Monday, July 15, 2013

Mata Hari - Dancer and Spy

Most of us have seen those wonderful vintage postcards with Mata Hari's photograph on them, but most of us know little about her. I recently decided to do some research on her and found that there was a great deal more to her than what she became most known for and that was being a spy.

Her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle and she was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876. When she was 18 she answered and ad in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod who was looking for a wife. At the time he was living in Dutch East Indies - which is now Indonesia. They married in 1895. Her new husband was twenty years her senior. They had two children Norman-John MacLeod and Louise Jeanne MacLeod.

Their marriage was a disaster for Margaretha. Her husband was an alcoholic and he took out his frustrations on his wife plus he had a concubine. Margaretha moved out and moved in with another Dutch officer. She became interested in Indonesian traditions, began studying dance and joined a dance company.

In 1897 she officially adopted the name Mara Hari - meaning "Sun" in Indonesian. She and her husband divorced in 1907. Sadly, both of her children died young - both from complications of syphilis that they contracted from their parents. 

Margaretha moved to Paris in 1903.  Before Mata Hari rose to fame as an exotic dancer she performed as a circus horse rider and an artist's model. By 1905, Mata Hari started her rise to fame as an exotic dancer. She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement.  

Mata Hari was promiscuous, flirtatious and she openly flaunted her body. She captivated audiences and was an overnight success. She became the mistress of millionaire industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so and that is why there are so many vintage postcards of her. Mata Hari brought this 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 jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small breasted. She wore a skin colored body stocking for her performances. 

Although Mata Hari's claims about her origins were fictitious, it was very common for entertainers of her era to invent colorful stories about their origins as part of the show. Her act was spectacularly successful because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status, and so broke new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous.

Her style and her free willed attitude made her a very popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles. At the time, as most Europeans were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies and thus thought of Mata Hari as exotic, it was assumed her claims were genuine. As with anything that becomes popular; by about 1910, a myriad of imitators had arisen. Critics began to opine that the success and dazzling features of the popular Mata Hari were due to cheap exhibitionism and lacked artistic merit.

Although she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions as a dancer who did not know how to dance. Mata Hari's career started to decline after 1912. She performed her final show on March 13, 1915. This proved to be the end of her dancing career. She'd started her career relatively late for a dancer, and had started putting on weight. However, by this time she had become a successful courtesan.

She had relationships with high-ranking military officers and politicians in influential positions in many countries. Prior to World War I she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress. During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Margaretha Zelle was thus able to cross national borders freely. To avoid the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, and her movements inevitably attracted attention.

In 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the English 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, saying that she eventually admitted to working for French Intelligence. Initially detained in Cannon Street police station, she was then released and stayed at the Savoy. 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.

In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information it contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. The messages were in a code that some claimed that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French (in fact it had been broken not by the French, but by the British "Room 40" team), leaving some to claim that the messages were contrived.

However, this same code, which the Germans were convinced was unbreakable was used to transmit the Zimmerman Telegram; its unintended interception some weeks later precipitated the United States' entry into the war against Germany.

Mata Hari was arrested in her room on 13 February 1917 at the Hotel Elysee Palace, on the Champs Elysee in Paris. She was put on trial on July 24, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her make-up. 

She wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris, claiming her innocence. "My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else. Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself."  Her defense attorney faced impossible odds; he could not cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or directly question his own witnesses. Under the circumstances, her conviction was a foregone conclusion. She was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.  Was she really a spy? In the 1970s German documents were unsealed that proved that Mata Hari was truly a German agent.

In the autumn of 1915, she entered German service, and on orders of section III B-Chief Walter Nicolai, she was instructed about her duties by Major Roepell during a stay in Cologne. Her reports were to be sent to the War News Post West in Düsseldorf under Roepell as well as to the Agent mission in the German embassy in Madrid under Major Arnold Kalle, with her direct handler being Captain Hoffmann, who also gave her the code name H-21.In December 1916, the French Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents: five of whom were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected to be 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.

Mata Hari went bravely to her death.  According to an eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales, she was not bound and refused a blindfold.Their is a statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, Netherlands exhibits a "Mata Hari Room". Included in the exhibit are two of her personal scrapbooks and an oriental rug embroidered with the footsteps of her fan dance. Located in Mata Hari's native town, the museum is well known for research into the life and career of Leeuwarden's world-famous citizen. 

Fortunately there are numerous photos of Mata Hari available on the internet. And yes, she was likely a spy but she did inspire many thousands of dancers.

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Mata Hari

Mata Hari - 1910


Amartia said...

Fascinating blog post. I never knew she was thought of as a spy! That's kinda cool!

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Sumaya said...

It is amazing what one woman can do. I have always met the most amazing women through belly dance. Do they dance because they are amazing, or are they amazing, because they dance?