Mata Hari, one of the most evocative names in history was born plain Margarethe Zelle at Leeuwarden in the remote Friesland region of the Netherlands on 7 August 1876, the daughter of a shopkeeper.
There was never the slightest possibility of the dreamy and impulsive Margarethe following in her father’s footsteps and settling down to a respectable bourgeois existence. As she later wrote:
“I wanted away, to live life like a colourful butterfly in the sun.”
In 1895, aged just nineteen she married a Dutch Army Officer twenty years her senior, a man she had met through a lonely hearts advertisement posted in a local shop window and when a little later he was assigned to serve in the Dutch East Indies, Margarethe went with him.
Little is known of their time together in the East though she did give birth to two children, one of whom died soon after, it was later suggested in mysterious circumstances, but it soon became apparent that she had drunk deep of the local culture.
In 1902, she briefly returned to the Netherlands, having divorced her husband who had taken custody of their remaining child, before travelling onto Paris where she now reinvented herself.
Despite having little money she trained as an erotic dancer paying for her tuition by means of prostitution and was eager to express herself not just through the medium of dance but in the exotic ways of the Far East that she had so eagerly imbibed and was to prove herself particularly adept.
She also changed her name to the enigmatic Mata Hari which means “Eye of the Day” though she translated it as “Sunrise of the Day.”
She created scenarios to delight, dance moves to captivate, and choreographed her own routines which she referred to as her “Sacred Dances.” And she wasn’t afraid to push the barriers of what was deemed respectable behaviour.
Her dance routines would be slow and precise at first before rising to a frenetic and overtly sexual crescendo that would invariably end with her sprawled naked upon the floor though she would often keep her bra on, not out of any sense of modesty but because she was self-conscious about the size of her breasts.
She responded to the criticism of lewd behaviour by excusing the nudity as being necessary for the sake of her art which she cleverly seasoned with lashings of fake semi-religious Eastern mysticism.
She very quickly became a sensation in the Dance Halls of Paris and her fame soon spread and before long she was touring all the major cities of Europe with her one woman show, captivating the public and seducing her audiences as she went. Something she did quite literally on occasion procuring for herself a string of lovers both male and female, and often more than one at a time. The rich and well-connected were not shy of her bed. As she remarked:
“I can sleep with a Duke, wake with a Count, and then dine with a General. I satisfy all my caprices.”
Mata Hari claimed to be a Javanese Princess, and with her brown flirtatious eyes, long dark hair and olive complexion she could well have been from the ethnic extraction she claimed. Though, at almost six feet she was a little tall.
A witness to her dancing described her as:
“A feline, trembling in a thousand rhythms, exotic yet deeply austere, slender and supple like a sacred serpent.”
She was also said to have had a childlike charm that appears to have been genuine and which was reflected in her dancing.
The more the crowd cheered the more frenetically she danced, if the audience applauded she would applaud back, and sometimes she would just stand and giggle. She could not resist playing to the gallery.
During World War One Holland remained neutral. This allowed Mata Hari to easily move from one country to another where she continued performing to packed out auditoriums in both Paris and Berlin. It did not go unnoticed.
Aware that she slept with the most prominent people alerted both German and French Military Intelligence to her potential as a spy. The value of her pillow talk could be priceless.
In November 1914, the German Consul in Holland, Karl Kroemer believed he had recruited her for just such a role and paid her 20,000 francs to spy for Germany, issued her with a code name, and provided her with invisible ink. She took the money, forgot her code name, and threw away the ink.
Mata Hari was motivated by sex and what it could provide for her, not patriotism, not politics, and certainly not war.
Back in Paris she was recruited by French Intelligence and again was happy to take the money without having any clear idea of what she was doing or the perilous position it placed her in. Also, she never truly appreciated the fact that for all the adulation she received she was loved and loathed in equal measure.
A great many people were disgusted by her activities and what for her was fun was to others degrading and vile. She was often referred to in the press as a thief, a liar, and a harlot. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to feather her own squalid nest including spying for the enemy.
In January 1917, French Intelligence intercepted a radio transmission from the German Consulate in Madrid praising the work of an agent code-named H-21. This was already known to be the code name for Mata Hari and having received no information of value from Mata Hari themselves they now assumed that she must be working for the Germans.
On 13 February 1917, she was arrested at her Apartment in Paris and charged with espionage. She did little, if anything to defend herself against the charges and even at her trial spent most of the time being coquettish and coy, and flirting with the Court.
She seemed to be entirely oblivious to the likely penalty if found guilty of the crime she was accused and everything was against her – the evidence, public opinion, and the Court itself.
A guilty verdict was inevitable and she was sentenced to death by firing squad.
For a supposed woman of the world she had proved to be tragically naive.
On the morning of 15 October 1917, Mata Hari was awoken from a deep sleep and informed that her personal appeal to the French President for clemency had been rejected and that she was to be executed that same day. She said little but did request that she be able to write a number of letters which she was permitted to do so but told to hurry it up.
Upon completion she was ordered to get dressed and never one to miss an opportunity she dressed-to-impress wearing high-heels and stockings she draped a long fur-lined black cape over her silk kimono, and put on her wide-brimmed black velvet hat, placing it at a flirtatious angle.
She then said in a calm and steady voice:
“I am ready, now.”
Standing before the firing squad she requested neither to be bound nor blindfolded wanting she said to stand before her executioners erect and with dignity.
Some of the firing squad later reported that they had been unnerved by the way she looked at them unflinchingly straight in the eye. Others said that a faint smile played upon her lips.
As the shots rang out she fell to her knees with her face pointed briefly towards the sky before she slowly fell backwards. An Officer then walked forward put a pistol to her head and shot her through the temple.
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