I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I lose, sometimes I win. – Mata Hari
Today is Armistice Day, the ninety-second anniversary of the end of the First World War; in observance of this day, I would like to present a short biography of the most famous courtesan of the period (and indeed one of the most famous whores of all time), Mata Hari. Though she was executed by the French for espionage on October 15th, 1917 and her name is practically synonymous with “female spy”, it is unlikely that she was guilty of the crime for which she was executed and may have been used as a scapegoat by the real culprit.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born on August 7th, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Friesland, the eldest of four children of Adam and Antje Zelle. Her father was quite wealthy, so she received an excellent education until she was 13, at which time her father went bankrupt and her parents divorced. Her father remarried in 1893, but Margaretha did not get along with her stepmother and so went to live with her godfather. She started studying to be a kindergarten teacher, but when the headmaster of her school began to flirt with her the outraged godfather removed her from the school. This caused her to become estranged from him, so she went to live with an uncle instead. Early in 1895 the 18-year-old girl answered a marriage advertisement placed by a Dutch Colonial Army officer named Rudolf MacLeod and moved with him to Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies.
Her marriage was not a happy one; the first of her two children died at the age of two from congenital syphilis, and her much-older husband was a violent alcoholic who beat and otherwise mistreated her; as if that weren’t bad enough, he openly kept a second native wife and also a concubine. Margaretha temporarily left him, moved in with another Dutch officer, and began studying Indonesian culture; she soon joined a local dance company, and at that time first assumed her stage name Mata Hari, Indonesian for “eye of the day” (i.e. the sun). Her husband eventually talked her into coming back to him, but since he had not changed she continued to dance and to study Indonesian culture. After they moved back to the Netherlands they separated in 1902 and divorced in 1906, with her husband retaining custody of their daughter. Margaretha moved to Paris, where she joined the circus as a horse rider (under the name Lady MacLeod) and an artist’s model. But since neither of these trades was very profitable she became an exotic dancer under her old stage name, Mata Hari. By 1905 she was wildly popular and soon became the mistress of a millionaire industrialist named Emile Guimet; her publicity claimed that she was a Javanese princess who had practiced sacred Hindu dance since childhood. She was photographed numerous times during this period, often nude, and some of these pictures were used by her husband in their divorce to argue that she was an unfit mother.
Whatever she may have felt about losing her daughter, she did not let it affect her performances, and her fame soon spread through western Europe; her dancing was sensual and erotic, and her act included what we would now call a striptease. She rarely removed her bra, however, because she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else; by 1910 she was the most highly-paid courtesan in Europe. She moved in wealthy circles and her clientele included high-ranking military officers, politicians and noblemen of several countries (including the crown prince of Germany). Her fame inspired an army of imitators and a number of enemies among jealous critics, who claimed she was nothing but an exhibitionist whose performances lacked artistic merit. One of these snobs described her as “a dancer who does not know how to dance.” At the height of her popularity she was able to laugh these people off, but in the climate of intrigue and paranoia which enveloped Europe in the months before the Great War began some of her enemies began to whisper that her seductiveness and free movement across international borders made her a security risk.
The Netherlands were neutral in the conflict, so Mata Hari continued to travel to visit her clients even as the war raged. To avoid the battle zones she usually traveled through Spain or Britain, which attracted the attention of military intelligence agencies; once she was detained by British intelligence and admitted to working as a French agent, but the French denied her statement. It is still unknown if the French merely lied to avoid offending their British allies, or if Mata Hari had merely made the story up to placate the officers who had detained her. Then in January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid sent a coded radio message to Berlin describing the activities of a German spy called H-21; when French intelligence intercepted the messages they identified H-21 as Mata Hari. But since the message was sent in a code that the Germans knew had already been broken by the French, there is some suspicion that the message may have been meant to be intercepted.
On February 13th, 1917, she was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris and put on trial for espionage; she was accused of causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers by the information she had passed on. Unsurprisingly, she was found guilty and executed by firing squad on October 15th, 1917; she was 41. Most modern biographers doubt she was ever a double-agent, though it is possible she may have been working as a spy for the French since she is known to have had a relationship with Georges Ladoux, the head of French counter-espionage, who was later found to be a double-agent himself and may therefore have arranged to frame Mata Hari so as to draw suspicion away from himself. The final truth may be revealed in 7 years; the official case documents were sealed for 100 years, but in 1985 a biographer named Russell Howe managed to convince the French Minister of National Defense to open the file and he said that the documents within proved her innocent. We will soon know if he was telling the truth when the file becomes public in October of 2017.
There are a number of rumors about her execution; one is that she blew a kiss to her executioners or her lawyer (who was present), and another that her last words were “Harlot, yes, but traitor, never!” She was not bound and refused a blindfold, facing death bravely and dying without a cry or a change of expression after she was shot. Her body was not claimed by her family and so was used for medical study; her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but disappeared around 1954 when the collection was relocated. The Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, Netherlands has a “Mata Hari Room” containing a wealth of information on the courtesan and possible spy who was the town’s most famous native. The romantic facts of her life and the cinematic end to her career have spawned a legend which dwarfs the real woman; she is practically the archetype of the femme fatale, and fictionalized versions of her have appeared in countless books, movies, television shows and even video games, the most famous of which was the 1931 movie Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo. This movie set the pattern which all other treatments were to follow: Other than the name and a few important particulars, the life of the character in the movie bore very little resemblance to that of the real lady, and so it has continued to this day. Which, IMHO, is a pity; I think her real life was more than interesting enough without Hollywood embellishment.