The 7th. August this year (2004) saw the 128th anniversary of the birth of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, the daughter of a well-to-do Dutch shopkeeper and his Javanese wife. On July 11, 1895, Margaretha married Campbell MacLeod, an Englishman serving as an officer in the Dutch army and who was twenty years her senior. The following year MacLeod's military service took them to Java. This period in the Far East was to be a decisive time in Margaretha's life. First, her son, born just before they left Holland, died. Then she gave birth to a daughter. Finally, her husband's brutality destroyed their marriage, and she divorced him.
While in this exotic world of Java Margaretha became acquainted with the dances that would later inspire her work as a dancer. In 1905 she went to Paris to start a new career in the theatre, assuming the stage name Mata Hari (Javanese for 'Eye of the Dawn') and the persona of a Javanese princess. All things Oriental happened to be in vogue during the early 1900s, so Margaretha simply embellished her experiences in Java, and prepared for her first show. She had little trouble convincing her audience that Lady Macleod was half Hindu, half British nobility and had been trained as a Ganges temple dancer. Her tall, lithe body, dark colouring and natural beauty lent themselves well to her subterfuge as she appeared before her small salon audience clad only in an assortment of coloured veils and a metal brassiere of her own creation. Thus the woman who would become known as the inventor of the strip tease gave her first successful performance.
Wealthy businessman, Emile Guimet, wasted little time inviting Margaretha to dance at his Museum of Oriental Art. Guimet transformed an upper floor of his museum to accommodate her act, a sinuous and provocative dance of supplication before the six-limbed statue of the Hindu god, Siva. Guimet even provided a pseudo-jungle environment to make the setting seem even more real. After this performance, which took place on 13th. March 1905, Mata Hari became an instant sensation.
Over the next few years she danced her dance of the veils in salons, music halls and theatres all over Europe. Monte Carlo, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna and Cairo were just a few of the cities where she attracted huge crowds. Men fell at her feet wherever she went and would promise her anything for a glance or a favour. An early German movie-maker immortalised her Siva dances on celluloid. Through those early years before the first World War, Mata Hari danced her way into the hearts and bedrooms of countless well-to-do lovers, many of them having royal connections. She also had liaisons with many leaders in the political and military arenas. There seemed to be a method to her choices of lovers and benefactors. She not only wanted men who would gladly pay for an affair with the sensational and sensuous Mata Hari, she made sure they also paid her day-to-day expenses, not to mention showering her with gifts of jewels and furs. But her performances began to lose their former appeal as other dancers, like Isodora Duncan, took to European stages dancing in even less than Mata Hari. Then there were those who began to question the authenticity of not only her dances, but also her background. Soon she became nothing more than a high paid courtesan. Worse, she was becoming an ageing courtesan.
The situation changed dramatically with the outbreak of World War I. Margaretha criss-crossed Europe, seemingly without plan or purpose, trying to gain a foothold. Because of her international background - and probably also due to her numerous affairs with military officers - she began to associate with various secret services on both sides. She had an affair with a 25-year-old Russian pilot flying with the French, Captain Vadim Maslov, son of a Russian admiral. When Maslov was wounded she asked permission to visit him in a forward hospital. French officials at the Deuxieme Bureau gave her permission, but only after she had agreed to spy on the Germans, including possibly the crown prince, whom she knew. For this she was to receive one million francs. To carry out her assignment, she travelled to Spain en route to neutral Holland, from where she could cross over into Germany to rendezvous with the crown prince. En route to Holland, her ship stopped over in Falmouth, where the British Intelligence Service detained her. They questioned her on every suspicious move or meeting she had had, but her answers satisfied her interrogators. She even told them that she worked for the French Secret Service. So all the British agents could do was release her, warn her not to go to Germany, and send her back to Spain. There she met and had an affair with the German military attaché, Major Kalle. He sent a message to Berlin in a code that he knew the Allies could read, saying that spy "H-21" had proved valuable. In the meantime, the French got suspicious. Mata Hari had lovers on both sides of the border. Who knows what secrets were exchanged between the sheets...
It also became clear that German army officers were paying her. Officially, it was for keeping them company, but the French intelligence office was not so sure about that. What if these payments were for passing on sensitive information? She returned to Paris on 4th. January 1917, and was arrested nine days later. Although French and British intelligence services suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce positive evidence against her. They found secret ink was in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup. She admitted to taking money from Germans but claimed it was for love, not spying. Eventually, during one of the long sessions of interrogation, she succumbed and confessed to being a German spy, known under the pseudonym of H-21.
There followed a showcase trial. The French were convinced she was "one of the greatest spies of the century, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers". She was tried by a closed court-martial, found guilty despite her desperate claims that she was innocent, and executed by a French firing squad on 15th. October 1917. Refusing a blindfold or to be bound to the stake, she blew a kiss to the 12-man firing squad before their rifles shattered the morning stillness. Salacious journalists dwelt upon the black silk stockings and fur-trimmed cloak she insisted on wearing for the execution, and the story was put about that she believed one of her high-placed lovers had ordered the rifles to be loaded with blanks.
But the French never got the complete story. Margaretha never told them whom she worked with or whose orders she followed. There may be a chance that she was indeed innocent. Was she a cunning and manipulative woman with only her own interests in mind, or was she a victim of French Intelligence, an unfortunate scapegoat? Whatever the case, Margaretha's stage name, Mata Hari, will always remain synonymous with female seduction and betrayal.
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