeod, did not know of its placement; it had been put in the paper without his knowledge by a well-meaning friend who felt the 38-year-old captain should abandon his bachelorhood and marry. 

Rudolf was career military.  He was thick, had a large nose with a bump in the bridge, and had bushy, white whiskers curling at both ends.  He was also a raging alcoholic, given to binge drinking, and of a violent domestic temper.  He was troubled by both diabetes and rheumatism, and it was his need to convalesce from these conditions that caused the military to send him home on a leave when the marital ad was placed. 

His family, MacLeod, was of Scottish descent, having settled in The Netherlands as immigrants long before his birth.  His family’s name was respected, and they were very much part of the Dutch movers and shakers in the community.  Grietje received a reply, and Rudolf consented to meet her.  They immediately, and perhaps honestly, fell for each other, she seeing her “lost father” (not dead, just incommunicado and emotionally distant after his financial ruin), and he, of course, saw in her a nubile teen-age girl for the taking.

They married in Amsterdam on July 11, 1895.  Grietje, by marrying Rudolf, placed herself firmly in the Dutch upper class with financial security for the first time in over five years.  No more would she have to rely upon the grudging kindness of relatives.  Her security was assured.

The marriage itself almost never took place.  The law in the Netherlands at the time still considered women as chattel, incapable of making informed decisions on their own.  Thus, any Dutch woman over the age of 16 years old could marry with parental consent.  If she did not have such consent, however, she had to wait until she was 30 years old before she could marry on her own without consent of anyone!

Grietje, embarrassed by her family’s social downfall, had told Rudolf during their brief courtship both her parents were dead.  However, in light of the law, she swallowed her pride, dug up her father, and got him to sign over his consent for her to marry.

Rumors also plagued the young Grietje.  The whirlwind romance between Rudolf and her caused tongues to wag (they married only three months after meeting).  Thus, it came as a surprise to the muckrakers that Grietje did not give birth to their first child, Norman, until January 1897 (about 17 months after the marriage); most people thought the marital haste was because Grietje was pregnant.

The ardor between the two did not last long, and Rudolf began to stray long before Norman was born.  He continued to indulge himself in staying out all night drinking, sleeping indiscriminately with any woman he could get, and wandering home in the wee hours drunk to either sleep it off, rape Grietje, or beat her.  Grietje, of course, knew no better and coped as best she could. 

Rudolf, despite his own carousing, was insanely jealous of any other man who might pay Grietje the slightest bit of attention or compliment.  He raged, as bullies do, not at the “offender” but at her instead.  He took to slapping her, even abusing her when she was several months pregnant.

Grietje’s exotic looks, as noted, had been the subject of much speculation.  Was she Jewish?  Javanese?  Java, in Indonesia (known as the Dutch East Indies) was then a part of the Dutch

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod as she looked in Java, c. 1900
colonial system.  Rudolf was reassigned to a post there.  Grietje was thrilled – she at last could get a look at the exotic place of her “spiritual” birth.  They moved into Abawara, a city in the heart of the island.

Grietje found Java enchanting, and she loved its lushness and the physical grace of its people.  She adapted to local customs quickly and eagerly – unlike most Dutch military wives she adored wearing the native sarongs.

Rudolf’s behavior worsened in Java, though.  He was brusque and vicious with the household’s servants as well as with Grietje.  He continued to drink heavily and to rape her as he saw fit.  He also began blaming her for his own short-comings (he was passed over for a highly desired promotion).  He took on a native wife and another native woman as a concubine as was Javanese custom. He hid neither of these women from Grietje and actually reveled in her misery over the situation. 

To keep her completely dependent, Rudolf forbade her to learn Malay, the Javanese language.  However, she surreptitiously learned it, and like most things Javanese, she found the language melodious and charming. 

His jealousy over Grietje reached ludicrous levels, however.  She wrote, “My husband won’t get me any dresses because he’s afraid that I will be too beautiful. It’s intolerable.  Meanwhile the young lieutenants pursue me and are in love with me.  It is difficult for me to behave in a way which will give my husband no cause for reproaches.”  Keep in mind these words come from a fresh young woman of no more than 21 years old, whose disillusionment with marriage to Rudolf can only be imagined.  

