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Mata Hari


Mata Hari

Mata Hari
(* August 7, 1876; † October 15, 1917)

The very name of Mata Hari has become synonymous with spying, espionage, intrigue, and sensuality.



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Introduction (by Denise Noe)

The woman who adopted this name was born Margaretha Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. She was the second child of Adam Zelle and his wife Antje van der Meulen and was the only girl in a family of four boys. M’greet was the nickname her family gave her.

In a family and society known for fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed folk, the pretty M’greet was noticeable for her thick black hair, black eyes, and easily tanned olive complexion. Neighbors thought she had either Jewish or Javanese blood. The latter was suggested because Java was a part of the Dutch East Indies.

Adam Zelle had a successful hat business in an era when virtually no man would be seen in public without a hat. He kept his family in comfortable circumstances and seemed to especially enjoy indulging his vivacious and lovely daughter. She would someday recall that her father seemed to regard her as "an orchid among buttercups."

For her sixth birthday, her father gave her a most special present: a miniature carriage to which two goats were harnessed. Manually skilled, Papa Zelle had made the carriage, which would seat four passengers. Young M’greet knew how to drive a carriage because she had often taken the reins of her father’s jitney so she was delighted to show off her present and pick up her friends in it.

Mata Hari, 1904
Mata Hari, 1904

In many ways, M’greet showed a flair for the dramatic early on. She loved wearing flamboyant clothes to school and regaling pals with stories of her exalted origins. "I was born of illustrious ancestors," she would claim. "My cradle stood in Caminghastate." The Caminghastate was a mansion in Leeuwarden in which an authentically noble family resided. M’greet sometimes told them she lived in a castle. Although her friends suspected her stories were fantasy, she was still a popular person. Teachers liked her too for M’greet was a bright child who showed herself especially quick with languages.

Disaster struck the family when M’greet was thirteen years old. Adam Zelle went bankrupt as a result of a series of misguided speculations on the stock market.

After selling off their nice furniture, the family moved from its spacious home in one of the better parts of the city to a tiny, shabby house in a poor section. Adam told them he was going to Amsterdam to try his luck there and left Antje to look after four children by herself.

Antje was not up to the task. She soon became deeply depressed, then physically ill. She died when M’greet was fifteen years old. Although she was a "daddy’s girl," M’greet had also been quite close to her mother and took her death very hard.

Adam Zelle came home for the funeral but did not repossess his young. Instead, he distributed them among those relatives who could be persuaded to take in an impoverished and orphaned young person. M’greet went to her godfather’s house in the small town of Sneek. By this time, M’greet had attained her full height of five-feet-ten inches tall and towered over other females. Indeed, she was taller than the average Dutch man at the time and this was considered a distinct disadvantage in gaining suitors.

The godfather, Heer Visser, suggested that M’greet try to get training as a kindergarten teacher. M’greet took the hint. She knew she was not really wanted in the Visser household and did not enjoy being the object of dutiful charity. She was soon on her way to the town of Leyde to a school for future teachers run by Heer Wybrandus Haanstra.

The school emphasized that teachers were to be disciplinarians with their small, rambunctious charges. The softhearted M’greet did not like to bring switches down on the palms of little kids and was thought unsuited for the work for which she was training.

She had another major problem and that was the proprietor of the place, fat Heer Wybrandus Haanstra. He was infatuated with M’greet and the lonely girl appeared to reciprocate his feelings, at least partially. Their romance caused public consternation that erupted into a scandal. Ironically, the focus of disapproval was not the older male who made advances but the relatively powerless female who was the object of them. Thus, M’greet was forced to leave the school in disgrace.

The bewildered M’greet sought refuge with her uncle, Heer Taconis, in The Hague. In Heer Taconis’ home she did domestic chores and ran errands and generally tried to make herself useful for the family that had been good enough to take her in. She was soon eighteen and thinking of matrimony.

By the general cultural perception, she had two major disadvantages in attracting men. The first was her height since some people consider it unattractive or funny looking for the female half of a heterosexual couple to tower over the male. The second was that she had very small breasts in a culture that idealized the hourglass figure. She learned to disguise her mammary shortcomings by putting stockings into the fronts of her undergarments. However, M’greet was unquestionably pretty, had a certain exotic look about her, possessed grace and style and so was found attractive by many males.

