100 Years Since Her Execution, Was Mata Hari a Sexy Spy or a Sexy Scapegoat?
At nearly every turn, Margaretha Zelle MacLeod made the wrong choices. Yet she managed to create a persona that continues to dance on the crowded stage of popular culture.
PARIS—Her name lives on a century after they stood her in front of a firing squad on Oct. 15, 1917, and watched her die: Mata Hari, treacherous spy, devious liar, a wicked woman to the core. Or was she something else entirely? Was she isolated and vulnerable, spinning an identity and a living from illusion and sexuality, little more than a victim of male bias and scapegoat for military failure?
Nothing about Mata Hari was simple and clear, not then, not now. Rising from the ambiguity are a thousand legends and interpretations, each projecting onto her a tale of their own, in books and films, now even on Twitter and Facebook. Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, a middle-class Dutch divorcée from Leeuwarden, died, but Mata Hari, femme fatale and exotic dancer, has become eternal. She might consider that her greatest success.
“Mata Hari and Madame Zelle MacLeod are two completely different women,” she wrote in a June 5, 1917, letter to Captain Pierre Bouchardon, the military judge investigating her case, which is part of the Mata Hari dossier held at the Service Historiques de la Défense archives outside Paris. “Today with the war, the passport, I am obliged to live and sign Zelle, but that woman is not known to people. As for me, I consider myself to be Mata Hari.”
If it weren’t for her obsession with money, her fame might have been short-lived, her name obscure to us today. But she had found herself alone and empty-handed more than once, and it had marked her deeply. Add to that obsession a lifelong pattern of poor decisions and woeful attachments, landing in the middle of cultural and national strife, and the fate of Mata Hari seems nearly a tale foretold.
When she was 13, her fairly successful father declared bankruptcy and abandoned the family, her mother suffered a breakdown, and Margaretha was left to care for three younger siblings. At 16, placed in a teacher-training school, a path to earning a living, she had an affair with the 51-year-old headmaster. She was expelled; he continued his career. It was perhaps her first lesson that in the wake of scandal, the woman takes the blame. She walked right by it.
In 1895, she found a husband. According to A Tangled Web, the latest Mata Hari biography by British archivist Mary W. Craig, Rudolf MacLeod was a 39-year-old lieutenant of Scottish descent in the Dutch colonial service, posted in today’s Indonesia. In order to advance in rank, he would need a wife, but as he had syphilis, permission to marry would be denied. He sneaked around the rules, advertised in a local newspaper and was answered by 18-year-old Margaretha Zelle. She agreed to marry him six days after they met. She got more than she bargained for.
Within three years, they had two children, a boy and a girl, and a disintegrating marriage in an isolated outpost of central Java. MacLeod drank, gambled, kept mistresses, and worst of all, he beat her, violently and regularly.
For distraction, she watched the Javanese servants dance in the garden, soon learned the sinuous, sensuous moves, and danced with them. The family was transferred to North Sumatra, and within a month, the children fell ill, and the boy died, at age 2. MacLeod raged; she stayed out of his way, and learned new dances. In 1902, they were sent back to the Netherlands, where she filed for divorce, based on abuse.
Given custody of their daughter, but receiving none of the court-appointed support from MacLeod, Margaretha began frequenting houses of ill-repute. MacLeod had her followed, and took their daughter away from her. She moved to Paris, broke and alone, tried modeling, acting, and finally dancing. Her big break came in 1905 when Emile Guimet asked her to perform at his Musée Guimet, before an elite audience, and the press raved about the seductive Javanese dancer in breastplates and headdress, filmy veils and discreet bodystocking, just a glimpse away from nudity. She took the stage name Mata Hari, Malay for “eye of the sun.”
She was a harbinger of a new style of dancing and expression that would come to define the Belle Époque. Those were the years when Vaslav Nijinsky danced in tights, with a sensuality never before seen at the Paris ballet, in Afternoon of a Faun, while barefoot Isadora Duncan launched modern dance, and Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” upended the idea of music composition. Mata Hari was part of the creative excitement, and parlayed her reputation for exotic sensuality into finding wealthy lovers to support her in grand style.
When her husband’s second marriage ended in divorce, she tried to get custody of her daughter, but her lifestyle encouraged the court to consider MacLeod the more stable household. Both her children likely were infected at birth with syphilis; her daughter died in 1919, at age 21, of a cerebral hemorrhage, according to Craig. At the time of her arrest, Mata Hari had among her toiletries a mercury-based ointment, the only treatment then available for syphilis symptoms. Both the disease and the treatment could cause brain damage: Was she affected?
Mata Hari was highly paid for her dancing, but entirely profligate in her spending. She gave a series of performances at the Olympia in Paris in autumn 1906, for a fee of 10,000 FF ($50,000 today). She also was named in the first of a series of lawsuits for unpaid bills, for 12,000 FF in jewelry she ordered, but did not cover. This would become a habit. As soon as she had some money, she threw it at clothes, furs, jewelry, carriages. She believed that creating a successful illusion of beauty and mystery did not come cheaply.
“I am a dancer, and after the war, I may be obliged to take theater engagements in Berlin or Vienna, as in Paris. I am not married. I am a woman who travels a great deal. I am to be excused for losing the notion of money,” she wrote in late May to the French judge. “Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win.”