She learned she was pregnant at the height of the monsoon season.  Transportation in and out was impossible, so she spent her time a virtual prisoner in her home, friendless and alone.  She was frustrated, bored, and depressed.  She was also battered by Rudolf regularly.  She gave birth to their daughter named Louise (nicknamed the Malaysian word “Non”) in May 1898.  The baby’s birth did nothing to improve Rudolf’s demeanor – he was incensed that it was a girl and not a boy. 

Fed up, Grietje took the courageous step of leaving Rudolf.  She moved in with another Dutch military officer named Van Rheedes.  [It is unknown what, if any intimacies these two shared.  Van Rheedes may have simply been a Good Samaritan.  On the other hand, Grietje was coveted by the other officers, and it would come as no surprise to find they had an affair.] 

During the months she was away from Rudolf, she studied Indonesian dance.  [Unlike her spiritual adventuress foremother, the “Spanish” exotic dancer Lola Montez, Grietje was not a dabbler.  She was a serious student.]  She joined a local dance company, and after some consideration in 1897 she decided upon a new name for her stage persona: Mata Hari, Indonesian for “Sun” (more literally, “eye of the day”).  In letters to relatives in The Netherlands she reported this new development, giving the name life by telling it to others for the first time.

Rudolf cajoled Grietje to come back to him incessantly.  She finally caved in and moved back into his house.  Nothing changed, however, and he was as aggressive as ever.

The next year would prove to be both a trial and triumph for young Grietje Zelle MacLeod

After a year passed, Rudolph was reassigned to a post in Medan, Sumatra.  He could not take his family with him straightaway, so he dropped them off at the home of a military comptroller. 

Grietje found herself again as someone’s charity case, only now she had two children as household drains as well.  Rudolf took his sweet time in sending her support payments during this period which exacerbated her sense of dependence upon the comptroller.  He finally gave word that she could come ahead to Sumatra, and she was relieved and overjoyed to find herself in her new home.  As Rudolf had been promoted to garrison commander the home provided for him was spacious and elegant, and Grietje was in her element at last.  
It was her job as the commander’s wife to entertain, and she gave lavish parties.  Grietje was a charming hostess, and a historian wrote of her time in Medan:

“She could reign like a queen. Dressed in the latest fashions imported from Amsterdam, a paragon of beauty and elegance, she conversed with visitors in their native language — whether Dutch, German, English, or French — gave instructions to the servants in Malay, played the piano most musically, danced with unusual grace.”

Rudolf, for a change, was actually proud of his social butterfly of a wife, and he grudgingly expressed his gratitude in helping him become a social success. 

This bliss was not to last.  On the night of June 27, 1899, agonized screams were heard from the nursery.  Grietje ran in to find both her children convulsing, and vomiting a black bilious substance.  The room stank from it, and the children were soaked in it. 

The terrified Grietje hugged both children to her while Rudolf, in a panic, ran off to find a doctor.  Norman, the toddler, was dead by the time the physician arrived.  The doctor pulled the baby girl Non from Grietje, and took her to the hospital.  Non was saved, and made a full recovery eventually.  Both children had apparently been poisoned.  No one was ever accused of the poisoning but suspicion fell upon one of the household staff whom Rudolf had apparently berated and abused one time too many.  Nothing could be proved, however, and no one was ever brought to justice for this act. 

The MacLeod household was devastated by the loss of their son, and both Rudolf and she grieved.  This tragedy did not bring them closer, however; Grietje spent much time alone, brooding in silence, staring off into space.  Rudolph was transferred back to Java; he drank more heavily and often ambled about their home aimlessly, turning his impotent rage upon Grietje, blaming her for their son’s death.

