Mata Hari (1876-1917) is still regarded as the archetypal femme fatale. A former exotic dancer who was recruited as a spy by both Germany and France, her effect on men was undeniably potent. But her reputation as a ruthless double agent now seems far less certain. The Myths
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the provincial Dutch town of Leeuwarden. The daughter of a successful hatter, she was pampered from an early age. For her sixth birthday, her father gave her a miniature carriage pulled by a pair of goats. But the high life ran out in 1889, when the family business failed and Margaretha's parents divorced. Two years later, her mother died. Margaretha was sent to live with unsympathetic relatives who treated her as an embarrassment.
Perhaps they just didn't know how to deal with the tall, striking young woman Margaretha had become. Her slender, elegant figure and dark, exotic looks turned heads wherever she went. In 1895, she married Rudolph MacLeod (pictured, above left), an officer of Scottish heritage who served in the Dutch military. After their initial infatuation faded, the couple found they were ill-matched. Rudolph was violent, unfaithful and a heavy drinker. He accused her of being flirtatious with other men, a charge that was probably true.
The marriage soured further in the Dutch East Indies, where Rudolph was posted in 1897. It collapsed completely following the death of the couple's young son in 1899. They returned to Europe in 1902 and quickly divorced. Obliged to earn a living but lacking any qualifications, Margaretha headed for Paris, where she had vague hopes of becoming an artists' model. Instead, she ended up developing a stage act based on dances she had learned in the East Indies.
Soon, everyone wanted to see the tall, dark and beautiful dancer who writhed sinuously to mysterious eastern rhythms – and who did so almost naked. Margaretha called herself Mata Hari, Malay for "eye of the day". She was a huge success and enjoyed the contemporary equivalent of a jet-set lifestyle. She performed in a host of major European cities – and had lovers in each of them.
By the time that the First World War broke out in 1914, Mata Hari was nearing 40 and her career as a dancer was on the wane. She was, in effect, a courtesan, living off the gifts of her many male admirers. As a Dutch citizen, she was neutral and could still travel across Europe. In 1916, she accepted money from a German official, who apparently wanted her to pass information about the French to him. But she later insisted that she'd never intended to give the German anything in return for his money. It was just one of many gifts she took from men.
In 1916, the French secret service recruited her as a spy. She agreed, believing she would be paid a sizeable sum that could help her start a new life with her lover, a young Russian officer. She undertook a mission for the French but it ended inconclusively. Her fieldcraft certainly left a lot to be desired. Already one of the most recognisable women in Europe, she wrote uncoded letters and telegrams to her controller and even visited his office.
On February 13, 1917, she was arrested by the French authorities and charged with spying for Germany. So, was she a double agent? Many historians now doubt the official French version of events. There was no hard evidence that she passed secrets to the Germans. At the time of her arrest and execution, France was at a low ebb and fear of espionage had gripped the country. French spy-catchers certainly need public results.
The myth of Mata Hari as a supreme female double agent is at best incomplete. In recent years there have been calls for a re-investigation of the mystery. The truth may not be known for some time yet, though, because official records of the case were sealed for 100 years. Meanwhile, the myth has prospered. Hollywood did a lot to popularise the Mata Hari legend, releasing a film starring Greta Garbo (pictured, left) as the infamous femme fatale in 1931.
Eyewitness accounts suggest Mata Hari managed to retain a semblance of her old poise as she faced death. Before dawn on October 15, 1917, she dressed as smartly as she could before being escorted to a muddy field at Vincennes outside Paris, where a firing squad was waiting. She refused to be tied to a stake and declined the offer of a blindfold.
In the last moments of her life she was said to have blown two kisses. One was a mischievous gesture to the priest who had helped comfort her during her final days. The other was to her lawyer, an old friend and former lover. The soldiers of the firing squad had to perform their unhappy task unfortified by a kiss from the greatest femme fatale of the age.