J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.
At 5:00 AM on October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was awakened in her cell in the Prison de Saint-Lazare outside Paris. Father Arbaux, two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, came to tell her this was the day she would die.
“May I write two letters?” she asked.
Captain Bouchardon gave consent and had pen, ink, paper, and some envelopes delivered to her. She sat up on her bed and passionately but quietly wrote the letters. She handed them over to her lawyer. She serenely got up and put on her stockings, a low-cut blouse, and an elegant grey two-piece suit.
Finally, when the guards came to take her to the place where she would be executed, she put on an overcoat with a square fur collar and cuffs and merely replied “I am ready.” Her unflinching iron will stayed with her until her last breath.
As she stood in front of the twelve men whose rifles would close her piercing eyes forever, she politely refused to be tied to the stake or be blindfolded. She then went on to face the barrels of the firing squad with resolute courage. As the twelve soldiers raised their rifles, she waved at the two weeping nuns who had kept her company in prison. She blew a kiss to the priest who was to witness the execution and to her lawyer, an ex-lover.
The shots rang out just as the sun was coming over the horizon. She quickly slumped to the ground. The officer in charge of the execution slowly made his way to her and fired a single coup de grace shot into her brain with his revolver.
She was a beautiful seductress. Her brown piercing eyes, blue-black hair, and exotically sensual olive-colored skin were an irresistible allure to men. Her profile was her best side mainly due to her slender turned up nose, sensuous lips, and weak feminine chin. That same brunette skin would later help her convince the public she was a half-Indian, half-Indonesian temple dancer.
However, the reality of her heritage was otherwise. Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, was born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands on August 7, 1876 to Dutch parents with ancestry from the northern islands. She was the eldest and only daughter of four children of Adam Zelle and his first wife Antje van der Meulen.
Her father was well-off from a hat shop he owned as well as successful investments in the oil industry, consequently, bestowing upon Margaretha a lavish childhood. Always well dressed, and considered a dandy in the small town where the family lived, Zelle always made sure all the children attended the best private schools.
The family was torn apart in 1889 when Margaretha’s parents divorced. An event propelled by Zelle’s bankruptcy due to poor investments and the collapse of the Dutch economy. Shortly after their divorce, Margaretha’s mother died. Her father went on to remarry in 1893 to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove in Amsterdam; a union destined to break apart in a short time.
Zelle, unable to care for the children, sent them off to live with different relatives. Margaretha went to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser, in Sneek, a town just southwest of Leeuwarden. Visser, a man who had no children of his own and little interest in raising a teenager, decided to send Margaretha to a kindergarten training college. This, he felt would give her a place to live as well as teach her a profession.
Margaretha, however, became popular not only with the other students but especially with the headmaster with whom she might have had a little more than a few coquettish encounters. Although she denied that any amorous liaison took place, her godfather removed her from the school.
At a mere 17 years of age, Margaretha was already involved in a sex scandal for which she needed to flee. Hence, she went to live with her uncle Mr. Taconis, in The Hague. But perhaps this was a turning point for Margaretha: a crossroad at which she realized that her future was to be made and conquered through her sexuality.
Marriage to Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod
At 18, she answered an advertisement in the Het Nieuwes van den Dag, a local newspaper. The ad was placed by a friend of Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, as a practical joke. The advertisement claimed MacLeod was looking for a wife. The ad garnished 16 responses with Margaretha being the last response received.
MacLeod (a descendant of the Gesto branch of the MacLeods of Skye, hence his Scottish name) was living in what was then the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. Margaretha answered the newspaper ad in a fashion that foreshadowed her attitude toward her relationship with men: by sending a strikingly seductive picture of herself, with her jet-black hair and olive-color skin, which she felt would entice him.
Margaretha viewed marrying MacLeod as a way into the Dutch upper class and accepted the matrimony proposal. The future Mata Hari was barely 19 years of age by the time she wedded MacLeod, a brutish, bald, mustachioed bachelor, 21 years her senior.
The Island of Java
After the wedding in Amsterdam on July 11, 1895, the couple moved to Malang on the east side of the island of Java two years later. The marriage, however, was doomed from the beginning. MacLeod was a heavy drinker who often flew into rages over the attention Margaretha received from other officers. He often beat her and blamed her for his lack of military promotion.