Grietje sought solace in Hindu texts of the region where they lived.  Then she came down with typhoid.  Rudolf was not sympathetic.  During one of her respites from delirium she overheard him say, “It's an expensive business, this illness of hers — five bottles of milk a day at one guilder each.”  She recovered from typhoid, but it was clear the two should not stay married.  Grietje could tolerate Rudolf’s apathy alternated with abuse no longer.  She wrote to her father and sister-in-law, begging them to send her enough money so she could get back to Europe.  They refused; both suggested she focus on being a better, more obedient and submissive wife instead.

Rudolf, tired of his Java life, decided to return to Europe.  Grietje was understandably overjoyed at the decision.  Soon after their return to The Netherlands (in 1902) Rudolf beat Grietje, and then absconded with their daughter, Non. 

A divorce in The Netherlands for a woman was an unheard of scandal.  Grietje filed for a legal separation from an Amsterdam tribunal anyway, even though she held out little hope.  To her delighted shock, her request was granted.  The court also required Rudolf to return the kidnapped Non to Grietje and to pay one hundred guilders a month for the support of both her and the girl.

Although Rudolf returned the child to Grietje, the first month came and went, and he paid nothing in support, claiming he was impoverished.  He also further undermined Grietje’s abilities to do for herself by placing an ad in the Amsterdam newspapers: “I request all and sundry not to supply goods or services to my estranged wife, Margaretha MacLeod-Zelle.”  To add insult to injury, he told any who cared that Grietje had left him (not the other way around as it was). 

Grietje was destitute; she tried to find work but none was forthcoming.  Despairing, she reluctantly returned Non to Rudolf until her situation improved.

Younger Margaretha Zell (Grietje)

For a while, Grietje drifted among various relatives, living at their pleasure.  Considering her position carefully, she decided to put her dancing ability, learned in Indonesia, to work.  She scraped up enough money for travel, and she went to France.  Paris was her goal; she figured she could make a try there. 

Grietje focused on the wrong line of work for herself, however.  She spent her time trying to get modeling jobs.  This was the nascent stages of the Gibson Girl in advertising and Grietje MacLeod did not fit that mold.  As always, her figure was different, her looks were not the “ideal”, and she was unsuccessful.  She also tried to break into theater at the same time with no luck.  A disheartened Grietje returned to Amsterdam and her hand-to-mouth existence.

She did not forget Paris, however, and she made one last attempt before giving up completely.  In 1903, Grietje made a leap of faith and moved to Paris.  Her non-Rubinesque frame paid off finally when she managed to get work as a horse rider in a circus, performing various acrobatic stunts.  Her dancing had at least given her the muscle tone in her legs and the stamina for such work.  She used the stage name “Lady MacLeod”, which sent the Dutch MacLeod family into a tailspin of upper class indignation.  Still struggling, despite the circus job, she worked as a model for artists (meaning nude), and this perhaps may have led to desperate part-time prostitution as well.

She integrated her Mata Hari persona (still undeveloped publicly) into her circus act.  Over a short period she was noticed, and her dancing became a minor draw.  The exotic nature of her

Mata Hari (1905 studio still)
performances helped her establish credibility as a rising star in the world of Dance Theater, and she gained attention by 1905. 

At that time in Europe, Grietje was a contemporary of the dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis.  These women rode the wave of modern interpretive dance, helping to forge its popularity with the public.  Each looked outside Europe for ideas, and Asia and Egypt were considered prime source material for artistic inspiration.

Grietje had the advantage of actually having studied native interpretive dance in its native setting, Java.  Her “look” and experience allowed her to fully realize the character of “Mata Hari” in 1905, and she debúted the name and image in Paris at the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905. 

A description of her first outing was offered by a later biographer culled from contemporary accounts:

“ . . . a half life-size carving of Siva, with four arms, was placed on the improvised stage with a bowl of burning oil at his feet.  Mata Hari was dressed from the museum collection, as were four supporting dancers who, in the course of the rite, would vie for Siva's attentions but retire in humility as the god directed his invitation to Margaretha Zelle alone.  Bracelets from the collection embellished her wrists, biceps, and calves.  A belt from India, encrusted with previous stones, held a translucent Indian sarong in place.  She attempted to maximize what nature had given her a minimum of by stuffing with cotton wool the bejeweled metal breast cups she sported for the occasion.

