Great European lives: The dancing spy, Mata Hari

PUBLISHED: 10:00 13 October 2019

Mugshot of Mata Hari, 13.02.1917, 1917. Private Collection. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Mugshot of Mata Hari, 13.02.1917, 1917. Private Collection. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Fine Art Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the dancer turned spy, Mata Hari.

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One chilly afternoon in December 1915 the boat train for Dieppe pulled into Folkestone harbour, boilers hissing and clouds of steam filling the platforms. The shouts of the porters and the clatter of carts and trolleys mixed with the sound of slamming carriage doors as the passengers disembarked, pulled their coats around them against the chill and made for the immigration shed. Among them was a woman of confident bearing, whose raccoon skin coat and matching hat who had many passengers nudging each other as she passed.

Questioned by officials as they searched her copious luggage, Mata Hari informed them she was returning to her home in Paris after visiting her fiancé, an officer in the Russian army, in The Hague. There were MI5 officers among the customs and immigration men, and their Captain Dillon noted in his subsequent report that while nothing incriminating was found in Mata Hari's luggage he noted how she "speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German. Handsome, bold type of woman. Well and fashionably dressed but not above suspicion and should be refused permission to return to the UK".

Mata Hari's card was marked by the mixture of awe and intimidation her bohemian independence and sexually charismatic self-confidence could provoke in men, something which would contribute to her death 18 months after she boarded the Dieppe steamer and crossed the Channel.

The enigma of Mata Hari and the shadowy world of espionage and counter-espionage in which she became embroiled has created a myth that endures more than a century after her death. Countless books, newspaper profiles and feature films, including a 1932 Hollywood blockbuster starring Greta Garbo, have contributed to raising her story beyond simple biography into a fable, an epic, a tale too fantastic to be true.

Yet for all the multiple versions of her life and fate, some of them her own creations, behind the vampish seductress was someone of equal parts independence and vulnerability, a streetwise fantasist, a woman determined to live life on her own terms who often couldn't work out what those terms might be.

She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, daughter of a milliner in Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands, who went bankrupt and ran away with another woman when Margaretha, who had always been his favourite, was just 13. Her mother died two years later and the four Zelle siblings were sent to live with different relatives. Margaretha always stood out, with one old schoolfriend recalling she was "like an orchid among dandelions", her dark looks in deep contrast to her uniformly blonde classmates. It wasn't long before she learned the power her striking appearance could give her: at the age of 14 she began training to be a teacher only to be expelled from the college two years later when her affair with the married headmaster was exposed.

In her late teens she saw a newspaper advertisement placed in search of a wife by Rudolf MacLeod, a military officer in the Dutch East Indies and twice her age. On a whim Marghareta answered the ad and in 1895 married MacLeod, moved to Asia, bore him two children and endured nine years of his womanising, heavy drinking and jealous rages at the attentions she received from other men, not to mention the syphilis she contracted from him almost immediately after their marriage.

By 1902 the couple, openly detesting each other, returned to the Netherlands and went their separate ways. Margaretha made for Paris - "I thought all women who left their husbands went to Paris," she said - worldly-wise and determined that her future interactions with men would be entirely on her terms. Drawing on what she'd seen in the East Indies and aware of her strong sexual allure, she embarked on a career as an exotic dancer, developing routines cashing in on the prevalent fashion for the Orient and creating 'Mata Hari', born in Java to a rich merchant and famous Javanese beauty with a name that meant 'eye of the morning' in Javanese. This imagery of a new dawn marked a fresh start as a woman in control of her own destiny and the hearts of men.

Her first performance was before 600 invited guests from the city's wealthy elite and took place at the Musée Guimet, a gallery of Asian art, on a night that represented the end of Margarethe McLeod and the beginning of Mata Hari. As she told it her show was far from titillating striptease, rather she was performing sacred temple dances from the east.

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"My dance is a sacred poem," she said. "One must always translate the three stages corresponding to the divine attributes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva: creation, fecundity and destruction."

It wasn't true but it set her apart from the lowbrow burlesques popular in the belle époque Paris and made her a star, one seen regularly on the arms of aristocrats, diplomats and military top brass.

When the First World War broke out Mata Hari was approaching 40 and although her lustre as a performer had faded with age she was still a sought-after courtesan living an ostentatious life spared from the shortages and deprivations endured by ordinary people. By the autumn of 1916 French morale was low, shattered by huge losses at Verdun and the Somme, and the nation's immediate prospects looked grave. Mata Hari had more personal matters in mind that year, however, notably her 21-year-old Russian officer fiancé Vladimir Maslov who had been blinded in one eye at the front and sent to a hospital in The Hague. That autumn she requested a safe conduct pass from the French authorities to go to his side and the French secret service, knowing her connections to the upper echelons of society across Europe, not least her former lover, the Kaiser's son Prince Wilhelm, sanctioned her application on condition she spied on the Germans. There was also a million francs in it for her.

What she didn't realise was that the head of the French secret service, Georges Ladoux, had had Mata Hari under surveillance ever since he learned that the previous year she had accepted 20,000 marks from a high-ranking German officer to pass on information from the French. Whether she did or not is unclear, but it was enough to have one of France's most famous residents marked a traitor.

Mata Hari travelled to Spain and boarded the SS Hollandia bound for the Netherlands via Falmouth, where a routine wartime inspection brought her to the attention of the British who at first thought they'd snared the notorious German Clara Benedix. When enquiries seeking to confirm her identity threw up Captain Dillon's Folkestone report from the previous year, Mata Hari was taken immediately to London for questioning where she blurted out that she was spying for the French, something Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau would confirm. To her horror, Ladoux's response was terse.

"Understand nothing," he cabled. "Send Mata Hari back to Spain."

Opinion is divided as to whether Mata Hari was working for Ladoux or had invented the story to counter British suspicions. Either way, when in January 1917 coded German messages referring to a Paris-based spy were intercepted by the French, a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was placed in the notorious Saint-Lazare prison in Paris and interrogated by Pierre Bouchardon, a magistrate known for his distaste for "immoral" women he termed "man-eaters". In court it was clear Mata Hari's lifestyle was on trial as much as her alleged crimes: she was a foreigner, divorced and had sex with men for money, including at least one German officer.

"A courtesan, yes," she responded in her defence, "but a spy? Never!"

The eight charges filed against her were vaguely worded with little evidence to support them. At one point prosecutors stated that she "caused to be killed about 50,000 of our children, not counting those who found themselves on board vessels torpedoed in the Mediterranean upon the information given without a doubt by this woman", despite there being not a single document or testimony to back up those particular claims. Her relationships and sexual history, meanwhile, were dissected forensically with her personal possessions on display to the court.

Convicted on all counts, Mata Hari was executed at dawn on October 15, 1917. She refused to have her hands tied and stood facing the firing squad with a dignity and fortitude that impressed all those present. It was her final performance and, perhaps, the most authentic one of her life. "By God," said the officer in charge of the execution, "this lady knows how to die."

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