1876-1917. THE ORIGINAL FEMME FATALE; CAREFREE CULTURE VULTURE; “A HARLOT, YES, BUT A TRAITOR, NEVER!”
Mata Hari was simply too ahead of her time.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands. She was sent to live with relatives after her father lost the family fortune and her mother died.
At 18, bored and fully cognizant of the powers of manipulation she held over men - she had been removed from school at 16 for flirting, or possibly carrying out an affair, with her headmaster - Margaretha married an older Dutch Colonial Captain after responding to a personal ad that he had taken out in a newspaper. He was stationed in what is now Indonesia, and she moved there with him after their wedding.
Although she broke out of the Dutch doldrums, things in the Dutch East Indies were, quite frankly, terrible. Husband and wife very much disliked each other. And then her husband became abusive.
After the poisoning of their two children by a nanny - the reasons for this event are unclear - resulting in the death of her son - Margaretha filed for divorce and moved back to Europe. But she was not allowed to collect alimony and have custody of her daughter at the same time. It was difficult for a single mother to make money at the turn of the century, so Margaretha left her daughter with her ex-husband and moved, alone, to Paris.
In Paris, Mata Hari was born. Taking her name from the Malay word meaning “light of the day,” she began her artistic career as an exotic dancer, and quickly became the biggest female celebrity of her time. Mata Hari positioned herself as an Indonesian princess, who performed what she claimed were spiritual Hindu dances. Her costumes reflected an exoticised version of the culture she’d lived amongst in Indonesia; she was often heavily bejewelled and scantily clad. She was most famous for performing a “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she would slowly remove pieces of clothing until nothing but a jewelled bra remained. Because of the relatively nude nature of her dances (although, it must be said that she also wore a flesh-toned bodysuit most of the time), she became the scandal of Paris, which meant that everybody wanted to see her perform, and that every man wanted to take her as their mistress.
Mata Hari’s legend has it that she was a maneater, a courtesan who was often kept in luxurious apartments, gems and furs by her gentlemen callers. And while this was certainly true, recently unearthed letters that she had written reveal that it is likely that she had a distaste for sex, and truly just wanted to win back custody of her daughter. Unfortunately, the press photos of her were enough of the evidence that her ex-husband needed to convince the courts to keep her from her child.
As the Belle Epoque bled into WWI, Mata Hari started to do that thing that all women Must Not Do: age. As she started to age, her money started to dry up. And she started to use her status as a Dutch citizen (the Netherlands remained neutral during the war) to travel freely between Germany and France. She even became romantically involved with a dashing young Russian pilot, who was shot down in battle.
Because she was the citizen of a neutral country, she was allowed to travel closer to the Front than citizens of other nations could. So, when she was granted permission to meet her lover in the military hospital, it was under the condition that she must spy on Germany for France.
Her mission was to seduce the Prince Wilhelm, an alleged former lover of hers, and extract German military secrets from him, as he had just been promoted to a high rank of General. However, in the process, she was found to be selling French “spy secrets” - really, just gossip - to the Germans, in what appears now to be an attempt to penetrate the German government. The French officer who had nominated her to the post had her arrested. And, after a show trial, Mata Hari was condemned to death.
There is a surviving account of her execution, written by a British journalist who was present that day. It is an extraordinary piece of writing that demonstrates how steely Mata Hari must have been, and I encourage you to read it in full. In it, the journalist describes how she dressed herself impeccably, and elected to stand in front of the firing squad unbound and without a blindfold. At her moment of death, she fell upright.
And so concluded the life of Mata Hari.
Over time, her legend has become one of a slut who left her child, slept with everyone, danced naked, betrayed the good guys during the Great War and died because of it. Only in the last two years has this version of the story been changed.
You see, until 2016 and 2017, the only real accounts of Mata Hari’s life came secondhand and via the reports from her 1917 trial. In 2016, a large cache of letters she wrote were found and published; in them, she documented her unsuccessful attempts to reconnect with her daughter and her anguish at their estrangement. And, in 2017, on the 100 year anniversary of her execution, the full files concerning her arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution were unsealed under French law.
What has become stunningly clear is that Mata Hari was a scapegoat, and probably even targeted because she was a woman who openly flouted common societal expectations. The officer who conscripted her to spy on the Germans, Georges Ladoux, would most likely have known that Prince Wilhelm’s role as a General was for show, as he had a reputation for being generally uninvolved with government and was more concerned with parties and girls, therefore setting Mata Hari on what was a suicide mission. Ladoux became her main accuser during her trial for treason, which only lends this theory more credibility. Furthermore, at the time of her death, the war was not going well for the Allies; they needed a win to distract from the massive amounts of casualties on the Front.
And executing the biggest female star on the continent - one who was known for being carefree with her body and sexuality, considered lewd at the time - was a big win for them.
After her execution, nobody claimed her body. It was given to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, and they kept her embalmed head until it was discovered missing in 1954. It remains at large.
“I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.”