The diaphanous shawls she wore as the dance began were cast away to tempt the god until finally, as the candelabras were capped and only the flickering oil light gleamed on Siva's features, the sarong was abandoned and her silhouette, with her back to the audience, writhed with desire toward her supernatural lover.  The four dancing girls chanted their jealousy as Mata Hari groaned and worked her loins deliriously.  All passion spent, she touched her brow to Siva's feet; one of the attendant dancers tiptoed delicately forward and threw a gold lamé cloth across the kneeling figure, enabling her to rise and take the applause.”

The overt eroticism of her stage act combined with her oriental character was a huge hit.   Mata Hari (and by extension, lonely Grietje MacLeod) was an overnight sensation in Paris.  Her act helped develop the burlesque “strip-tease” to the level of high art. 


March 13, 1905 (museum performance)

Mata was probably taken aback at how quickly she caught on.  She was requested at many famous European venues, and she played Spain, Monte Carlo, and Germany to adoring crowds.  Her “stripping” consisted of removing her diaphanous oriental gowns until she was nearly nude (and though she personally had no qualms about nudity, community standards had to be respected, and on the public stage she wore a flesh-colored body stocking). 

The bejeweled bra never left her torso publicly, however.  She augmented her small breasts with discreet cotton batting stuffed into the bra.  [Mata’s use of bandages combined with wadding can be readily seen in several of her photographs.  Her “stuffing” sometimes was not always “discreet” as can be seen in a photo of her entertaining some soldiers in a 1916 photograph.]

She fed the public a wonderfully concocted back story, and it was enchanting in its details of foreign lands and alien religious rites.  She erased all indications of her impoverished Dutch

Mata Hari (1906 postcard, hand-tinted)
background and of her physically and sexually abusive marriage.  Mata Hari dropped into the Western European culture, intact, from the Far East, and to Mata’s credit she had spent enough time working on the character mentally that it came naturally to her when unveiled.

The normal biography she told claimed she had been born to a Brahman family in India (plausible, given her swarthy complexion and dark hair and eyes).  Her story, of course, deviates into the realm of the fanciful almost immediately.  Her mother had been a temple dancer who died giving birth to Mata.  No mention of a father is made (perhaps purposefully given the sting she must have felt when her own father abandoned her as a teenager).  The orphan Mata had been raised in the temple of the god Siva and consecrated to his service.

Her early 20th century audience, of course, was ignorant of the Far East.  They knew nothing of the specifics of Eastern philosophy or of Indian and Asian cultures.  Her adoring public (and Mata was a first-rate celebrity soon enough) accepted her story on its face, and they also bought into her claims about the “Hindu spirituality” of her dancing.  Mata said:

“My dance is a sacred poem in which each movement is a word and whose every word is underlined by music.  The temple in which I dance can be vague or faithfully reproduced, as here today.  For I am the temple.  All true temple dances are religious in nature and all explain, in gestures and poses, the rules of the sacred texts.”

Her Eastern posturing and back-story were not fraudulent in the usual sense.  Instead, much like her forerunner, Lola Montez, it was part of “The Package”, the mystique created to pique interest in the dancer and to create sensational press.  It was common practice for entertainers to invent colorful histories for themselves (they still do it).

Mata Hari was captivating.  She was terribly flirtatious, and she openly flaunted her body.  She brought this carefree style to the stage in her act, and her routine’s highlight always centered on her sensuality and sexuality.  The climax of her act involved progressive shedding of her costume until she wore only the now-famous jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head. 

She became almost immediately the long-term mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist, Emile Etienne Guimet (who had founded the Musée Guimet where she first danced).  Her act also raised exotic dancers to a more respectable status; Mata Hari helped break new ground in entertainment for which Paris later became world famous (cabaret).  She hobnobbed in elitist, wealthy social circles.

She was a hugely popular photographic subject, and she loved the camera as well.  In 1906 she was the subject of a series of artistic postcards featuring her in various poses and costumes, hand-tinted, and very attractive in

Mata Hari (iconic 1906 image, hand-tinted postcard)
both their style and execution.  She was captured in many provocative photos. 

