Margareta Zelle, a.k.a. Mata Hari

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” … I hate my small breasts. They’re what men watch first – after looking at my face for a second, or two, if they like it, their gaze invariably moves to my breasts, as if to evaluate how much milk may be expected from that peculiar cow. They watch my buttocks too, but my breasts seem like my business card, and they leave much to be desired. That is why I always wear a gold-plated breastplate when I am dancing, as you know – and I always fear the moment when it comes off in bed. I try to deflect the dreaded moment by taking the initiative, for men are so happy to be touched. And I always loved to touch, for men were my happiness and now they are my perdition.” [* Prison letter from Mata Hari to her sister Léonide, who attended her execution]

Margaretha Zelle alias Mata Hari

Margareta Zelle (7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), who under her stage name Mata Hari [Javanese, “Mata (Eye) Hari (of the Day) (=Sun)”)] became the superstar of erotic dance and the world’s premier enchantress in the years leading to the Great War – before Josephine Baker took the crown. She loved men, especially officers.

The Seven Veils Costume
Colourized version …

“I love officers. I have loved them all my life. I prefer to be the mistress of a poor officer than of a rich banker. It is my greatest pleasure to sleep with them without having to think of money. And, moreover, I like to make comparisons between the different nationalities”.

We must point out here, that our quotations of the lady are reasonably accurate and historical, for her well-developed character was evident in her words. She was a good writer with a beautiful hand and composed her own advertising copy. She was well-spoken and surprisingly educated, exceedingly charming and loved to deceive the scores of interviewers and reporters who begged for her gossip. She loved statements tongue in cheek, had a sharp wit and a gift for coining memorable phrases. [Source]

She grew up in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in a somewhat well-to-do family. That changed when her father went bankrupt when she was 13, in 1889, and a few years of confusion followed. After being found half-naked upon her school principal’s lap, schooling was done for. [Much info on these years on the German Wiki page] She grew to be a tall girl for the time, at 178 centimetres (5.84 feet), which certainly helped her to make an impression.

In 1894, she answered a marriage ad by Rudolf MacLeod (1 March 1856 – 9 January 1928), a Captain of the Dutch Colonial Army, living in Indonesia, who sought a wife. “Officier met verlof uit Indië zoekt meisje met lief karakter met het doel een huwelijk aan te gaan” [‘Officer, on vacation from (Dutch) India, seeks a young woman of gracious character to marry’]. The less is said about the marriage, the better. She gave birth to a son and a daughter, but the son died early, perhaps poisoned by a servant. The pair returned to Amsterdam and divorced on August 30, 1902. Child support for the daughter at the sum of 100 Gulden per month was ordered by the court, but Rudolf never felt able to fulfil the obligation.

Broke, Margareta set out to Paris – dreaming of a career as mannequin or model, whatever might turn out. She failed and returned – and then had the idea. We do not really know how and why, but she invented a made-up story of being a trained mystical Indonesian dancer, to gain under this guise more attention than the scores of other attractive ladies who populated the erotically loaded stages of Paris. She invented her own Dance of the Veils, which the Paris public had recently seen in Richard Strauss‘ opera Salome, which had aroused one more big scandal when performed in Paris. The gentlemen (and ladies) of the Haute Volée, considerate about the public morals of the capital had besieged the opera houses to review the artistic permissibility of the act. Some of the gentlemen had to see the performance more than once to come to conclusions.

The problem was, of course, that the Dance of the Veils was, we would say, a “generic” dance – it had no history, no cultural background. It had been invented just at the time, notably by the American dancer Loïe Fuller, who celebrated a sensational debut on December 5, 1892, at the Folies Bergère with dances using light projections and special costumes, which she patented a year later in Paris and London. A few years later the Canadian Maud Allan followed in her footsteps – all of them inspired by the great Isadora Duncan.

Margareta’s difficulty was, however, that she could not afford light projectors, operators or even special costumes, and, initially, her natural talents had to suffice. Such talents she did have, and perhaps it helped that her legend as Indian respectively Indonesian temple dancer could not really be checked by the audience for the lack of expertise.

She was perky, breezy, a real flirt, and well aware of her body, which she flaunted at will. Equipped with such weapons of female mass destruction, it did not take long before she celebrated a boisterous debut at the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905, whose founder and main sponsor, millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet she immediately took on as a mistress.

