Cherchez la Femme: Mata Hari, Female Spy of the Great War

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Cherchez la Femme: Mata Hari, Female Spy of the Great War
“I am a woman who enjoys herself very much,” Mata Hari wrote from her cell, “sometimes I lose, sometimes I win” No other female spy has aroused as much curiosity as Mata Hari. Involved in perhaps the most infamous espionage case of World War I, Mata Hari’s name is synonymous with all femme fatales. Born Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in the Netherlands, she was the daughter of an elegantly dressed and successful haberdasher. After being sent to a convent school because of the death of her mother and her father’s bankruptcy, Margaretha attended teacher’s college in Leiden, but had to leave after rumors of a liaison with the headmaster. In the mid-1890s, Margaretha recklessly responded to a lonely-hearts ad seeking a bride for Rudolf MacLeod, a much older military captain based in the Dutch East Indies. They married in 1895 when Margaretha was just shy of 19. From 1897 to 1902 they lived in Indonesia: Java and Sumatra. Margaretha dutifully gave birth to two children. Their son Norman-John died in 1899 after their Indonesian nanny tried to poison the whole family while carrying out a vendetta on behalf of another soldier. Whether MacLeod was a heavy drinker before or after the death of his son is unknown, however he is alleged to have cruelly abused his young bride. They divorced after returning to Europe. In 1904 Margaretha made her way to Paris and sought work as an artist’s model. Why Paris? “I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris,” she reported. While abroad she had been trained in the sinuous and sensuous dances of the East. First dancing on the Paris stage, she was known as ‘Lady MacLeod’ but when she changed her name to ‘Mata Hari’ she was soon luring audiences in the thousands. Mata Hari is the term for the “eye of the day” in the Indonesian language of Malay. She retained that name until her execution. Mata Hari carried on her charade beyond the stage door. In the press she was a fascinating Indian woman. “I was born in the south of India near Jaffna Patnam on the Malabar coast,” she said. Not one editor bothered to question her word. Mata Hari slithered her way through the salons of the Parisian aristocracy and was paid handsomely for her performances. Mata Hari’s attractiveness, as well as her apparent willingness to appear almost nude on the stage, made her a huge hit. She cultivated numerous lovers from the upper-class, including many military officers who bestowed her with gifts of furs and jewels. She was gossiped about, envied and inevitably copied. When performing, her breasts were covered with jeweled copper medallions held in place with fine chains. Apart from her breastplates, glittering bracelets and precious stones the rest of her was often naked right down to her toes. Body-stocking? Perhaps. She performed her “Dance of Love” and “Dance of Sin” at the Olympia, the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris. She was mobbed everywhere she went. She was almost too popular to be criticized, although the French writer Colette was an astute critic. Colette who performed in the Rêve d’Egypt in 1907 was no stranger to metal breast plates and Eastern costumes with snaky headdresses. Colette wrote, “I have watched her from her first appearance in Paris when she danced… between columns of a temple, slender and bare as herself. She scarcely seemed to dance, but disrobed herself progressively, twirling a tall body, slim and proud.” Jay Robert Nash in his book, Search for the Woman, writes that Colette later stated that Mata Hari’s skin, which looked amber at night, in the daylight was mauve and patchy from artificial dying. Always surrounding Mata Hari was an aura of exoticism and mystery. She used her allure to become one of the Belle Époque’s most famous courtesans. Mata Hari left Paris to perform in other cities. In Berlin, Crown Prince Wilhelm bought her diamonds and emeralds worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the war began in 1914, Mata Hari was busy in Berlin enjoying the attentions of the police commissioner. Panicked to get back home, she wriggled out of her contract and her dresser kept her furs and jewels for lack of payment. In 1915 Mata Hari found herself back on neutral Dutch turf, luckily ensconced by a former lover in a townhouse in The Hague. However, she was visited by Karl Kroemer, the German Consul who was in the business of recruiting spies. He gave her 20,000 francs and the code name H-21. Kroemer hoped to benefit from her French connections. She took his money but did not take him seriously. She was so used to taking money from men she hardly questioned their actions. She felt no guilt or obligation to do anything for the money. The money was ample compensation for the furs left behind in Berlin. Whether she actually passed on anything of worth to the Germans is debatable. Consequently Mata Hari had gone, perhaps unwittingly, into the spy business. On her arrest Mata Hari claimed that she was spying exclusively for the French. (She just neglected to inform her French masters that she was already spying for the Germans.) Did Mata Hari consider espionage as just another melodrama to be enjoyed? Whom she was spying for seemed to confuse even her. It is a story that deserves to be gently and simply unraveled. If she had stayed in Holland her name would…

Lead photo credit : Mata Hari in 1910. Public Domain

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • Stephan
    2016-11-17 14:16:28
    I was recently in Paris giving a lecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts on the life and art of the legendary designer, Erte. When he first came to Paris and worked for the fashion designer, Paul Poiret, he was given the assignment to design costumes for a play called "Le Minaret" in 1913. He designed several costumes for Mata Hari who appeared in the play as a specialty dancer. In Erte's own words, "She had a sensuous body but her face lacked personality and there was even something a little vulgar about her. I never thought that she had the intelligence to be an effective spy." Thank you, Hazel Smith, for the most thorough writing of Mata Hari that I have ever come across!!!