Her publicity, however, back-fired.  Still separated legally from Rudolf (their true bill of divorce did not finalize until 1907, and only because Rudolf wanted to marry another woman) Mata still angled to get custody of their daughter, Non, especially now that she could afford to keep her well.  Rudolf, however, still jealous, used anything he could to torment Grietje.  Her letters to Non were returned unopened by him.  He got wind of her activities in Paris, procured some of her more risqué pictures, and used them to solidify his case for keeping custody of Non.

In 1911 Mata came up with a harebrained kidnap scheme to get her 13-year-old daughter back.  Mata Hari had a servant named Anna Lintjens.  Anna was, in a sense, a “fallen woman” to whom Mata felt connected; a young Anna had given birth out-of-wedlock, a horrific scandal in those days, and she was considered unmarriageable because of this “taint”.  Mata hatched a plan for Anna to travel to Velp in The Netherlands (where Rudolf and Non lived).  Anna was to catch up with Non at her school and take her away from there.  The plan called for them to taxi to Amsterdam, and then take a train to Paris and a reunion with Mata. 

Anna showed up at Non’s school as planned.  Unexpectedly, so did Rudolf; he had come to meet Non.  Anna tried to lure Non away from Rudolf, saying she had a gift for the girl.  Rudolf, extremely suspicious of her presence, and knowing who she was, brushed her off.  Anna returned to Paris empty-handed. 

Mata Hari was promiscuous.  Over the period of her celebrity she was also a highly successful “kept woman” (in trysts that might last hours or weeks). Courtesans generally bedded the rich and influential; Mata was no exception.  Her relationships centered on the powerful and the wealthy: high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries.  She even had a liaison with the German Crown Prince William.  All of her bed hopping paid for her increasingly elaborate lifestyle. 

Unfortunately, show business trends are “here today, gone tomorrow”, and Mata Hari’s exceptional exotics played out with the public.  She had started late in life for her chosen occupation; most modern dancers are at a career-ending age when Mata Hari (29 when she opened for the first time in Paris) was just getting going. 

Her dance ideas caught on, and by 1910 there were myriad imitators.  Some of the newer breed of exotic dancer actually did a better job with Mata’s tableaux than Mata did herself.  Critics, less enthralled than they had been just a handful of years earlier, started to question her legitimacy as an artist and claimed her success was due to cheap exhibitionism instead of artistic merit.  Mata plodded on gamely, however, but though she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was snubbed by more serious cultural institutions as “a dancer who did not know how to dance”.

Mata Hari had an independence few women of her time enjoyed.  She had the welcome company of powerful men, she had money, and she had fame.  She gamboled at will, and her affairs with the men in her life often allowed her international travel (at least within the confines of Europe – there are no indications she ever strayed any further north than Germany or further west than Italy and Switzerland).  Mata was generally considered a gad-about, an artistic, free-spirited bohemian.  The Great War (or the “14-18 War” as the British called it then, later named “World War I”) changed opinions about Mata Hari’s cross-border movements. 

A country’s security depended upon clear control of its secrets and battle plans.  This was vital.  Espionage was a thriving business during this time, and both sides of the conflict used agents who turned-coat, others who functioned as double-agents, and it became increasingly difficult in the intelligence community to readily find who the “good guys” were and who were the “bad guys”.

Female spies have been used for centuries.  The American Civil War had its share of women in espionage.  Women can often gain access where men cannot.  The common thinking then (perhaps as now) was a woman could open doors with her "feminine wiles" or charms that might remain closed otherwise.  The devil-may-care international trollop, courtesan to the powerful, Mata Hari was quickly caught up in this web of suspicion. 