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Enter Rudolph MacLeod

An advertisement in the personal section of the newspaper caught M’greet’s eye. It read: "Officer on home leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet girl of pleasant character – object matrimony." That ad and another like it had been put in by a friend of Rudolph MacLeod -- without the latter’s knowledge. MacLeod was a 38-year-old career man in the Dutch military that had courageously fought in combat and received an officer’s cross. He was thickly muscular, had a large nose with a bump in the bridge, and sported thick, white whiskers curling at both ends. A heavy drinker, he was aging ungracefully, troubled also by both diabetes and rheumatism. These health problems had brought the officer home to Holland. Some of his ancestors had immigrated to the Netherlands from Scotland, hence a name unusual for the Dutch.

Although MacLeod had not put the ad in the newspaper or even OK’d it, the lifelong bachelor agreed to meet the young lady, Margaretha Zelle, who answered it. Despite the vast difference in both age and experience, the two were soon mutually smitten. Perhaps, as she once claimed, M’greet had a thing for men in uniform and was charmed by MacLeod’s military bearing along with the extensive array of medals he so proudly wore. It is also likely that, as a daddy’s girl, she was attracted to a man about her father’s age. The captain proposed marriage and M’greet eagerly accepted.

However, they soon hit a snag. The law in Holland said that a female could marry at sixteen with a parent’s consent but not until thirty without it. M’greet had previously told Rudolph that both her parents were deceased because she was not proud of the deteriorating and impoverished old man who was now her father.However, M’greet had no intention of waiting until she was in her third decade of life before she heard wedding bells so she 'fessed up to her beau that she had fibbed. Adam Zelle gave his consent to a marriage that the couple announced would take place only three months after the engagement.

The brief engagement caused a good deal of gossip. It was widely expected that M’greet would deliver the first MacLeod baby within a few months of the wedding. However, the gossip was mistaken. They were wed on July 11, 1895 and M’greet gave birth to their first child, Norman John, over a year later on January 30, 1897.

Margaretha Zelle and husband Rudolph MacLeod
Margaretha Zelle and husband Rudolph MacLeod

Their haste in marrying appears to have been the result of genuine ardor rather than pregnancy.

Unfortunately, that ardor cooled even before little Norman was a gleam in his Daddy’s eye. Rudolph did not give up his bachelor ways because he was married. Instead, he stuck to his old habits of staying out late with various women and coming home drunk in the wee hours of the morning. M’greet did her best to cope with her new domestic duties while putting up with her husband’s infidelities and alcoholism. She also had to cope with his jealousy for, even as he indulged himself to his lust’s content, he would fly into a rage when another man paid what he considered too much attention to the lovely and personable M’greet. He took to slapping his wife around and continued to abuse her even when she was several months pregnant.

Rudolph MacLeod informed the new mother that the family would have to move because he was going to be stationed in Java. Far from being upset by this news, M’greet was delighted at the prospect of a change of scenery. It is also possible that she especially looked forward to seeing Java since so many people had speculated that the dusky-skinned Dutchwoman might have Javanese ancestry. She happily bundled up little Norman and the family’s possessions for the trip to this foreign land about which she had heard so much.

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The Night of Horror

The family moved into Abawara, a city in the heart of the island. M’greet found Java enchanting. She simply loved its lush vegetation and the physical grace so common among its people. Unlike most of the wives of other Dutch military officers, she adored wearing sarongs like a native.

However, the old problems of their marriage followed them to their new home and Rudolph was often jealous as other men tried to flirt with his wife. M’greet wrote in despair, "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."

Rudolph’s bad temper worsened and he was mean to servants as well as his wife. He openly took a native woman as a concubine and informed M’greet that such a practice was customary in this neck of the woods so she would just have to adjust to it. He was often drunk and enjoyed marital rapes.

M’greet found herself pregnant during Java’s dreaded monsoon season. Heavy rains poured relentlessly down on the country, making transport difficult and sometimes nearly impossible on its dirt roads. Thus, a frustrated, bored, depressed, and often battered M’greet spent much of her pregnancy trapped in her own home.

Probably in order to ensure her utter dependence on him, Rudolph flatly forbade his wife to learn to speak Malay, the language of the people of Java. However, M’greet discreetly got around her husband’s order. Like most things Javanese, she found the Malay tongue particularly melodious and charming.

M’greet delivered the couple’s second baby May 2, 1898. If she hoped that another child would revitalize their marriage, the new mother was sadly mistaken for Rudolph was disappointed at its being a girl. He named his daughter Jeanne Louise after his sister but the child was usually called by the Malay name Non.