The gamble she took in 1915 would turn out to be of the highest stakes, although she did not realize it until nearly the end. She was living in Berlin in the summer of 1914, waiting for a performance scheduled for September at the Metropol Theater, entertaining several lovers, including the chief of police. The eruption of the war in August took everyone by surprise, but as a foreigner in Berlin, it also froze her bank account and confiscated her goods. Among them were furs that she later said were worth 80,000 FF. That was a loss she would not let go.
In her own words, she was an international woman. She spoke several languages, she traveled around Europe constantly, she had lovers in every country, it seemed. With the advent of war, borders were secured, passports required, questions asked. Ambiguity and mystery were no longer assets, but instead brought her rapidly to the attention of the authorities. She was a woman with no fixed home, no husband, no steady source of income.
“I should have realized before leaving but I thought things were like the year before, and unfortunately, everything has changed,” she wrote on July 6, to her maid in the Netherlands. “People are meaner, difficulties and formalities are insurmountable. Traveling has become an impossibility for a woman like me.”
Her prolific sex life also made her vulnerable to charges of treason. At that time, sexuality outside the norm—and the excess of Mata Hari’s affairs shocked even somewhat-liberal France—was considered to reflect the whole of a person’s moral character. With war, the focus was on patriotism. For a woman whose primary support came from her sexual relationships, it was not an enormous leap for the authorities to believe that she might sell her country as well. And nearly all of Mata Hari’s lovers were military officers. The investigating judge of the Third Military Court of France, Captain Bouchardon, listed them in his report on the case: a Dutch colonel, a Belgian commandant, a Russian captain as main lovers, but also passing through officers from Montenegro, Italy, two from Ireland, three or four English, and at least five French.
“I like officers,” she responded when he questioned her. “I have liked them all my life. I would rather be the mistress of a poor officer than of a rich banker.”
The crux of the case against her was that she took 20,000 FF from the German consul in Amsterdam in the summer of 1916, when French soldiers were dying at a rate of some 40,000 a month under German artillery barrages at Verdun. She admitted that the consul asked her to spy for him, and swore she did not do it. She took the cash, dumped the invisible ink, and moved to Paris. It was revenge for losing her furs, she insisted through five months of interrogation.
“Mata Hari saw an opportunity to recompense herself, that is all,” she wrote in the June 5 letter to Captain Bouchardon. “But I beg you to believe me. I have never committed an act of espionage against France. Never. Never.”
There was another payment though, 5,000 FF, that came to her through a man suspected of being a German agent. And then the French intelligence services got copies of German telegrams describing the movements of their Agent H-21, actions and contacts that matched Mata Hari’s to the minute and the letter. She suggested to Bouchardon that the Germans were playing with them, trying to distract them from finding an actual agent at work. In fact, the telegrams were sent in a code the Germans most likely knew was broken, according to A Tangled Web.
Bouchardon asked repeatedly in interrogations about the 20,000 FF payment. What had she done with it? “During my stay in France from June to December 1916 I must have spent 15 to 16,000 FF, but I cannot be precise because I never count. I put the 20,000 from [the German consul] toward debts I had in Holland, especially those resulting from a lawsuit by my upholsterer,” she said, according to the June 12 transcript.
Bouchardon and his team did not accept her cavalier attitude toward money. “We have investigated quite a few espionage cases,” he said, according to a transcript of a June 1 interrogation. “We know the German prices and we can tell you that, in relation to their usual fees, that seems a colossal sum.”
There was the money, and then in December 1916 an incriminating meeting with the German military attaché in Madrid. Mata Hari was arrested in February 1917, and put on trial in July. A panel of seven military judges took two days to find her guilty and sentence her to death; an appeal and plea for clemency both were rejected. She was kept at the Conciergerie prison during the trial; a previous occupant to await trial there was Marie Antoinette. “The situation of a foreign woman like me is extremely delicate at this time in France,” she wrote on July 6 to her maid in the Netherlands.
Bouchardon brought a priest and two nuns to the prison to get her before dawn on Oct. 15. She put on a black cape trimmed with fur, a black felt hat, and black heels, according to a news story filed by Henry Wales of the International News Service. They drove her to Fort de Vincennes, east of Paris, and stood her in front of a post. She declined a blindfold, and stared evenly at the 12 soldiers as they fired.
Fort de Vincennes today houses the archives of the Service Historique de la Défense, including her 1,300-page dossier (accessible online here). Mata Hari was one of 126 persons executed for espionage by France during the First World War; at least two others also were women, caught out by a female double-agent. (Purported photographs of Mata Hari’s execution are from a film re-enactment; no pictures were taken at the time.)
Mata Hari’s life was over, but her fame had only begun. In 1931, she was portrayed by screen goddesses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, in films based loosely on her story. Hundreds of books have been published, biographies, novels, historical fiction, non-fiction, erotica, even a comic-book series. She has a Twitter handle, a Facebook page, and videos on YouTube. Mata Hari restaurants and bars are sprinkled across France and Germany. She even has an exhibit for this centennial of her death, at the Fries Museum in her hometown, Mata Hari: the myth and the maiden, from Oct. 14 through April 2018.
At nearly every turn, Margaretha Zelle MacLeod made the wrong choices. She did not learn the lessons that were offered or pick up on the clues that were given, until it was too late. Yet she managed to create a persona that continues to dance on the crowded stage of popular culture. Mata Hari may or may not have been a spy, but she remains a legendary figure.