During her time in Indonesia, she gave birth to a daughter and a son, who were named Louise Jeanne (1898–1919) and Norman-John (1897–1899), respectively. It was originally reported that both children were poisoned by a household worker thought to have acted on behalf of one of MacLeod’s enemies. Norman-John died, while it was reported the doctors were able to save Louise Jeanne.
Recent evidence has surfaced that perhaps both her son and daughter were born with syphilis, causing her son to die while being treated with mercury. Some speculate syphilis to have been given to Margaretha by her husband, a known philanderer who openly kept a mistress.
In reality, Margaretha was not meant to be a housewife. She once said “I was not content at home… I wanted to live like a colorful butterfly in the sun.” During her time in the Dutch East Indies, she decided to learn about native dances, local customs, and the Javanese language. She even joined a local dance company during that time. This seemed to suit her inquiring mind and her need to interact with people outside of the home.
She later had an affair and went to live with Dutch officer Van Rheedes, eventually being persuaded to return to her husband. Her husband’s behavior did not change and it was obvious that separation was in their future. It was around this time that Margaretha wrote to her family in the Netherlands and announced she was changing her name to Mata Hari, Indonesian for “eye of the day.”
In 1902, MacLeod and Mata Hari returned to the Netherlands and separated on August 30 of that year. The divorce became final in 1906, during which time she was awarded custody of Jeanne. MacLeod was required to pay child support, which he never did. One time when Jeanne went to visit her father, he never returned her to Mata Hari. Since she did not have the resources to pursue the situation she was forced to accept it. Jeanne later died at the age of 21 from what is speculated to be complications related to syphilis.
The Beginning of Mata Hari
Mata Hari moved to Paris in 1903 and began to earn money as a model for various local artists. She also secured a job riding a horse in a circus under the name Lady MacLeod, causing a great deal of displeasure among the Dutch MacLeod family. By 1905, she was gaining notoriety as an Asian exotic dancer and soon began touring all over Europe. She would tell the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess. During this time she was given the name Mata Hari, meaning “eye of the day” but which, as a compound, means ‘sun’ in Malay.
While her act took on a quasi-religious aspect, she captivated her audiences by dancing almost nude with the exception of a bra made of beads and jewels. She was self-conscious about her small breast and her bra stayed with her throughout all her performances.
As her fame grew, so did the seductive nature of her performances. As she danced, she would take off pieces of her attire until all that was left was her jeweled bra, a head piece, and bracelets. Mata Hari was in essence the inventor of the striptease.
In order to avoid charges of indecency, Mata Hari always took the time to carefully explain that her performances were sacred temple dances from the Indies. Her sensuously beautiful, erotic and emotional performances told tales of lust, jealousy, passion, and vengeance. Her audiences, regardless of whether they were men or women, were always enthralled with what they witnessed.
She was tall, extremely attractive, willing to appear virtually nude, possessing the ability to speak French, Dutch, English, German, and Malay; Mata Hari was a sensation. As a journalist from the Courrier Français in 1905 said:
“She undulated beneath veils that cloak and reveal her at the same time. It bears no resemblance to anything we’ve ever seen. Her breasts rise listlessly, her eyes drown in themselves. Her hands stretch out and fall back down, as if laden with sun and effort.”
Another French journalist wrote that Mata Hari was:
“so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”
While another journalist in Vienna wrote after seeing one of her performances that Mata Hari was
“slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair” which “makes a strange foreign impression.”
But most importantly, her wealth and fame were attributed to the rich and influential men who wanted (and were able to afford) a beautiful mistress in their arms. Consequently, she was seen with aristocrats, financiers, politicians, diplomats, military officers, and wealthy tycoons. These men bought her furs, jewels, chic furnished accommodations, even horses — all for the pleasure of her company.
Her Fame Declines
By about 1910, however, many imitators began to appear on stage. Critics began to doubt her artistic talents and credited her popularity on cheap exhibitionism. Worst yet, those who professed expertise in the performing arts considered her to be a dancer who did not know how to dance.
Her public image further suffered when she became notorious as much for her sex life as for her nude dancing. Consequently, Mata Hari’s career went into decline after 1912, and March 13, 1915 marked the last performance of her career. Sometime around her 38th birthday, Margaretha had begun to gain weight. By the time of her last performance, she had begun her transition from a performing artist to a full-time courtesan. Albeit, known more for her sensuality and eroticism than for her beauty.
Her relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and international diplomats continued flourishing. These trysts with powerful men allowed her to crisscross Europe morphing her image from a free-spirited artist and bohemian to a licentious promiscuous woman. Perhaps, even a dangerous seductress.
