Depending on your point of view, Mata Hari was either a victim of circumstance, a common prostitute, or a scheming femme fatale who went too far – but these days almost no-one believes she was any kind of spy.
Born in Holland in 1876, Margaretha Geertruida ‘Margreet’ Zelle initially enjoyed a comfortable, privileged childhood. But when she was 13, disaster struck: her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and shortly afterwards, her mother died. Two years later, her father remarried and she was packed off to live with her godfather and then subsequently with an uncle in The Hague.
By 18, she was so eager for a fresh start that she answered a newspaper advert placed by a Dutch army Captain, Rudolf MacLeod, who wanted a wife to join him in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). They moved to Java in 1897 and had two children, Norman-John, and Louise Jeanne, but MacLeod, 20 years older than his wife, was a violent alcoholic who beat her and openly kept a mistress.
Perhaps another woman would have stuck it out, but Margreet did not. She left him, moved in with another Dutch officer, and joined a local dance company using the stage name Mata Hari. She briefly reunited with her husband but nothing changed and in 1899, her two year-old son died. Their marriage in shreds, the couple moved back to Holland where they officially separated in 1902.
Margreet was awarded custody of her daughter, but MacLeod never paid the child maintenance ordered by the court and eventually refused to return the girl after an access visit. What was Margreet to do? She had no family, no money, no qualifications, no way of earning a living. She knew she would not recover her daughter from her vengeful husband, and that he would never give her a penny in maintenance.
In 1903, she moved to Paris. “That’s what I thought all divorced women did,” she said later. There, she worked variously as an artist’s model and a circus rider. She also coloured up her background to get work as an exotic dancer, telling people she was a Javanese princess. She’d never had a dancing lesson in her life, but she was creative and convincing.
She was also completely uninhibited when it came to taking lovers, undressing in public, inventing raunchy dance moves, and posing for semi-nude photographs. She plunged into her fantasy of being an exotic dancer and made everyone around her believe it too. By 1905, she was beginning to make a name for herself with a provocative striptease act, which culminated in her posing in just a sheer body stocking and jewelled bra. It was shocking, titillating and incredibly fashionable. Suddenly she was all the rage, invited to the parties of the rich and famous, feted and courted all over Europe.
But by 1910 rivals had sprung up and people began to say she wasn’t much of a dancer after all. Questions were asked about her background and by 1912 she had also begun to put on weight.
War broke out, tastes changed and by 1915 she had given up dancing and become an expensive prostitute, conducting profitable liaisons with a series of high-ranking military officers, politicians and other powerful men. She bragged that she enjoyed sleeping with lots of different nationalities of men, so she could compare their performances.
In her own mind she was a glamorous courtesan or a free-spirited bohemian, but as the First World War gripped Europe, she began to be seen as something else. Less of an artist, more of a promiscuous, indiscreet nuisance. She had slept with top military brass from nearly every country in Western Europe. Who knows what she might say? And to whom?
She was almost literally a loose canon; as a Dutch national, she was able to travel during the war (Holland stayed neutral) and moved freely between France and the Netherlands, travelling via Spain and the UK to avoid the battlefields.
Wherever she went she made headlines, and it was impossible to predict what lies she might invent next. She began an intense relationship with a Russian pilot, Captain Vadim Maslov, who was serving with the French, and along with her travelling, this also made her an object of suspicion.
Various secret services eyed her up as a potential source of information. In 1916, Maslov’s plane was shot down and he was blinded in both eyes. Desperate to visit him in hospital, Mata Hari applied for permission to go to the front, and was told by the French authorities that she would only get it if she agreed to spy on Germany. They wanted her to seduce the Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm, and would pay her a million French francs to do it.
She agreed, but although she never met the Crown Prince she did meet other German officers who asked her to spy on the French, again for a generous sum of money, and again it appears that she agreed.
“It’s difficult to know what she was thinking,” says Mary Craig, the author of A Tangled Web, a biography of Mata Hari. “She might have found the idea of spying glamorous; earning a lot of money, mixing with powerful people, pretending to be involved in high-level politics. Or perhaps she just thought she could take the money and not do anything much in return. Researching her life, I was never sure. Was she spying for Germany? France? Britain? But in fact I think she was used and abused by them all.”
Before the First World War, says Mary Craig, Mata Hari had been titillating and amusing. But once the war started the mood changed and she was so divorced from reality that she did not notice the change in attitudes. “During times of war, men take themselves more seriously, tolerate female independence less easily, but she had no clue that men might gang up against her.”
It is difficult to imagine what either side thought Mata Hari might know or be able to discover. She was not a politician, and had no knowledge of tactics or military secrets. All she could pass on – in either direction – was gossip about people’s sex lives. But intelligence services at that time were disorganised and amateur and perhaps she led people to believe she knew more than she did.
In 1917, the Germans let the French know that Mata Hari had been taking money from both sides and the French authorities arrested her in Paris. The war was going badly at that time, there had been mutinies and strikes in the French army, and the authorities badly needed someone to blame, someone who could be eliminated along with all the French troubles. Mata Hari was an obvious candidate.
“She didn’t see it coming at all,” says Mary Craig. “She had almost started to believe her own lies and fantasies and think that she could marry her young Russian nobleman. Even when she was arrested and questioned, she still thought she was going home. She had no idea she was going to jail. She was incredibly naive.”
Mata Hari’s trial took place in July 1917; she was accused of causing the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers as a result of her espionage activities. As evidence the authorities produced what they said was invisible ink, found in her make-up kit. Her lies about being Javanese were uncovered, and of course everyone knew she was promiscuous.
Her protestations of innocence were to no avail. Her defence lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine the witnesses either for the prosecution or the defence, and she was sentenced to death. “They had to shoot her, once they’d ‘caught her’ because she was so unpredictable. Even in prison, she had been attempting to write an autobiography,” says Mary Craig. “What on earth was in it? It’s no surprise that those papers disappeared!”
She was executed by a firing squad in October 1917. She refused a blindfold, looking her executioners in the eye as she was shot. She was just 41.
As a gruesome footnote, her body was donated to medical science. Her severed head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris until it was lost in around 1954, and her other remains have never been accounted for either.