Competition in erotic dancing in Paris was keen, and Margareta developed her act further. Her lover, M. Guimet, had received a government commission to study the religions of the Far East, for his museum, and her “disguise as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood thus fell on fertile grounds. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter. She brought a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jewelled breastplate and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She was never seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. She wore a body stocking for her performances that was similar in colour to her own skin.” [Source: Wiki]

In Amsterdam 1915
In Amsterdam 1915

Her comments were open, frivolous and entertaining as usual:

“I took the train to Paris without money and without clothes. There, as a last resort and thanks to my female charms, I was able to survive. That I slept with other men is true; that I posed for sculptures is true; that I danced in the opera at Monte Carlo is true. It would be too far beneath me and too cowardly to defend myself against such actions I have taken. …

The dance is a poem, of which each movement is a word. … In my dancing one forgets the woman in me, so that when I offer everything and finally myself to the god–which is symbolized by the loosening of my loincloth, the last piece of clothing I have on–and stand there, albeit for only a second entirely naked, I have never yet evoked any feeling but the interest in the mood that is expressed by my dancing”.

In a way, she helped the public acceptance of exotic dancers as well. She was the first of the profession to be accepted in the high society, not only for her dancing skills (which were not so outstanding, some said) but for her persona, knowledge and use of the media, including risqué photographs – a precursor to today’s celebrities who are famous for being celebrities, not for any ability or merit.

Biographers love to cite newspaper articles of besotted reporters, who described her as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms,” or as “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair” and that her face “makes a strange foreign impression.”

Yet – quite naturally – copycats arose in numbers, and her act slowly lost the intrigue that had been its major forte. Apostles of the public morality accused her of cheap exhibitionism – which surprises somehow, for while exhibitionism it was, it was truly not cheap, compared to the likes of the gentlemen who were allowed to hold her arm and perhaps other parts of her anatomy.

More recently a discussion has opened in regard to her sexuality, concentrating on the mind-blowing question whether she was bisexual, which she probably was and why not? That this discussion has not arisen earlier is perhaps owed to the increasing liberty in which such questions are discussed nowadays, or still our perpetual interest in gossip.

It is known that she had a playful relation to cross-dressing in military uniforms and we have a somewhat problematic article here (for the lack of sources cited), but anyway, here it comes, from a Fandom page [Link]:

“Mata Hari’s own orientation may be of some relevance in the controversy. Mata Hari had innumerable male lovers, and she seems to have been overwhelmingly heterosexual. There is some suggestion, however, that she was not exclusively so. Many of Mata Hari’s lovers were officers, and she herself enjoyed dressing up in military uniform. Mata Hari and the Russian actress Alla Nazimova were also said to be lovers, though they may never have met.

Alla Nazimova

Women, as well as men, certainly found Mata Hari attractive and were aroused by her nude dancing. Natalie Clifford Barney, a wealthy American expatriate, was a well-known hostess in Belle Epoque Paris. Barney, known as “The Amazon”, was also the centre of an artistic lesbian/bisexual circle that included the writers Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ) and Renee Vivien and the actress and prostitute Liane de Pougy. Barney had a house in Neuilly with a large garden, and she and her friends liked to stage amateur theatricals and dances with lesbian themes there. When she met Mata Hari, Barney was immediately impressed and hired her to dance at her home. Mata Hari gave at least three nude performances (one of them on horseback as Lady Godiva) at Barney’s garden parties. For one such appearance, Mata Hari herself insisted that only women be invited. Colette, who was then struggling to make her own career as a nude dancer, greatly resented Mata Hari and envied her success. Despite this, Colette went to great lengths to see Mata Hari dance, and she was impressed by her legs, buttocks, and torso.

Colette

Colette wrote that one of Mata Hari’s performances at Barney’s house “brought the male–and a good portion of the female, audience to the limit of decent attention”. The American lesbian writer Janet Flanner became a close friend of Barney’s after the war and also talked to many of Barney’s friends who had witnessed Mata Hari’s performances. Of her nude dancing, Flanner said that “The only woman who had that kind of extraordinary style was Mata Hari. “There” was a woman who was equal to any event”. Mata Hari remained part of Barney’s circle and frequently lunched with Barney and her friends. Barney wore mannish “Amazonian” style dresses, and Mata Hari often wore similar outfits while riding. According to Flanner, Mata Hari got a brand new “Amazonian” dress from Barney just before her execution and was wearing it when she was shot.