After a year passed, Rudolph was called to Medan, Sumatra. He could not immediately take his family with him but would send for them after he arrived. He dropped his wife, infant daughter, and toddler son at the comptroller’s house.

Yet again, M’greet found herself feeling like an outsider in the home in which she lived. Rudolph was slow at sending the promised support payments so she also experienced the familiar, guilty sensation of being a freeloader – only now she had two babies dependent on her.

Despite their many marital woes, M’greet was delighted when she got Rudolph’s missive summoning her and the children to his home in Medan. His residence was a spacious and well-built home for Rudolph was now a garrison commander.

As the commander’s wife, it was M’greet’s duty to give lavish parties and this was a responsibility she undertook with aplomb. As Erika Ostrovsky in Eye of Dawn writes, M’greet "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."

The marriage of Rudolph and M’greet benefited enormously for Rudolph was finally proud of his wife and grateful to her for the assistance she gave him in being a social success.

Then their world came crashing down in a single night of horror. It was June 27, 1899, and M’greet had settled down to her comfortable bed for the night. Suddenly she heard terrible screams of agony from the children’s nursery. She leapt up from her bed and raced up the stairs to their room.

The room stank of vomit and both youngsters were soaked in it. Moreover, the vomit itself was a bizarre black color. The children convulsed in pain, their bodies twisting grotesquely as they cried and shrieked. Weeping and terrified, M’greet hugged her vomit-covered children to her while a frantic Rudolph ran from the house in search of a Dutch doctor.

Little Norman was dead by the time the physician arrived. The doctor pulled the sick Non from her mother’s grasp in order to take the child to the hospital.

The daughter was saved and eventually made a full recovery. Both children had apparently been poisoned. No one ever proved who had done the dreadful deed but it was widely rumored that it was a perverse retaliation by someone, possibly a servant Rudolph MacLeod had wronged.

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Devastated By Grief

Unlike some couples, Rudolph and M’greet were not pulled together by their shared trauma. Each sank into a separate depression. M’greet would spend hours brooding in silence, seemingly staring at nothing.

Rudolph was transferred back to Java. He drank ever more heavily and often walked about the house aimlessly, as if looking for his impossibly lost son. At other times, he turned his fury on M’greet, blaming her for their child’s death, screaming, "Bloodsucker! Filthy beast! Norman is dead because of you!"

Eventually, M’greet’s grief lifted slightly and she sought comfort by reading the sacred Hindu texts of the region in which she was ensconced. Then she fell ill with typhoid. In her feverish illness, she sometimes hallucinated that she could see the gods and goddesses of Hinduism.

When she was not in a delirium but merely weak from sickness, she heard a disgusted Rudolph comment on her state: "It’s an expensive business, this illness of hers – five bottles of milk a day at one guilder each."

M’greet recovered from typhoid, but as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, the marriage of M’greet and Rudolph became ever more horrible. M’greet felt she could tolerate her husband’s coldness and abusiveness no longer. So many changes were happening in the new century and she feared it would all pass her by. She wrote to her father and sister-in-law, pleading with them to send her some funds so she could return to Europe. They refused to help her and counseled M’greet to be a better, more obedient and submissive wife.

The home battles continued but an aging Rudolph decided that he wanted to go back to Europe. M’greet was overjoyed. Soon after their return, however, Rudolph beat M'greet, and then stalked off with their daughter.

In those days, it was scandalous for a woman to seek a divorce but M’greet filed for a legal separation from an Amsterdam tribunal. To her surprise, it was granted. Furthermore, the court ruled that Rudolph was to return Non to her long-suffering mother and pay M’greet one hundred guilders a month for her support and that of the child.

Rudolph returned Non. But when the month came for the support payment, he gave them nothing, claiming he was in poverty. At the same time, he cruelly put this advertisement in the Amsterdam newspapers: "I request all and sundry not to supply goods or services to my estranged wife Margaretha MacLeod-Zelle." He also told the general public that his evil wife had deserted him. Without funds, M’greet looked for work but found nothing. Unable to feed or clothe Non, she reluctantly left the child in Rudolph’s care.

For a while, M’greet sought refuge with various relatives and was once again a sad charity case. All during this time and before, she had been reading and dreaming of what life in Paris could be like. She scraped together enough money to make a trip to France. The city was as brilliantly dazzling as she had dreamed but she was unable to get work in the theater or in modeling. A broken-hearted M’greet was forced to return home.

She was getting to be a most discouraged lady. There seemed to be no place on earth for her. She had no marketable skills, no husband, no child, no job, and no reliable source of income. Was this all life had for her? Would she have to live on grudging handouts for the rest of her life?

