Before we get to the life of Mata Hari, the woman who epitomises spying and sexual intrigue, a little story.
The late actor Peter Ustinov used to tell a great anecdote about his very short career in espionage. An MI5 operative had arranged to meet him at London’s Sloane Square Tube station for interview. Ustinov was there on time. He waited. And waited. He saw no-one. Later he called a number to find out what had gone wrong. The voice on the other end of the line told him that the handler had been there at the arranged time. Ustinov hadn’t noticed him. But the spook had noticed Ustinov and deemed him too recognisable to make it as a spy. The aim of any good spy is to be unremarkable. Ustinov was anything but.
Which brings us to Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod (née Zelle; 7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), popularly known as Mata Hari, the Dutch-born exotic dancer and escort executed by the French in 1917 on the charge of spying for Germany during World War I and contributing to the deaths of 50,000 men.
Which brings us back to Ustinov’s tale: how did a beautiful and famous woman work as a spy?
It was convenient for the generals to blame a sexually confident female from neutral Holland for disasters on the battlefields. The French were losing the fight. They needed a common cause to rally the troops and people. They needed a scapegoat for the slaughter. And there she was, a frontline stripper and foreign-born courtesan with friends in high places.
Margaretha enjoyed a well-fed childhood in an ordinary family home in Leeuwarden – until her father’s hat business failed. He went bankrupt when she was 13, and started a new life with another woman. Soon after her mother Antje Zelle died. Margaretha, 15, and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives.
In a world where women were subjugated, Margaretha, a resourceful survivor with a lust for life, wanted an escape. And so began the next chapter in the extraordinary life of a girl described by school friends as “an orchid among the buttercups”.
At 18 she responded to a newspaper advert placed by an experienced, middle-aged soldier on leave. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (21 years her senior) invited readers: “Captain in the Army of the Indies, on leave in Holland seeks wife with a character to his taste.”
A first date at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, was followed by a few passionate days of courting. After six days they were engaged. After four months Margaretha and the boorish MacLeod were married. A brief period living in Holland was followed by relocation to the Dutch East Indies.
Things were not good. When he wasn’t cheating on his young wife with Dutch prostitutes in Amsterdam and his concubine in the colonies, MacLeod beat her. For good measure he passed on a dose of syphilis, so they say. The disease apparently took the life of the couple’s two children: Norman-John died at the age of two, and daughter Louise-Jeanne died at 21. Although another story has it that their housekeeper poisoned the children to avenge a fight between her boyfriend and MacLeod.
As with so much of the Mata Hari story, myth and fact become entangled until it’s hard to see where truth ends and fantasy begins.
Margaretha wanted out of the marriage. But MacLeod was the one to leave. Back in Holland, and living apart, MacLeod took Louise-Jeanne for a walk to post a letter and never brought her back. In 1906, the couple divorced.
Margaretha did what any abandoned woman would do: she took up Indonesian dance and in 1903 went to Paris with five centimes in her pocket. She found work as an artist’s model, a horse rider in the circus and an exotic dancer. Performing in the near nude paid off. In 1905 Margaretha became Mata Hari at the Musée Guimet. The audience was driven “out of it mind” by the mysterious, tall and supple woman with a seductive and fabricated backstory of a divine life in the Orient. Before long Mata Hari was performing across Europe.
“She didn’t exactly dance; but she knew how to remove her clothes piece by piece and move her long, proud, dusky body,” wrote the French authoress Colette.
Mata Hari lived dangerously. She would die courageously.
As is the way of things, men came calling at Mata Hari’s door. She could take her pick. Sensibly, she picked the rich ones. Before long she was working as a reassuringly expensive prostitute, hired by a variety of men in positions of authority. Nipping all over Europe, Mata Hari was performing in Berlin when the First World War broke out. Seen as a French citizen and thus an enemy of the German State, the Germans confiscated Mata Hari’s possessions and ordered to leave. She boared a train to Holland.
Penniless once again, Mata Hari was forced to begin her life anew.
Able to move relatively freely due to her Dutch nationality and comfortable around men in uniform, the Germans and French thought Mata Hari well-placed to work as a spy. She had once passed on words uttered by one of her lovers, a German Hussar, who’d told her, ominously, that he’d see her in Paris sooner then she thought, to another lover, who just so happened to be the French Minister of War. Would she become a professional spy?
A year after arriving back in The Hague, Holland, a German officer stationed at the local consulate knocked on her door, handed her money (20,000 Francs) and three bottles of “secret ink”. He asked her to return to Paris and pass on secrets. She saw the money as adequate compensation for the furs and jewels the Germans had seized. A deal was struck.
When she moved to Paris, the British and French secret services were watching her. In 1916 she agreed to work for the French. Mata Hari had fallen for a Russian pilot named Captain Vadim Maslov, whom she’d met in Paris. He was badly injured on the Western Front. Mata Hari asked to see her lover convalescing in Vittel. The French would give her permission to travel (and some cash) so long as she’d share any pillow talk mouthed by high-ranking Germans, such as the feckless German Crown Prince Wilhelm. French military intelligence (the Deuxième Bureau) were unaware that the length and breadth of Wilhelm’s knowledge was what was on the end of his todger and in his glass.
Hari went to Vittel.
She returned with a plan. For one million francs she’d fly to Brussels and Berlin – dressed in the “very best clothes I have” – and spy on the Germans. The French agreed.
They dispatched Mata Hari to Madrid to seduce the German military attache there, a Major Kelle. She met him and “played with my feet and did everything to make a man interested”. Seemingly entranced he told her of German plans to land cargoes of rifles in Morocco. She passed on the message to the French. But they didn’t think her information worth the fee.
Out of her depth, things took a fatal twist. The Germans spotted the plot to use Kelle. They fed Mata Hari false information. They sent messages over wires discussing Mata Hari’s role as a German spy. The French were listening in. The Germans knew they were using a broken cypher, and meant for the French to read the message.
German and French intelligence services had worked together to achieve a common goal: the elimination of Mata Hari.
On February 13th, Mata Hari was arrested and charged with espionage. Oddly, the man who had persuaded her to spy for France, one Captain Georges Ladoux, was later arrested and charged for working for the Germans. He escaped through a lack of evidence – a lack of which failed to protect the woman he interrogated at great length and prosecuted in a secret court martial.
British reporter Henry Wales was in Paris. His report for The International News Service is a wonderful mix of showbiz gossip – you expect him to identify the labels on her outfit – tabloid sensation and performance. There was a passionate curiosity in the accused:
The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.
Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.
The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.
‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.
Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.
She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.
Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.
She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.
Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:
‘I am ready.’
The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.
The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.
Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.
The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.
The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.
As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.
‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.
‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.
‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .
Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.
The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.
A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.
She did not move a muscle.
The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.
It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.
At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.
Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.
A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.
Mata Hari was surely dead.
Mata Hari was executed on October 15th, 1917. Her final act was to blow kisses at the firing squad. After she was shot in the Bois de Vincennes, Mata Hari’s head was removed and for many years kept – along with those of other celebrity criminals – in Paris’s museum of anatomy. No-one claimed her remains.
Via: Eyewitness History