Dancer, adventure, femme fatale.
Who really was Mata Hari, the most known female secret agent in history?
After a century from the death of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, that’s her real name, it is still an enigmatic character: that girl whose fame has gone through the whole Belle Époque, where she saw her best moment, all the way to the tormented years of the 1st world conflict, witnesses of her tragic end.
Her agitated existence started on the 7th of August 1876 in Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands, in the elegant dwelling of her well-off family of merchants, which endured a heavy financial depression when Margaretha was still a girl.
Below: picture of Margaretha in Amsterdam in 1915
Margaretha spent her adolescence with many different relatives and studied in several schools before getting married at a very young age with captain Rudolph Mac Leod, 20 years older, found through an ad on a magazine. She was exceptionally attractive, tall almost 180 cm (5’10”), olive complexion and deep dark eyes, which gave her a rather exotic look in a country where its inhabitants were mostly blond with light eyes.
After the birth of her firstborn, the Mac Leod left their homeland heading to Java, Indonesia, back the Dutch colony, where their second child was born. Attracted by the culture and the local dance, Margaretha had a lively public life along with her husband and then they moved to Sumatra for the promotion of her husband Mac Leod as a major.
Below: picture of the son with his father
Their life was suddenly upset in 1899 by the death of their little boy, poisoned by their indigenous maid. The terrible loss widened increasingly more the misunderstandings within the couple all the way to the separation once the two came back to the Netherlands in 1902. Mac Leod obtained by the court the full custody of their daughter who, from then on broke relations with her mother.
Lacking of any sort of resources and only kissed by her beauty, Margaretha decided to try her luck in Paris. The first period was terrible, she lived in privation and, in order to provide for herself, she turned into a model for several painters and amazon for the horse riding school of an entrepreneur named Molier. Maybe she even started selling her body. One night, in Molier’s mansion, she performed an oriental dance, inspired by the many ones she had seen during her stay in Indonesia: that’s the turning point for her. Encouraged by the appreciation of the bystanders, she started exhibiting in private houses up until when she drew the attention of the press, when she danced in the home of a famous singer for a charity performance.
Soon enough her fame spread all across France and, noticed by the industrial and collector of oriental art objects Émile Étienne Guimet, she exhibited in the museum founded by the man. Under the years of the orientalism and the European fascination for the Asian cultures, the Parisian audience was hastening to attend the event.
It is the very collector to chose the nickname Mata Hari for the woman, literally “eye of the dawn” or “sun” in Malaysian, more fitting for the exotic mysterious dancer she was. Advertised as the sacred dance of a priestess of Shiva, her malicious and erotic performance, made out of feline and refined movements, was a rare mixture of grace and simplicity, which saw her getting rid of one veil after the other with provocative and allusive gestures which were making the audience going crazy.
Consecrated in 1905, after a show at the Olympia, as the “woman who is herself dance, sublime artist”, she obtained the international fame getting the chance to perform inside important places such as the Teatro alla Scala of Milan.
Below: in 1910 with a crown of jewels
At the peak of her power, the Times wrote of her
“A charm which goes beyond the incredible, with a figure of a peculiar beauty and with movements of a divine beast that lead in an enchanted forest”
Smart, cultured, dynamic, polyglot, Mata Hari had a triumph after the other by living as a main character the mundane life of the time, preceded by her fame as an adventurer and fatal courtesan. She shared the same destiny of two other legendary dancers, Lola Montez and Carolina Otero, who affected trends and fashion with their researched looks and that, due to their abilities and beauty became object of desire of famous and powerful men as well as the favourites of sovereigns and emperors.
The sunset in those carefree and luxurious days was around the corner though, and the arrival of the WW1 bumped with violence in the historical scene, putting an end to the candor of the Belle Époque. Mata Hari at the beginning didn’t understand the changing happening in the air, confused by the success, the fame and the luxury life. After a few weeks from the start of the conflict though she left France to come back to the neutral Netherlands, where she remained for a brief period. In 1916 the pretty artist turned 40 years old and, despite some occasional events, she realised that her artistic career was over. However, fragile, blackmailable, charming, loving of the good life, close to many officials not very incline to the military life, Mata Hari was still not aware that now she could be a very desirable as another professional, that of a secret agent.
Like in any other war, during the 1st world conflict there were not only armies taking the field, but also the more hidden tools, undeclared, such as espionage. If the Brits were busy with intelligence operations in the Middle East, the Russians were inside Constantinople, the Italians would violate the secrets of Vienna and the Austrian sabouters were blowing up the battleships “Benedetto Brin” and “Leonardo da Vinci” in the harbours of Southern Italy.
