“Mata Hari! / Mata Hari!/ Oh, what a wicked girl was she! / That’s the kind of girl I’ll never be! / Mata-hari! / Mata-hari! / That’s the kind of girl I’ll never be! / Like Mata!”
– the song “Mata-hari” from the musical “Little Mary Sunshine”, Book, Music & Lyrics by Rick Sesoyan.
“IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE OF FRANCE,
The Third Permanent Council of War of the military government of Paris has rendered the following judgement:
Today on the twenty-fifth of July 1917, the Third Permanent Council of War, heard by the Commissioner of the Government in the requisitions and conclusion, has declared the named ZELLE, Marguerite, Gertrude, called Mata-Hari, divorcee of Mr. Mac Leod, guilty of espionage and intelligence with the enemy with the end of assisting his enterprises.
In consequence, the aforementioned Council condemns her to pain of death…, by application of articles 205 paragraph 2, 206 paragraphs 1 and 2,…..of the Code of Military Justice and 7 of the Criminal Code….the Council (also) condemns the the aforesaid ZELLE to reimburse, by gifts of her property and by sale to the Public Treasury, the costs of the trial.”
– the verdict of the Official Tribunal in the matter of Mata-hari.
These are the popular and the real-life verdicts on the legendary spy, courtesan, and temptress Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle Mac Leod, who early on had taken the stage name by which she came to be known to the world – “Mata Hari”. She claimed that she had been born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient Indian dances by a priestess who gave her the name which meant “eye of the dawn” She was a woman who packed dance and concert halls all over Europe in the years leading up to World War One, and the early part of that war. She was able to garner such audiences through her exotic moves in dance and not least of all through her willingness to dance in veils which left her all or nearly nude. Remember, this was a time before Madonna, Paris Hilton, or Lady Gaga, and doing it all or mostly nude was still considered shocking and sensational.
Mata Hari Rises to Marry a Dutch Martinet
She was born on August 7, 1876 in Holland. When she was 18, she married a Dutch Colonial Army officer, Rudolf John Mac Leod (pictured right). The couple moved to Dutch Indonesia where they had two children. The marriage was not a happy one, as Mac Leod was a violent alcoholic who couldn’t get it up in……. the Dutch Colonial Army and blamed this lack of upward mobility on his young wife who was half his age. She escaped this lout by running away from him for a time and taking up with another Dutch officer. Also by studying the exotic culture of the local dancers intensively, even joining a local dance company. Eventually she returned to Rudolf, but ultimately the marriage failed and after returning to Holland they separated in 1902 (divorcing in 1906).
Mata Loses the Hubby and Most of Her Clothes
Now that she was happily rid of Rudolf, she went to Paris and rapidly became famous for her exotic dancing. Taking her famous stage name on whilst taking most of her clothes off, she had a sensational act that drew on the moves that she had learned in her days in Indonesia. Mata (pictured below, circa 1905) was a contemporary of Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, who were leaders in early modern dance. Promiscuously and alluringly flaunting her body, she captivated her audience with her act at the Musée Guimet.
She became a mistress of the very rich Lyon indus- trialist Emile Etienne Guimet, who was the founder of the Musée. She posed as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, who had been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. That much of her story was an exaggeration, but she had immersed herself in the local culture of Indonesia. So, she was merely half-baked in that respect. Photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so, she may have worn a body-stocking for her shows, as navel and genitals cannot be seen. Nevertheless, the big deal in her act was a progressive shedding of her veils until she had nothing left but a jeweled bra, and some strategically placed other jewels.
World War One, and Mata Hari’s Trips Across the Lines
During World War I, as a Dutch subject, Mata was able to cross international borders without any questions being asked, as Holland was neutral this time around. She travelled between France and the Netherlands by moving through an oddly circuitous route between Spain and Britain. This was largely to avoid the trench filled battlefields all over the place in France, but as a courtesan and a mistress to all manner of highly-placed luminaries on either side of the trenches her movements inevitably attracted attention. She conceded working as an agent for French military intelligence, a story which the French could or would not confirm. Whether she made it up to increase her intriguing image, or the dirty little French officers were embarrassed to be caught in her bed is unclear.
What is clear is that In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages which seemed to implicate her as having handed over to Berlin some classified information. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified Mata Hari as the source. The messages were in a code which the Krauts knew had already been broken by the French, leaving some historians to suspect that the messages were phony. But on February 13, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée (pictured above, as it is today) in Paris. She was tried, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. She was found guilty on today’s date in 1917, and was executed by firing squad on October 15,1917, at the age of 41:
“As Father Arbaux spoke with the con- demned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.
‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.
‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.
‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her. The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.
A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target (pictured above, the execution of Mata Hari, from a 1920 film). She did not move a muscle. The under- officer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air. It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.
At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back. Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.” – Henry Wales, Oct. 19, 1917
And to add a very petty emphasis to the sentence, the French sold her belongings to pay the court costs.
Mata Hari Becomes a Sexy Icon
It has since been argued that Mata was neither an agent nor even a double agent, but that the French, embarrassed by their miserable record in that war trumped up the charges to cover up their foolishness. But the image of a smooth operating and seductive babe sleeping her way to influence among these high-ranking boobs, and then being silenced by them to cover their boobery has fired the popular imagination ever since. She has in the popular culture become the ultimate femme fatale. A 1931 film starring the great Greta Garbo sent this image moving, and it has been going ever since. Mata Hari has since been featured in more films (including soft core porn with Sylvia Kristel), novels, video games,a Saturday morning chimp show in the 1970’s, and at least one broadway musical. The subsequent portrayals bear little resemblance to the real woman, but one has to wonder if she would have objected at all…..
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“Femme Fetale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari” by Pat Shipman, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.