The life and times of one of the world’s most famous female spies
by Colin Falconer
Just before dawn on October 15, 1917, a woman was woken by a deputation of religious and turnkeys in the Saint-Lazare prison, just outside Paris. She was driven to the Vincennes Barracks where a twelve man firing squad awaited her.
A few moments later Mata Hari was dead.
It was the end of the line for possibly one of the most famous female spies in history.
Mata Hari was born Gertrud Margarete Zelle. In a society best known for blonde, blue-eyed women, little M'greet stood apart, with her thick black hair, black eyes, and olive complexion. She claimed distant Javanese blood.
Her father was a successful businessman and M’greet enjoyed a lavish early childhood. But when she was 13 he went bankrupt. Her parents divorced and when her mother died soon afterwards she was left in dire straits.
|her husband, Rudolf and son, Norman|
At 18, she married a Dutch Colonial Army Captain, twenty years her senior, who went by the unusual name of Rudolf MacLeod. He was posted to Java and there she bore him two children, Jeanne and Norman-John. But Rudolf was a drinker and a womanizer and the marriage was unhappy.
Then in 1899, both children fell violently ill in mysterious circumstances. It was claimed they had been poisoned by an irate servant though other versions say it was the result of their treatment for syphilis contracted from their parents - almost certainly Rudolph. Jeanne survived, but Norman died.
The family returned to Holland where M’greet sought a divorce - a scandalous move for a woman in those days. Rudolf reacted bitterly, putting an advertisement in the Amsterdam newspapers: "I request all and sundry not to supply goods or services to my estranged wife Margaretha MacLeod-Zelle."
For a while she sought refuge with various relatives and became a sad charity case. She had no marketable skills, no husband, no job, and no income.
It was in 1905 that she re-invented herself as Mata Hari, (it’s Javanese for Eye of the Dawn), posing as a Javanese princess, immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance. After her debut at the Oriental Studies Museum in 1905 she achieved overnight fame. Think Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe.
The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a spangled bra and some jewellery. (She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about her small breasts). ‘My dance is a sacred poem,’ she told her audiences.
Her sacred, naked poems became outrageously popular with ecstatic audiences throughout Europe, because what she had done was invent the modern form of striptease.
Naturally, she attracted the attentions of a number of powerful men; high-ranking military officers, politicians, and aristocrats. These liaisons frequently took her across international borders.
During World War I, she had a passionate May-November romance with a young Russian pilot who was flying for the French. When he was wounded in 1916 she asked to visit him at a forward hospital in a neutral zone. French officials at the Deuxieme Bureau gave her permission - in return for her spying on the Germans. After all, she had once been the intimate of Germany’s crown prince.
What happened next is unclear. The French later claimed she had already been recruited by the Germans under the code name H-21 and she was arrested on her return to Paris in January 1917.
It is interesting to note that French allegations were based on intercepted messages passed in a code that the Germans knew had been broken. Germany's motive may have been to lure France into killing one of their own or because she was truly a double agent.
But it is also suspicious that the French prosecutor asked to hold the trial "in camera" (in secret) and to seal the records "for the good of national security." The motion was granted and the huge crowd who had shown up for the proceedings were shooed out of the courtroom.
|her scrapbook from Fries Museum, Leeuwarden|
Under the military trial rules of the time, the defence could not cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or even question its own. So the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.
Her execution by the French may have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Perhaps she was no double agent at all.
Yet she remains one of the most famous spies in history, because of her stage act. Just the idea of an exotic dancer using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers fired the popular imagination. The 1931 film starring Greta Garbo was pure fiction; her name has endured not because she was such a great spy, but because men liked spying on her.
|the execution of Mata Hari from a 1921 film|
Even after her death, her mystery endured. After a threat by the French government to close the Museum of Anatomy in Paris in 2000, it was discovered her head had disappeared from a collection of mummified heads of victims of the firing squad and guillotine.
The court file cannot be opened before the 15 October 2017, exactly one hundred years after her execution. This might finally shed some light on the actual truth.
Until then we can only guess whether Hari, Mata Hari, should be remembered as The Spy Who Loved Me or The Stripper Who Loved Everyone.
Or perhaps the truth is even more poignant; having dragged herself single-handed from abandonment and destitution, here was a remarkable woman who achieved fame and fortune on her own terms, and justifiably felt she no longer owed any loyalty to anyone.
They say that at the end she refused a blindfold and blew a kiss to the twelve man firing squad: it seems she ended her days as she lived them -from Java, with Love.
See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here,
and more history from Colin Falconer at
|From History and Women|