Mata Hari the (Reluctant) Spy
As Holland remained neutral during the First World War, Margaretha was able to move freely across national borders. Her high profile as well as her ability to intermingle in the highest European social circles drew the attention of the French secret service.
From the onset of the war, Margaretha threw herself into what was described as an intense romantic-sexual relationship with a 23-year-old Russian pilot serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov became whom she called the love of her life.
At the time of his relationship with Margaretha, Moslov would have been the same age as her dead son, had he lived. But perhaps, what most endeared him to her was his loss of his left eye after being shot down in a dogfight and exposed to poison gas.
This prompted her to ask for permission to visit her wounded lover at the hospital near the front line. As a citizen of a neutral country, she would not normally be allowed near the front. However, agents from the Deuxième Bureau intercepted her and told her she would not be allowed to see Maslov unless she agreed to spy for France.
She reluctantly accepted. Later, she insisted she planned to use her connections to seduce German high command members and secure secrets that she could hand over to the French. Unfortunately, she never got that far. She gossiped trivialities with a German attaché in the hopes of receiving reciprocal information: however, he branded her as a German spy in communiqués to Berlin. These were intercepted by the French.
Some historians speculate she was set up by the Germans as they suspected her of being a French spy. Experts point to the easily decoded message sent as possible proof the Germans wanted the French to view her as a double agent.
Another nail in her coffin came from British intelligence. Returning to France via the Netherlands in December of 1916, she and all of the steamboat passengers were questioned by an intelligence officer in Folkestone, a British port. While nothing incriminating was found during the search of her and her luggage, the office noted: “(She) Speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch, and probably German. Handsome, bold type woman. Well and fashionably dressed.” He then continued, “Not above suspicion…most unsatisfactory…should be refused permission to return to the U.K.”
Again, on November of the same year, Margaretha was traveling by steamer from Spain when her ship made a stop in the British port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and taken to London where she was interrogated by the counter-espionage division of the New Scotland Yard. Sir Basil Thomson, the interrogator, said “We were convinced now that she was acting for the Germans,” he wrote, “and that she was then on her way to Germany with information which she had committed to memory.”
Later Thompson wrote in his book that she eventually admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau and that she reported to French Army Major Georges Ladoux. However, Ladoux told the British he had employed her only as a ruse to entrap her.
The French authorities arrested Margaritha for espionage in Paris on February 13, 1917. She was imprisoned in a rat-infested cell at the Prison Saint-Lazare. While there, she was allowed to see only members of the Catholic clergy and her elderly lawyer, who happened to have been a former lover.
For five months, she was held in isolation in what could be considered the Bastille of its day. Investigative Magistrate Pierre Bouchardon of the Ministry of Justice, nicknamed “the Grand Inquisitor,” had already decided her guilt. He later said, “From the first interview, I had the intuition that I was in the presence of a person in the pay of our enemies.” He recalled “…In the pallid light that infiltrated the courtyard of the jail, she did not resemble at all the dancer who had bewitched so many men…. Feline, supple, and artificial, used to gambling everything and anything without scruple, without pity, always ready to devour fortunes, leaving her lovers to blow their brains out, she was a born spy.”
After months of solitary confinement, Mata Hari, the former exotic dancer and undeniable sensation of Paris implored her interrogator Bouchardon, “I cannot stand this life. I would rather hang myself on the bars of my window than live like this.”
Following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive, France had been badly shaken by the Great Mutinies of the French Army in the spring of 1917. Many felt France might collapse as a result of war exhaustion. The new government of Georges Clemenceau became totally committed to winning the war.
Having one German spy on whom everything that went wrong with the war could be blamed was a convenient narrative. Hence, Mata Hari was the perfect scapegoat. This clearly explains why the case against her received maximum publicity in the French press. It also explains why her importance in the war was so greatly exaggerated.
The Canadian historian Wesley Wark stated in a 2014 interview: “They needed a scapegoat and she was a notable target for scapegoating.” British historian Julie Wheelwright stated: “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” She went on to describe Margaretha Zelle 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.”
An exotic dancer. A double agent. A seductress who could extract military secrets from her many lovers. Eventually, losing her life for her supposed loose morals, indecency and promiscuity creates the enduring image of the femme fatale. This was Mata Hari.
Is this what the world does to our goddesses?