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
Mata Hari. Photo credit: Album Reutlinger/ Bibliothèque nationale de France

Mata Hari. Photo credit: Album Reutlinger/ Bibliothèque nationale de France

“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.

1906 postcard of Mata Hari in Paris

1906 postcard of Mata Hari in Paris. Public domain.

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.

Mata Hari performing in 1905

Mata Hari performing in 1905. Public Domain

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.

Mata Hari in 1910

Mata Hari in 1910. Public Domain

If she had stayed in Holland her name would have been only a minor footnote to history. However, bored and impulsive, she journeyed to Paris on itchy feet with the aim of reinvigorating her career. In war-time Paris she, of course, drew suspicion. Her narcissism stopped her from realizing that someone as conspicuous and well-known as herself would be noticed wherever she went. Discreet surveillance speculated at her numerous lovers from all ranks, ages and nationalities. It was concluded that she must be a spy for Germans although those trailing her found nothing, save for the fact that she lived lavishly and spent most of her nights with important members of the foreign office. Did she pass her pillow talk on to German High Command?

Despite the fact that Mata-Margaretha had lost some of her slenderness and was pushing 40, she fell in love with a 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, in 1916. “Vadim” was sent to the Front, and blinded in one eye. Determined to support him, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, head of French counterintelligence, Le Deuxième Bureau. She agreed to pass along military information gleaned from her German conquests to the French government, namely they wanted her to reinvigorate her affair with the Crown Prince of Germany. She simply forget to tell Ladoux she as already spying for the Germans.

The French officials had long known of her German contacts, so when Mata Hari sashayed in Ladoux’s office he must have happily thought he had won the jackpot. He recalled the encounter in his memoirs: “It was in August 1916 that I met Mata Hari for the first time and I can see her still, as if it were yesterday, dressed, in spite of the summer weather, in a dark two-piece and wearing a large-brimmed straw hat with a gray feather.” Ladoux believed Mata Hari’s intentions were honorable but he needed to test her loyalties. Ladoux had no specific mission in mind for her, but simply sought proof that she worked for the Germans. The information he asked her to pass on was useless and stale. The French lacked sufficient evidence that she was working for Germany until they intercepted a damning telegram revealing that Mata Hari was in possession of her own German code name, H-21 – a fairly good indicator that she had started spying for Germany prior to agreeing to spy for France. The German’s deliberately blew her cover egging on France to arrest her.

My explanation has been simplified however; the French did arrest Mata Hari in Paris on February 13, 1917. She was interrogated on 17 different occasions over two and a half months. Following her imprisonment, a military court tried her on July 24, 1917, accused of spying against France. On the stand she spoke of her weakness for army officers. She was a pushover for a man in uniform and liked to compare the different nationalities. She was an unabashed example of pre-war morals. She proclaimed her innocence in court by screaming, “Harlot, yes. But traitoress, never.”

International journalist Russell Warren Howe, in his 1986 book Mata Hari, the True Story, purports to have had privileged access to her sealed judicial records. Apparently the 40-minute trial found Mata Hari guilty on all counts, including charges that she spied in 1915 and 1917, for which no evidence was presented. The defense could neither cross-examine hostile witnesses nor question its own directly.

British Historian Julie Wheelwright described Mata Hari as “…an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.”

Scrapbook of Mata Hari in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands

Scrapbook of Mata Hari in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. Public domain

In 1917, France had been badly shaken and many believed that the country might simply collapse under war exhaustion. The new government of Georges Clemenceau (aka “le Tigre”) had come into power, utterly committed to winning the war. Having Mata Hari as a German spy on whose shoulders France’s hitherto failures in war could be blamed was most convenient. Mata Hari was the perfect scapegoat. Her case was everywhere in the French press, which led to her importance being greatly exaggerated. German intelligence tried to downplay her role. Scotland Yard scoffed at her spying abilities but the French Deuxième Bureau insisted she was a super-spy and had caused the death of 200,000 at the Somme, that she had turned over to the Germans the plans for the British tank and caused the sinking of dozens of Allied ships through her deviousness.

Early on the morning of October 15, 1917, Mata Hari selected clothes for her execution from the limited wardrobe she had been permitted to keep in prison. A blue coat was worn over her pearl-gray dress with a wide skirt and lace at the bosom. She wore elegant buttoned shoes and a showy black hat was worn over her shorn hair. At Chateau de Vincennes she refused to be bound to the stake and rejected her blindfold. She is rumored to have blown a kiss to the 12-man firing squad. And then it was over. The prisoner crumpled into “what looked like a heap of skirts.” No one claimed her body after her execution. She was given to the University of Paris medical school for dissection.

The very name Mata Hari is synonymous with spying, espionage, intrigue, and sensuality but she probably remains the unfortunate victim of her own celebrity and a French press and public determined to find a an enemy within. She probably was not the spy of the century responsible for deaths of hundreds of thousands. There was no proof she was anything more than a gossip. Her crimes and her insalubrious profession made her an attractive scapegoat. Perhaps she was executed merely to silence her, because her secret trial revealed treachery and corruption in high places? It was revealed that Mata Hari kept a scrapbook of her stage appearances, auctioned off in Hollywood in 1955. She also had another file of compromising letters from men she had been associated with. The dossier of her court case was to have been closed for 100 years. Its contents should see the light of day in 2017.

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest in 1917

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest in 1917. Public Domain

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.

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  • 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!!!