Out of her extraordinary desperation, M’greet mustered a last bit of courage. She would give Paris another try!

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Mata Hari Is Born

She wanted a new life so she baptized herself with a new name: Mata Hari. In Malay, matahari is the term for the sun. Literally speaking, it means "eye of dawn."

It was under this name that a bold, exotic dancer debuted in the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905. The scene is detailed in Russell Warren Howe’s book, Mata Hari: The True Story: "…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.

Mata Hari, 1906
Mata Hari, 1906

"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."

And the applause was deafening for the audience went wild over Mata Hari’s extraordinary performance. She was an overnight success and a success that would have repercussions throughout the world for she was pivotal in elevating the striptease to an art form. The fabulous dancer was courted by many European venues and triumphantly took her act to Spain, Monte Carlo, and Germany.

She often stripped down until she was almost naked – but never quite. The dramatically jeweled breastcups stayed in place so people could not see what she did not have. She was also covered by a body stocking, one that was similar in color to her own skin but obscured her pubic hair.

Mata Hari gave the public a history of her life designed to aggrandize both herself and her art. While her autobiography varied from time to time, the downtrodden and often impoverished Dutchwoman she had been was always absent from it. Her usual story was that she had been born in India of a Brahman family. Her mother had been a temple dancer who died while giving birth to Mata Hari. She had been raised in the temple of the god Siva and consecrated to his service.

Her European audience, ignorant of the specifics of Indian and Southeast Asian culture, accepted her statements on her own background as well as the Hindu spirituality of her dancing. She would tell them, "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."

While the history of herself that she relayed to her adoring (and not-so-adoring) public was fictional, it may not be considered what we usually call just plain lying. It was a common practice for entertainers of various sorts to invent colorful histories for themselves as part of the entertainment package so to speak and Mata Hari fit into that tradition.

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The Courtesan

The professional life of a dancer, like that of an athlete, is generally short. Mata Hari was no exception to this rule. She had begun her career when she was close to 30, much later than most dancers do. Over a few years’ time, the muscles of her body started losing their tone, she put on weight as people usually do as they age and the metabolism slows down, and her act simply lost its freshness. Many of her imitators were younger and prettier and quite a few were better dancers. Her heyday lasted from 1905 to 1912. As she approached 40, Mata Hari’s support increasingly came from being a courtesan rather than a dancer.

Mata Hari developed intricate, affectionate and sometimes exclusive relationships with the men who supported her in elegant style. She appears to have been quite expert in the art of pleasuring men. Interestingly, even when she was making love, she did not strip completely naked; her breast cups stayed in place. Always painfully self-conscious about the smallness of her bosom, the imaginative woman came up with an explanation for this eccentricity that was designed to tug at her partners’ heartstrings. She told them, in one of his fits of brutality, her former husband had bitten off both of her nipples!

While she lived with a succession of well-off men, she also made several fruitless attempts to contact her daughter Non. Her letters were returned unopened by Rudolph MacLeod. Mata Hari ached for a relationship with her only remaining child. Since the girl’s father refused to allow them to have one through the mail, the desperate mother hatched a plan to kidnap Non, who was then thirteen.

Mata Hari had a servant named Anna Lintjens to whom the dancer was unusually close. It is likely the two were bonded by their sense of being "fallen women" according to the morals of the times. Anna had borne a child out of wedlock when she was young and been considered unmarriageable as a result. Mata Hari asked Anna to travel to Velp, the city where Rudolph and Non MacLeod were then living, and take Anna as the girl left school for the day. Then Anna and her young charge were to grab a taxi to Amsterdam and board a train to Paris.

The loyal Anna went to Non’s school and waited for her. The bell rang but Anna and her employer’s plans were foiled because Rudolph came to the school to meet his daughter. Anna made a last attempt to get to the daughter by telling Mr. MacLeod that she, Anna, had a gift from Paris for the young girl. Rudolph brusquely ordered her away. Anna returned to Paris and a bitterly disappointed Mata Hari.

Mata Hari also tried to keep a toehold in the world of public entertainment. On May 23, 1914, she appeared in a music hall in Germany. Some spectators thought the show "indecent" and complained to the cops. A police officer named Griebel decided to see for himself. He was bewitched by Mata Hari’s performance and made a date with her.

In some accounts, Griebel is out of the picture and his superior, Traugott von Jagow, became Mata Hari’s boyfriend. Those accounts also say von Jagow was in charge of German espionage and gave her orders to spy on France.

