August 07, 2019

Mata Hari

August 7 is the birthday (1876) of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known as Mata Hari.

n. A woman likened in some way to Mata Hari; esp. a beautiful and seductive female spy
Oxford English Dictionary

These two words are the pop-culture relic of one woman’s infamous journey from Dutch kindergarten teacher to Parisian exotic dancer to German sex spy to firing squad target.

Though most frequently associated with Parisian nightlife and international espionage, Mata Hari was actually born in the Netherlands in 1876 with a decidedly unsexy name—Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. Her father was a successful investor and hat-store owner, and young Margaretha enjoyed a fairly swanky life until her early teens when things got a little rough. In short order, her mother died, her father remarried, she moved in with her godfather, and she had to abandon her studies to be a kindergarten teacher after attracting the lustful eye of her headmaster. By eighteen, she was primed and ready for an unhealthy marriage.

In 1895, Margaretha answered a Lonely Hearts ad in a Dutch newspaper and wed an abusive and alcoholic army officer named Rudolf John MacLeod. The unlikely pair moved to Java in the Dutch East Indies and had two children and at least one extra-marital affair apiece. The philanderers divorced in 1903, and Margaretha moved to Paris to become a circus performer named Lady MacLeod. Within two years, she assumed the stage name of Mata Hari, which meant “eye of the dawn” in Malay, and pretended to be a Java princess. Few questioned her pedigree, bewitched as they were by the fact that her act of provocative Indonesian dances ended with her wearing little more than a jeweled brassiere. She was a nearly overnight sensation and soon had ample work as a dancer and courtesan. Her free spirit and revealing wardrobe made her the toast of a generous company of financiers, politicians, and military men, and she traveled extensively across the continent.

When World War I broke out, Mata Hari was still able to travel around freely as she was still a citizen of the neutral Netherlands. This, in addition to her relations with high-ranking officials, drew the attention of military intelligence on both sides of the English Channel. When interrogated by the British, she claimed to be a French agent. However, the French later intercepted a coded message identifying a German spy known only as H-21 whom they deduced to be Mata Hari.

Though one prosecutor later admitted that “there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat,” Mata Hari was arrested and found guilty of spying and causing the deaths of nearly 50,000 soldiers. She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917. Rumors surrounding the theatrics of her death abound. Some claim that she opened her coat to flash her executioners and blew them a kiss, while all seem to agree that she demurely declined her blindfold.

Greta Garbo cemented the fantasy of her role as seductive sex spy in 1931’s Mata Hari. Only in 2017, when the French army releases classified documents about her trial and execution, will we have a clearer understanding of the true story behind this archetypical femme fatale.