Natalie Clifford Barney
Natalie Clifford Barney

Natalie Barney had a legendary sexual appetite, and she enjoyed the challenge of seduction. Janet Flanner later denied that Barney and Mata Hari had been lovers, though Barney had so many sexual partners that neither she nor anyone else could keep track of them, and she classed the less important ones simply as “adventures”. Given her association with Barney and her friends, and given what we know of Mata Hari’s adventurous and unconventional nature, it is certainly possible that she at least experimented sexually with women. Many secondary authorities now list Mata Hari as bisexual, and she has become a popular lesbian icon. As in many such cases, however, the real evidence is far from conclusive.

Liane de Pougy
Liane de Pougy

After she was safely dead, Barney, Colette, and Pougy all criticized Mata Hari harshly. They even said that they had never found her attractive. This was a curious assertion indeed, since Mata Hari had performed nude for them three times. Unattractiveness would hardly have earned her two return engagements at the Barney home.”

Renee Vivien
Renee Vivien

Take it or leave it.

Anyway, due to the multiplying competition and the slow vanishing of youth (she had put on a few pounds), she danced less and less – the last time we know of on March 13, 1915 – but concentrated on her career as a top international courtesan. She was seen with bevvies of high-ranking military officers – her favourite companions – but also politicians, industrialists and the like.

She did not change much, but the atmosphere of the continent changed with the outbreak of the Great War of 1914 to 1918. We know that truth is always the first casualty of war, but an almost universal fear of foreign spies came over Europe, and a woman who had lovers in many countries and travelled – as a Dutch citizen, she was neutral – freely around countries whose inhabitants certainly had all kinds of malicious intents against peace-loving Frenchmen – she became to be viewed by many as a security risk.

The spy craze of the Great War is almost worth an article of its own. Every country – at war or not – continually arrested presumed spies, many of which were so cleverly hidden by their suspected employers that they were illiterate, did not speak their sponsor’s language and had no contact to the military.

Vadim Maslov

In the spring of 1916, Russia had sent a 50.000 strong Expeditionary Corps to aid the allies on the Western Front, and one of their pilots, a 23-year-old Captain caught the eye – and the heart – of our heroine. His name was Vadim Maslov, and he had been shot down and wounded over the Western Front in the spring of 1916. Mata called him “the love of her life”. In the crash, Maslov had lost his sight in both eyes, which led Mata Hari to ask for permission to visit her wounded lover at his hospital near the front. Permission was eventually granted, and she visited him, only to be met by agents of the French Deuxième Bureau, the military intelligence service, who conditioned their approval of the visit on Madame’s future service as a military spy for France.

Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

It was well known, and absolutely no secret, military or not, that Mata Hari had performed several times in peacetime before the German Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was nominally commander of the Army Group Crown Prince and specifically of the 5th Army. For an intelligence service, however, the Deuxieme Bureau was tragically uninformed – the good Crown Prince was just a figurehead for German war propaganda, an alcoholic womanizer and party drop-head that had minimal influence on anything relating to the war. Blissfully unaware of reality, the Bureau offered Frau Zelle one million francs if she were able to seduce him and milk his brain.

The fact that the Crown Prince had, before 1914, never commanded a unit larger than a regiment, and was now supposedly commanding both an army and an army group at the same time should have been a clue that his role in German decision-making was mostly nominal.

Zelle’s contact with the Deuxième Bureau was Captain Georges Ladoux, who was later to emerge as one of her principal accusers. In November 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the British port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, assistant commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. He gave an account of this in his 1922 book Queer People, saying that she eventually admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau. Initially detained in Cannon Street police station, she was then released and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. A full transcript of the interview is in Britain’s National Archives and was broadcast, with Mata Hari played by Eleanor Bron, on the independent station LBC in 1980. It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Hari

Apparently, the Deuxieme Bureau had her on their leash, using her relation to Maslov. She was sent to neutral Madrid in late 1916 to contact the local German military attaché, one Major Arnold Kalle, and ask for a meeting with the Crown Prince, perhaps offering French military secrets (which she certainly did not possess). While the French may still have harboured illusions about her possible capabilities of espionage, the Germans did not.