Some, including biographer Erika Ostrovsky, believe that Mata Hari went to a German "spy school" located in Antwerp, Belgium. The notorious academy of espionage was run by a woman named Elsbeth Schragmüller and referred to as Fräulein Doktor by the Allied forces. Plump and physically unprepossessing, she was known for her iron will and an extraordinary energy and stamina that allowed her to work twenty hours straight. The stern discipline she demanded led to her being nicknamed "The Red Tiger" and "Tiger Eyes."

Those who believe Mata Hari was guilty as charged think that this spy academy gave her the code name "H 21" and that she spent fifteen weeks learning espionage at the school. The subjects gone over, according to Ostrovsky, included "codes, ciphers, communicative dodges, the study of chemicals (their use and manufacture), memorization of maps, charts, and photographs, as well as models of enemy arms (always in the process of revision and elaboration)." They were also sternly warned of the fate of "fool-spies," those who go over to the other side and are dealt with ruthlessly.

It is also quite possible that Mata Hari never set foot in this famous German spy school. She always claimed she did not and several careful biographers believed her.

At any rate, the situation between France and Germany was heating up and Mata Hari wished to depart from Germany, which she did two days after the war broke out on August 4, 1914. She would later claim that she hastily departed the country because the police were treating foreigners badly and the years she had spent in Paris meant to Germans that she should be considered French.

She got into Switzerland, was sent back to Germany because of a snafu involving passports, and ended up in Amsterdam while the First World War was getting underway. She did more traveling, to Paris and back to Holland and back to Paris again.

Paris was now the capital of a country at war and, thus, deeply concerned about its security. Many people were concerned about the spies within their midst and there were suspicions that Mata Hari, who had so recently had a German lover, might be spying for that country. She became annoyed and angered to realize that men were tailing her movements.

Paris has long been regarded as a city conducive to romance so it is perhaps appropriate that Mata Hari met the love of her life there. He was a Russian officer named Vladmir Masloff. Usually called "Vadim," he was only 21 when he met the 40-year-old Mata Hari. Dark-haired and long-nosed, he was a slender, handsome fellow who, as Howe rightly notes, looked like the young Dustin Hoffman. A passionate May-December romance blossomed. Vadim was about the age Mata Hari’s son would have been had he lived and that is likely to have played a role in the affection that developed on her side. Vadim may have felt the attraction to a woman of about his mother’s vintage that young males often experience and his ego may have been stroked by being the lover of a famous female who was desired by so many rich and powerful men.

Their love affair was interrupted when Masloff was ordered back to the Front.

Mata Hari in her best times
Mata Hari in her best times

There he suffered an injury, losing the sight in his left eye as a result of being gassed by the Germans. He wore a patch over his eye thereafter.

Mata Hari was deeply traumatized when she learned that the man she loved had been wounded. However, their mutual love was as strong as ever if not stronger. There was always something of the maternal in Mata Hari’s feeling for young Vadim and the fact that he was disabled must have intensified this emotion. For his part, Vadim, who believed that the older woman had her nipples bitten off, may have now felt the two of them had more in common since they were, in his mind, both wounded.

Vadim was in danger of losing the sight in his other eye as well. Mata Hari determined that she would have to find the funds to support both of them and re-doubled her efforts as a courtesan.

The young Russian was recuperating in a military hospital near Vittel, a place officially in the war zone so civilians required special permission to travel there. It was while seeking that permission that Mata Hari would meet Georges Ladoux, a man instrumental in her undoing.

Georges Ladoux was an army captain in charge of organizing French counterespionage. He was a plump, square-faced man given to smoking a pipe and slicking his dark hair back with shiny oils.

Mata Hari had been having trouble getting permission to visit Vittel because of the suspicion that she was a German spy. Friends recommended that she look up Georges Ladoux and plead her case with him. She did so and he questioned her extensively about where she stood regarding the conflict between France and Germany. She replied that as a Dutch citizen, she was neutral since, after all, Holland was not a belligerent, but she assured him that her sympathies were with France. Then he asked her if she would consider spying on the Germans for the French. She did not answer immediately and Ladoux told her to think it over. He could wait. He also told her he would approve the visit to Vittel.

Spying was dangerous. But it could also be highly remunerative and Mata Hari and Vadim badly needed money if they were going to be able to live in the style to which Mata Hari was accustomed. This would be especially true if she was to, in her words, avoid "deceiving him with other men." She decided to go for it. She did not plan to be at it for long. Rather, she would bring off "one big coup," collect a fortune from her grateful French superiors, then marry her beloved Vadim and live happily ever after.