In the Hague Margaretha received one of her old acquaintances, the German consul in the Netherlands Alfred von Kremer, who suggested her to become a spy on behalf of Germany: she obtained a lot of money, two bottles of invisible ink and a serial number
From that point, Mata Hari became the secret agent H21.
Her first task was providing information about the Contrexeville airport, in Vittel, France, where she went visiting her young lover, the Russian captain Vadim Masslov, in the hospital of that city. When in 1916 she reached Paris, the dancer found the city completely changed, shocked by the war. The sparkling world of the Ville Lumiere was far away from the current reality. Margaretha stayed at the Grand Hotel and was in company of officials of all types of nationality, ignoring she was monitored by English and French counter-espionage.
In the attempt of getting hold of the authorisation to go in Vittel in Lorraine, hard task since the city was very close to the front, the woman got to the point of talking to captain Georges Ladoux in person, head of Deuxième Boureau, service of the French counter-espionage. To better check the woman and her activity, or maybe more simply to neutralise her actions, the man suggested her to become a French spy. Mata Hari there received a visa to visit her lover and the amazing sum of one million of Francs to spend in order to obtain information from the German high commands.
Mata Hari accepted without hesitation
The activity of espionage, conducted on two sides, ended up with Margaretha being found out, causing her an arrest for high treason. Initially the investigation proceeded slowly and she plead not guilty even though without denying her contacts with the bedrooms of many officials of several nationalities.
To force a confession they showed her the intercepted messages from the counter intelligence on the Tour Eiffel. During the WW1 the most popular Parisian monument was in fact base of a sophisticated station of interception and transmission by the French secret services, from which a complex system of many other less important centres would depend. The wireless transmission systems of the time were still imperfect and they were using the long waves, hence having access to such a high up listening point was representing an evident advantage on the enemies.
In that way, the messages exchanged between Madrid and Berlin could be intercepted and transferred on wax cylinders tapes for then being decoded. The Tour Eiffel counter espionage station has intercepted some messages about agent H21, messages curiously rich of details and tracing it back to her had been unexpectedly easy.
Below: picture of the agent H21 when arrested
Subsequently it was discovered that such messages had been sent by the Germans in order to have the agent unmasked, while punishing her for the double cross.
In front of the evidence, on the 12th May 1917, Mata Hari confessed to be agent H21. Her sentence to death became at that point inevitable.
Her trial, had stood out for her denigrating nature without equal. The privations suffered by the citizens and the countless loss of human lives had tested the French resistance. In this explosive context, Mata Hari, foreign and man-eater felt like the “inside enemy” to eliminate; so she became for the country a comfy occasion to give to the audience something for having them forgetting the many tactical mistakes they had been committed by the army.
On the 15th October 1917 Mata Hari, in an elegant grey dress, with a lace corset, tricorn and blue coat, was shot to death by a firing squad nearby the Vincennes castle. The witnesses reported how she behaved with bravery, rejecting to have her eyes covered. Of the 11 shots aiming at her, 8 didn’t hit the target, one got her knee, one on her hip and one, fatal, went to her heart. No one reclaimed the corpse, so she was buried in a mass grave. She died like this, at 41 years old, the first female spy of the 900’s, whose name was destined to become synonym of charm and mystery.
There are still many questions on why Margaretha had accepted such a risky double offer. Love for danger?Thirst for money for that so much enjoyed luxurious life? or maybe just naif overestimation of her skills of domination over the events?
Below: alleged execution of Mata Hari, or fictional reconstruction. In a documentary from the 60’s someone asserted that this was fake as she was most likely dressed in white
Excessive trust in her powerful friends?
Whichever the reason was, Mata Hari believed to be able to play at more tables, just as she had previously done with her lovers many other times. And it is maybe for this, for her unprincipled and off the grids features that the interest for that adventurous and novel-esque life has never stopped to be fuelled. Many are the books dedicated to her and the cinema as well has touched this topic many times. The roles for such productions were given to big names such as Greta Garbo, Sylvia Kristel and Marlene Dietrich.
Under the historical profile, the documents about the Mata Hari case, kept in the Military Archives of Vincennes for a century, are now available for the researchers to consult. Reports on her activity, transcriptions of the hearings and clear evidence such as the intercepted telegrams gives new leads on the events. Besides this it grants a complete view of the trial and the real role of the woman in the international espionage contest, suggesting more of a victim than a double agent. For this reason the birthplace of Margaretha has officially asked to the French government for the rehabilitation of her name, assured that the woman was condemned without any evidence in a show trial.
Below: trailer of “Mata Hari” from 1931, with Greta Garbo in the role of the fascinating dancer- secret agent. A film shot only 14 years after her execution and that, maybe recreated at its best that atmosphere of her time.
The black and white pictures are in the public domain