(Photo courtesy of Piccadille.net)
Have you ever heard of a woman called Mata Hari? For those who have, her name is synonymous with femme fatale. In her relatively short life, she wore many faces and played many roles: mother, exotic dancer, courtesan, and spy. Ultimately, she was a fearless performer who changed the nature of seductive dancing. But the wildly imaginative woman also played on both sides of the First World War. Was she a double-spy? Was her involvement an accident? Should we remember her as an artist or a war criminal? You can decide for yourself.
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands to wealthy parents. When she was only thirteen, though, her family went bankrupt and her parents divorced. Years later, she attended a school for kindergarten teachers, but was forced to leave when the headmaster made sexual advances on her. At the time, even the rumour of an affair could ruin a woman’s reputation—along with her chances of marrying a respectable partner. Later that year, worrying that her marital options were already limited, she answered a newspaper advertisement for marriage, which had been placed by Dutch Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod.
She married MacLeod in 1895 and lived for years in his military outpost in Malang, Indonesia. They had two children, but each suffered from many health complications. Over the years, MacLeod became increasingly abusive toward Margaretha, especially after the death of his favourite child. Seeking escape, Margaretha joined a local Indonesian dance company and took on the name Mata Hari (Javanese for “Sun” or “Eye of the Day”). When her marriage ended in 1902, Mata Hari left for where she believed all divorced women congregated: Paris.
Believing divorce had completely ruined her reputation anyway, Mata Hari threw away all caution and decided to pursue her deepest, wildest dream: becoming a dancer. She auditioned at the local Parisian dance hall and was given her own show almost immediately. Because she had learned exotic dance styles from the locals in Malang, Mata Hari performed a refreshing and alluring routine for French audiences. As early as 1905, Mata Hari had become a popular act. She already introduced her two key innovations: firstly, that she would dance nude, or almost nude, usually with only an ornate bra and a skin-coloured body suit; and secondly, that each night, she would invent a new origin story for herself. She was irresistible to the watching crowd, which consisted mainly of military officers and the social elite. Making illustrious use of her seductive talent, Mata Hari began a string of affairs with the most powerful and influential men in Europe.
Through to 1914, Mata Hari performed across countries, booking new venues and snagging new lovers in each one. But while she was performing in Berlin in July 1914, war broke out across Europe. A Dutch citizen herself, she was granted safe passage to her home in the Netherlands. But, allegedly, the German government—which had guaranteed her safe passage—urged her to continue her act in the interest of travelling back to France to gather military intelligence. Whether Mata Hari agreed or not, she was given the sum of 20,000 francs and a code name in order to communicate with other German spies.
Naturally, Mata Hari continued her act. Her age, however, was becoming a growing problem. Back then, dancers usually had short careers that began at a young age. Mata Hari had begun quite old for a dancer: at thirty years old. Her age—showing on her skin, her reduced flexibility, and her general fatigue—became hard for audiences to ignore. Her fame then fell into steady decline.
In the year following her most disastrous months in show business, the French Deuxième Bureau appointed her to spy on her supposed ex-lover—the German Crown Prince Wilhelm. Historians today don’t know if they had had any prior affair, but in 1915 she set out to seduce him—and succeeded. She also gathered military information and tried to send it to her French contacts. Little did she know that her lover, the Crown Prince himself, intercepted these messages.
But the Crown Prince did not tell her that she had been discovered. Instead, he let her leave, perhaps out of mercy. He also urged her to continue her work as a dancer. Mata Hari then returned to France in 1916 and expected to be welcomed as a hero. But by then the French government had learned of her supposed previous work as a German spy. So, when she came to France, she was received as a criminal: she was imprisoned and interrogated. Weeks later, she was convicted of treason, for which the penalty was death. Then, one October morning in 1917, she was executed by a firing squad. She died gracefully, refusing a blindfold and even blowing a kiss to her executioners. In her trial days before, none of her liaisons or friends had come to her defence: it’s likely that they never knew what to believe, given her extraordinary talent of imagination and self re-invention.
Today, nearly a hundred years later, a statue still stands of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, commemorating her dancing talent and her fearless imagination.