Ladoux worked out a plan for Mata Hari to do some spying in Brussels. Mata Hari had known a businessman in that city named Wurfbein whose company provided food supplied to the German army. Wurfbein had promised to introduce Mata Hari to General Moritz Ferdinand von Bissing, who oversaw the German occupation of Belgium, the next time she was in Brussels. She would take Wurfbein up on the offer and then seduce von Bissing. The courtesan was sure she could get the general to spill military secrets while making pillow talk. Furthermore, she hoped that she could use him to renew an old affair she had had with the Crown Prince of Germany.

The war necessitated that Mata Hari employ a circuitous route to Brussels: she would go to Spain, then Britain, then her homeland of Holland, and finally Belgium.

Things started to go bad for her in Britain. The British strongly suspected Mata Hari of working for the Germans. Moreover, they were looking for a woman named Clara Benedix who was indubitably a German spy and bore something of a resemblance to Mata Hari. Deciding that "Clara Benedix," like "Mata Hari," was an alias for Margaretha Zelle, they entered the boat she was on as soon as it docked and arrested her.

The startled Mata Hari was taken to Scotland Yard for questioning. She insisted that she was not Clara Benedix and that a terrible mistake had been made.

Authorities in Britain wrote to France’s Georges Ladoux, who told them to return her to Spain, so back to Spain a frustrated and angered Mata Hari went. As Howe writes about her situation, "She was without instructions, needing money, and unable to get to Holland and Belgium and von Bissing."

It was December of 1916. According to some accounts, those that believe she was a German agent to begin with, she saw her controller from that country, Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, while she was in Madrid. Other writers believe the two never met.

She indisputably met and had a romance with German Major Arnold Kalle. During their time together, she attempted to extract information from him that would benefit her French spymasters and, she hoped, lead to a generous payoff for her. Kalle told her that he was "trying to arrange for a submarine to drop off some German and Turkish officers in the French zone of Morocco."

Mata Hari left his bed believing that she had picked up an important secret. The excited spy (she had just done her first spying according to many writers) wrote to Ladoux with the submarine news. In fact, it was something already well known to French counterespionage. A rightly suspicious Kalle had fed her a story he knew was stale and waited to see if she would relay it. For her part, Mata Hari pretended to give Kalle important knowledge about French secrets. Among other items, she told him that the French resented Britain’s direction of the Allied war effort and that the Allies were planning to launch an offensive in the spring. All the confidential "news" she related was swirling through France as gossip or had been in French newspapers.

On their next romantic rendezvous, Mata Hari again tried to spy for the French. Kalle appeared to be on to her. Angrily he told her that he knew she had passed on the information about the submarine to the French. He knew this, he claimed, because the Germans had "the key to their radio cipher." This was unlikely. While he had previously given her stale information, he then fed the naïve and inexperienced spy false information.

It was time to go back to Paris, Mata Hari believed, to reap the reward the French would surely give her for her achievements in espionage. Once back there, she tried to see Ladoux, her superior, but he was reluctant to admit her. When he finally did, he refused to pay her, saying that her information was without value and that she would have to do much better to earn money from French intelligence. Mata Hari was down but not out. She thought she could see and seduce someone much higher up the German echelon than Kalle and make the fortune she needed to support herself and Vadim, her future husband.

She waited in vain for another assignment.

Ladoux and his colleagues were ruminating over coded messages sent from Kalle to his colleagues in Berlin and back again that French counterespionage had intercepted. One such message read as follows.

"H 21 informs us: Princess George of Greece, Marie Bonaparte, is using her ‘intimate relations’ with Briand [Aristide Briand, then prime minister of France] to get French support for her husband’s access to the Greek throne.

She says Briand’s enemies would welcome further defeats in the war to overthrow him.

Britain has political and military control of France. French are afraid to speak up. General offensive planned for next spring."

The French were unlikely to be upset by the content of the message since it was the stuff of common gossip and easy surmise. It was the fact that Mata Hari appeared to already possess a code name recognizable by the Germans that set off an alarm. On the surface, at least, it indicated that she had started work for Germany prior to agreeing to spy for France.

To understand the central issue of Mata Hari’s guilt, it is necessary to be aware of a vital fact: the Germans were relaying information about her in a code that they knew the French had already broken. Thus, Germany intended that the French read these messages. Their motive may have been to lure France into killing on of its own agents or it may have been because she was truly a double agent operating for France after agreeing to spy for Germany and had been designated an expendable "fool-spy" by the Germans. In either case, it is safe to say that the Germans wanted her out of the way and wished the French to do the actual dirty work.