In January 1917, Major Kalle transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21, whose biography so closely matched Zelle’s that it was patently obvious that Agent H-21 could only be Mata Hari. The Deuxième Bureau intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari.

The messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, suggesting that the messages were contrived to have Zelle arrested by the French. General Walter Nicolai, the chief IC (intelligence officer) of the German Army, had grown very annoyed that Mata Hari had provided him with no intelligence worthy of the name, instead selling the Germans mere Paris gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, and decided to terminate her employment by exposing her as a German spy to the French.

In December 1916, the Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected of being a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Hari

In terms of the trade, the Germans burned her for uselessness, but the French were unable to reach this obvious conclusion – or were they? Which French military secrets could have Mrs Zelle uncovered in Spain from a low-ranking German major, and, had the major possessed such secrets, would he not have informed Berlin himself? The case of Mrs Zelle was, quite obviously, of no importance for the security of the French army, but in the psychologically desperate situation of 1917, it could serve a different, patriotic purpose.

In many regards, mid-1917 was the lowest point of the war for the country; the Great Mutinies of the French Army in the spring of 1917 following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and a wave of strikes almost paralysed the country. For the new government under Georges Clemenceau – in power since July – the case of Mata Hari seemed to be a great opportunity to blame much of what had transpired before on treason, and a nasty German spy was a god-sent scapegoat. The case was pushed to a maximum press embellishment.

On February 13, 1917, she was arrested in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Eleven days later she was put on trial, accused of espionage for Germany and thereby causing the deaths of 50,000 or more French soldiers.

Unfortunately, there existed no documents that could support the charges. Not a single document, secret or not, was presented that Miss Zelle was accused of giving the Germans. A bottle of a strange fluid had been found in her hotel room, that the prosecutor identified a secret ink, while Mrs Zelle described it as make-up. It was true that the prosecution uncovered many of the secret little lies she had used in her invention of the Mata Hari personality, the dances, cults, religion, etc., but that was not illegal and no one was surprised, except that it was very useful for the detailed character assassination the prosecution engaged in. She admitted that she had once accepted 20,000 Francs from a German officer in the Netherlands for espionage against France but pointed out that she had never been in possession of any military secrets – the prosecution could not prove otherwise.

Given the scarcity of evidence, the French government resorted to legal obstruction.

Her defence attorney, veteran international lawyer Édouard Clunet, faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly. Bouchardon [the prosecutor, FN1] used the very fact that Zelle was a woman as evidence of her guilt, saying: “Without scruples, accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Mata Hari herself admitted under interrogation to taking money to work as a German spy. It is contended by some historians that Mata Hari may have merely accepted money from the Germans without actually carrying out any spy duties. At her trial, Zelle vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland. In October 2001, documents released from the archives of MI5 (British counter-intelligence) were used by a Dutch group, the Mata Hari Foundation, to ask the French government to exonerate Zelle as they argued that the MI5 files proved she was not guilty of the charges she was convicted of. A spokesman from the Mata Hari Foundation argued that at most Zelle was a low-level spy who provided no secrets to either side, stating: “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Hari

[FN1] Pierre Bouchardon was a notorious prosecutor and judge, who made the identification and prosecution of German spies – whom he saw everywhere – his patriotic duty.

At trial …

In the heated atmosphere of war, her conviction and the subsequent death penalty were a foregone conclusion, and she was executed by a firing squad of twelve French soldiers just before dawn on 15 October 1917 at the age of 41. She was not handcuffed, refused a blindfold, and, it is said, defiantly blew a kiss to her executors.

The Execution
A scene from a movie …

It remains very questionable whether she engaged in any sort of intelligence work at all. All her life, she received money from admirers, and whether the 20.000 Francs from the Germans made any difference remains more than questionable. “At her trial, Zelle vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland.” (Wiki, see above)

As an untrained recruitee, she never learned information of real value. Instead, as the records that have come to light show, Hari was a scapegoat, targeted because of her brazen promiscuity, exotic allure and defiance of societal norms of the day.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/revisiting-myth-mata-hari-sultry-spy-government-scapegoat-180967013/

In the end, Frau Zelle became a victim of the men she had so loved – French men in uniform…

Her trial files are scheduled to become available in 2017, and we will update as needed …


… Here the biggest picture gallery available …


(© John Vincent Palatine 2019) * The Prison Letter is fictive.

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