Seductress, Spy or Scapegoat
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod … aka … Mata Hari
The most important thing to know about Margaretha Zelle is that she loved men.
The most crucial thing to know about her is that she did not love truth.
When it was convenient, she told the truth. When it was not, or when she found the truth tedious, she invented what might be kindly called “alternative truths” … and unkindly, “lies”. For her, what was factual never seemed as essential as what should have been. By the time she had transformed herself into Mata Hari, she was highly skilled at fashioning the world to her liking.
She was a creation from beginning to end, a character in a play that she continuously rescripted.
Early Life- Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, to
Adam and Antje Zelle. …
Adam was prosperous and handsome, and Margaretha was his favorite child. Her father taught her to think of herself as special.
An Orchid in a field of Dandelions
She would twirl and flaunt her wonderful dresses in vivid colors among her friends at school. In her mind her friends were jealous.
“Their pallid skin and colorless hair and lack of personality condemned them. Only someone like her, with thick, dark wavy hair, compelling eyes and café au lait skin – only someone whose very essence cried “Look at me!” – could get away with it.”
One of her school friends in a moment of genius called her an orchid in a field of dandelions, and she knew it … she knew she was different from everyone else.
Adam Zelle loved to be noticed, his daughter in some ways was his most becoming accessory. He was vain, good looking and always dressed with a top hat and waistcoat, advertising his successful haberdashery. Some people called him “the Baron”, but he rather liked the nickname, assuming it was recognition of his natural superiority.
His fondness for ostentatious display and social grasping led him to risky speculation which bankrupted the family, broke up the marriage, leaving his family to live in poverty and humiliation.
He returned home after 10 months, but the golden days of the past were never to resume. Margaretha’s parents filed for legal separation, in 19th century Friesland this was a scandalous act and fuel for gossip. He moved to Amsterdam, leaving his family, and soon began living with another woman. On May 10, 1891, Antje Zelle died.
Neighbors looked after the Zelle children for a few weeks until more permanent arrangements were made. The oldest boy was sent to live with his mother’s family, and the twins were sent to live with their father. But Margaretha – M’Greet was sent to live with her uncle and his wife (Vissers) in a small town.
The Vissers tried to reform the headstrong M’Greet. She was told that she would unlikely ever attract a husband, she had no dowry and her family name had been disgraced. She had exotic dark looks and a sensuous mouth, handsome but not beautiful, and at 5’9” she was taller than most Dutchmen in the late 19th century.
How to make a living?
In 1892 she was sent to a boarding school where the newest educational innovations were taught to young women to become kindergarten instructors, an unlikely career for M’Greet. She never exhibited fondness for children or nurturing instincts. She was only concerned about herself. She was clever academically and exceedingly charming. She learned at an early age that pleasing men was the way to find happiness and that sexuality was her ticket in life.
After only a brief stay at the school, the Headmaster fell in love and had a sexual relationship with her. She was 16; he was 51 and married. She was sent home in shame, while the Headmaster remained in his position of power and esteem until his death. M’Greet was blamed for the scandal.
Enter Rudolf MacLeod - a hard man – hard living and hard drinking, sure of himself, and used to command.
At the age of 16 he entered a military academy, after graduation he accepted a post to the Dutch East Indies in 1877. The 21 y/o was immediately plunged into the brutal hell of the Atjeh War in Sumatra.
… he admitted to drinking, gambling and going with women … and disciplined his men too harshly.
Against considerable odds he survived 20 years of service, much of it in vicious combat. Rudolf had seen too much of the dark side of life, had too many adventures to indulge in romantic fantasies.
So how did Rudolf and M’Greet meet?
1894 Rudolf was granted a 2-year leave of absence due to illness, possibly diabetes and rheumatism … however all medical records have been destroyed. It has been suggested that he actually suffered from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis.