French intelligence was under a great deal of pressure to catch the spies in their midst. These communications made Mata Hari a temptingly easy mark.

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Arrested, Tried, Condemned

On February 13, 1917, the French arrested Mata Hari for espionage.

She was interrogated many times by Captain Pierre Bouchardon, a thin, beady-eyed military prosecutor who habitually bit his fingernails. To him, she gave a fairly truthful account of her background rather than the exotic claptrap she fed her audiences. She often shaved facts here and there to make her history seem a tad more "respectable" and got dates and similar details wrong. She categorically denied being a double agent. "I am innocent," she stated firmly. "Someone is playing with me – French counter-espionage, since I am in its service, and I have acted only on its instructions."

She was held in Saint-Lazare prison while awaiting trial and interrogated by Bouchardon no less than seventeen times before facing an actual military jury. The prison had no baths so the only way she could clean herself was in a small bowl that was sometimes brought to her cell. The institution itself was generally filthy, something that greatly distressed the fastidious Mata Hari. She was isolated from other prisoners. This may have been for her own protection since her fellow inmates may well have wanted to exact their own justice upon a German spy but it grated on the sensibilities of the extroverted suspect. Since her arrest was kept secret from the public, she was not allowed to write to Vadim. She was permitted no clean changes of clothing and allowed only 15 minutes a day for solitary exercise outside of her cell.

In between their face-to-face interrogations, Mata Hari wrote to Bouchardon protesting her innocence and protesting against the severe conditions of her confinement. In one such missive she wrote, "You have made me suffer too much. I am completely mad. I beg of you, put an end to this. I am a woman. I cannot support [what is] above my strength." In another she pleaded, "I beg of you, stop making me suffer in this prison. I am so weakened by this system and the cell is driving me mad. I have not done any espionage in France . . . Let me have provisional liberty. Don’t torture me here."

She wrote in vain.

There was one visitor allowed to her who came to see Mata Hari almost daily. He was her attorney, Edouard Clunet. The 74-year old lawyer had once been a lover of Mata Hari and continued to have warm feelings for her. He had handled legal matters for the dancer and professional mistress for over a decade. However, he was a poor choice to handle an espionage case. Although his mental faculties remained sharp in his seventh decade, his specialty was international corporate law – an area in which he was considered the greatest expert in the country – and he was out of practice in actually pleading in court.

While Mata Hari’s arrest was kept secret during several months of her detention, it was announced to the public just before the beginning of her trial at the Palace of Justice on July 24, 1917. An enormous crowd wanted to see the famous sex symbol during this time of disaster. They thronged into the great antechamber and spilled out into the street.

The dusky-skinned, dark-haired, and overweight defendant had taken care with her appearance on this day, wearing a lovely blue dress and a hat with a delicate, diaphanous lace mantilla sweeping across her face and flowing down her shoulders. Despite the summer heat, she wore gloves on her hands and folded them into a large fur muff.

Chief prosecuting attorney was André Mornet, a lieutenant in the French army. The case had been transferred from Bouchardon to him sometime before the trial began. Mornet was a slender fellow who sported a very full mustache and beard.

Presiding over the trial was Lieutenant-Colonel Albert-Ernest Somprou. The six "assessors" of the military court who would decide the fate of the defendant were all career officers approaching or beyond middle age.

The first request of the prosecutor was to hold the trial "in camera" (in secret) and to seal the records for the good of national security. Somprou granted the motion and the huge crowd was shooed out of the courtroom.

Mornet carefully outlined the case against the accused. She had been under suspicion and under surveillance since shortly after she arrived in Paris in May 1916. He emphasized that those who patronized this harlot were overwhelmingly military officers, hoping to implant the notion that Mata Hari’s interest was far more sinister than that of a sensuous woman with a thing for men in uniform.

Radio messages from the German military in Madrid to Berlin had been intercepted, Mornet told the jury. These identified Mata Hari as Agent H 21 of the Cologne intelligence center. Getting rather carried away with his own rhetoric, Mornet called the defendant "a sort of Messalina, dragging a horde of admirers behind her chariot."

Five witnesses were called to confirm what the prosecutor had said in his opening. Under the military trial rules of the time, Clunet could not cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. Even more damaging, the defense could not even directly question its own witnesses!