She drew the attention of higher-ups in both the British and French governments because of her personality – Mata was an equal opportunity sexual services provider.  Her country, The Netherlands, was neutral in the developing European conflict, and so was she.  Mata went where Mata wanted to go.  Unfortunately, some of her sexual encounters involved German military officers, and this drew the scrutiny of both governments.  As a neutral Dutch subject, Mata crossed borders freely and without censure.  To avoid the battlefields, she traveled between France and The Netherlands using a slightly circuitous route via Spain and Britain.  Her movements finally attracted attention, and the watch dogs of government intelligence pounced upon her.

In 1916, Mata was aboard a steamer that had left Spain, and it called at the port of Falmouth in England.  She was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length.  New Scotland Yard’s Sir Basil Thomson headed the counter-espionage division, and in a 1922 memoir he wrote that Mata, under questioning about her frequent border crossings (she was internationally known), eventually admitted to working for French Intelligence.

The British, however, really had nothing upon which to accuse Mata Hari of anything.  They had used a flimsy pretext in arresting her, claiming she “looked like” a well-known female German spy using the name Clara Benedix.  The naïve Mata, with no head for international intrigue and of course knowing nothing about the mysterious “Clara Benedix”, simply went along quietly. 

The French being Mata’s handlers was not the issue for the British: the Brits knew of her Germanic connections with officers and politicos.  The fear is that she either was, or would become, a spy for the Germans.  The French, however, did not acknowledge her as part of their intelligence network.  This is either because she wasn’t really working for French intelligence, or they were employing the standard “plausible deniability” that all countries use when one of their intelligence members gets caught.  Either way, Mata was in trouble, and help was not at hand.  She was released from police custody (though watched) and stayed in London’s Savoy Hotel before continuing on her way. 

In January 1917, a German military attaché transmitted radio messages to Berlin from Madrid describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named “H-21”.  French agents intercepted the messages.  From their content they concluded that agent “H-21” was Mata Hari.  [Although the messages are vague, it isn’t certain what part specifically pointed them at Mata except for her last name starting with the letter “H”.] 

The French should have been suspicious of this communiqué from its interception but were not: it had been bizarrely transmitted in a code that the Germans knew French authorities had cracked long before.  Thus, it can only be surmised the messages were intended to be intercepted and broken easily, perhaps with the clear intent of compromising Mata Hari for some unknown reason.

Armed with this “intelligence” the French arrested Mata Hari in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris on February 13, 1917.  In custody, she desperately sought help.  She wrote many letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris (who did not strain themselves overly much on her behalf).  She wrote, “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else . . . Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.”

She was put on trial.  The war-time fervor led to outrageous accusations, none proved or provable: she was accused of spying for Germany and her spying activities allegedly caused the deaths of “at least 50,000 soldiers”.  Hyperbole and hysteria aside the charges against Mata for espionage carried a death sentence, and she had no one to stand with her except her septuagenarian lawyer. 

The case against her, at best, was circumstantial.  At worst it was a trumped-up charge brought to divert suspicion from a real double-agent within the French intelligence community, Mata’s

Mata Hari (photographic portrait, 1909)
alleged “recruiter” and alleged “handler”, Georges Ladoux (later righteously convicted of actually being a double-agent). 

All that the French and British intelligence community had on Mata was a suspicion of spying for Germany; neither government produced one shred of proof that this was true.  The only “physical” evidence found was a cosmetic preparation in her room that could be subverted into a crude “disappearing ink”.  Mata stated she used this in her stage make-up kit, and it was innocuous. 

Mata Hari was found guilty.  Her executionby firing squad occurred on October 15, 1917.  She was 41. 

Her body went unclaimed by any family members.  Instead, it was sent for medical study.  Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris.  In 2000, though, it was discovered the head had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, when the museum had relocated.  Records from 1918 show this museum had also received the rest of her body; none of the remains could later be accounted for, and possibly fell into the hands of souvenir hunters over the years.


Part 2: Mata Hari: Truth & Lies

Postcard of Mata Hari Before 1914 Giclee Print Art (12 x 16 in)
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  1. "Mata Hari; femme fatale." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  2. "Mata Hari." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  3. "Her Bed Was a Battlefield." Out of This World, v.1. 1978.
  4. "Mata Hasri." en.wikipedia.org. 15/08/2011 <Web >

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