However, a defense witness did appear to praise the accused. Henry "Robert" de Marguérie was a high-ranking official in the foreign ministry. He had known the defendant for fourteen years and been a lover of hers. He had visited her shortly after returning to Paris from fighting in the war and they had not talked about the conflict at all.

Mornet found this hard to believe and pressed the witness. "Are you asking us to accept, sir," the prosecutor began incredulously, "that you spent three days constantly in each other’s company and not a word escaped your lips of the question which obsesses us all, the war?"

De Marguérie’s answer was immediate and unequivocal. "I am a very busy man," he said, "and I am obsessed with the war night and day. For just that reason, it was a great relief to spend three days talking of philosophy, Indian art, and love. It may seem unlikely to you but it is the truth." Without being asked, he volunteered, "Nothing has ever spoiled the good opinion that I have of this lady."

Before leaving the courtroom, de Marguérie ostentatiously bowed to Mata Hari.

To an extraordinary extent, the hands of the defense were simply tied. Thus, it is not that surprising that the military court ended up finding her guilty. Their sentence was harsh but not unexpected to one convicted of spying for an enemy nation: "The Council unanimously condemns the named person, Zelle, Marguérite, Gertrude, as mentioned above, to the punishment of death." She was also required to pay court costs.

Mugshot of Mata Hari
Mugshot of Mata Hari

Mata Hari appeared to be in shock when she heard the sentence. She stared straight ahead as if transfixed. Edouard Clunet wept beside her.

During the remaining months of her incarceration, Mata Hari was alternately hopeful of a last-minute reprieve and utterly depressed. She continued to gain weight from the starchy prison food and the enforced lack of exercise.

The last photographs taken of her show a woman still attractive if plump but weary, anxious, and sad.

The end came for Mata Hari early in the morning of October 15, 1917. She had not been informed in advance of the date of her execution because, when France had the death penalty, it was considered more humane for the condemned to not know the precise date.

It was also customary for the party of officers to make as much noise as possible when coming to get the condemned, so the sleeping prisoner will have woken before they got to his or her cell and be a tiny bit easier to deal with.

Captain Bouchardon had the task of leading the grim group to Mata Hari’s cell. Even after the deliberately violent stomping of their feet down the corridor, they found the convicted spy sound asleep because a doctor had given her an extra dose of the sedative she needed to sleep on the previous night.

As Mata Hari stirred and blinked at the group that had intruded into her cell, Bouchardon firmly announced, "Have courage! Your request for clemency has been rejected by the President of the Republic. The time for expiation has come."

"It’s not possible!" Mata Hari shouted. "It’s not possible!"

Two kindly nuns who had come to be fond of the prisoner in her months of incarceration attempted to comfort the distraught woman. She composed herself and told a nun, "Don’t be afraid, sister. I shall know how to die."

Indeed she did. Mata Hari faced death bravely, walking with her head high and refusing the customary offer of a blindfold. The prisoner saw twelve rifles pointing at her. She blew a kiss at her killers. The order was given, the shots rang out, and she was dead. A bullet had found her heart. Although it was unnecessary, custom demanded that a French officer administer the final coup de grace so one did, emptying his gun into her ear.

Mata Hari’s execution, October 15, 1917
Mata Hari’s execution, October 15, 1917

No one claimed her body so her corpse was taken to a medical school to be used by students there for study on the dissecting table.

By a strange and melancholy coincidence, Mata Hari’s daughter Non, who had grown up without her mother but strongly resembled her physically, would die young and suddenly. At the age of twenty-one, she planned to go to the Dutch East Indies where she would be a teacher. She died in her sleep on the night before the planned voyage, probably of a stroke.

In the years following Mata Hari’s death, the dancer-turned-courtesan and just barely turned-spy became a legend. She has been portrayed onscreen by Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia Kristel, and Jeanne Moreau. Some, usually the uninformed, take seriously the prosecutor’s flamboyant description of her as "the greatest woman spy."

However, Mata Hari’s career as a spy was short-lived and unproductive. Whether or not she was ever the double agent she was thought to be is highly debatable. Her execution by the French may well have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Yet she is one of the most famous spies in history, largely because she was already famous as an entertainer before she entered the shadowy world of espionage. However, her true talents, for which she was justly famous, were not in espionage but in exotic dancing and pleasing men.

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Mysteries and Myths 20th Century: Mata-Hari, Spying in World War 1 (1 de 2)

Mysteries and Myths 20th Century: Mata-Hari, Spying in World War 1 (2 de 2)

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