M’Greet’s experiences in life were far too innocent for a career soldier. She was romantic, frivolous and extremely vain. She longed for experience, fun and craved the admiration of an older man. She loved officers and Rudolf was an officer to the core. He loved pretty, flirtatious women and she was one. Their meeting was disastrous for both.
1895 one of Rudolf’s cohorts placed an ad in the newspaper:
Officer on home leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet a girl of pleasant character – object matrimony.
Upon a marriage Rudolf would return to the Indies, expecting a prestigious posting and a rise socially. A pretty Dutch wife would be a very useful accessory.
If by chance he did have syphilis and he infected his wife, he would do himself irreparable social damage. Thus, there is considerable circumstantial evidence that he had caught syphilis … could he then marry?
While on leave he would have received the prescribed mercury treatments prior to marriage. Mercury does not cure syphilis, but at the time it was believed to be effective since syphilis goes into a long latent stage where there are no overt symptoms.
Margaretha boldly answered Rudolf’s newspaper ad, she sent a photo of herself, raven-haired and olive-skinned to entice him.
· They soon met on March 24, 1895 (she was 17 to his 39 years).
· Their attraction was sexual, mutual and very strong.
· March 30 they were engaged
· Married July 11, 1895.
They honeymooned in Weisbaden, Germany … with her striking good looks drew the attention of a number of young men
“An ugly jealousy had begun to brew”.
Married to a military officer from an old aristocratic family, she had no expectations of living carefully within their limited means … the marriage began to deteriorate almost immediately. Within 2 weeks Rudolf was seeing other women and seeking out money lenders.
April 1896 Griet became pregnant with their first child, a son, and Rudolf was granted an additional 6-months leave. Their financial situation was precarious, he continued womanizing, drinking and gambling.
Norman 1896 – 1898 with Rudolf MacLeod
On May 1, 1897 Rudolf, Griet and baby Norman left for the Dutch East Indies … five weeks later they arrived … Promise was in the air, but what transpired in the Indies was tragedy that grew out of the practices of the Dutch colonial. It was a tragedy that would influence the rest of her life and the formation of her persona.
Jeanne Louise “Non” 1898 – 1910 with Rudolf MacLeod
During their rocky, nine-year marriage—marred by MacLeod's heavy drinking and frequent rages over the attention his wife garnered from other officers—Gretha gave birth to two children, a daughter and a son.
Life in the Dutch East Indies
Upon arrival she discovered a world of light, heat, lush vegetation and social freedom … brilliant colors, flowers, spicy foods, succulent fruits and volcanos … the intricate patterns of Indonesian music, clothing, art and design … the Indies were wild, exotic and beautiful … resulting in a transformation.
“The European man who goes to the Indies removes
his old self, in order to assume a new self.”
Now with social status and money, they could live like royalty. The hierarchical separation between Indonesians and Europeans was strictly adhered.
The servants lived in the back of the compound; their cooking smells, cries of their children, songs of mothers, men’s voices talking into the night, formed an integral backdrop to colonial Indies life. Any child raised in the Indies was cared for by a babu; and one was hired immediately to care for Norman.
Racial distinctions were ever present, MacLeod’s Dutch wife, appeared Indo (half-caste) with her dark hair, eyes and complexion. The social discomfort she felt was only a foretaste of what would happen as the MacLeods moved to East Java and later to Sumatra. Racial barriers and distinctions were strictly demarcated and Rudolf worried that Gretha’s Indo appearance would cause him embarrassment.
Rudolf despised and mistrusted Gretha and constantly worried about the safety of his children, his fears were based on the acute awareness that they were at risk.
If Rudolf had contracted syphilis he would have given it to Gretha and then passed on to their children.
Death of a Child
May 31 - Upon Gretha and the children’s arrival to Sumatra, Rudolf was furious that his children looked thin, pale and neglected … their condition deteriorated during the doctor’s medical regimen, and on June 27, Norman became unconscious with temperature and in pain; he died at 12:30 AM the next morning at the age of 2yrs 5 months. The garrison doctor suspected poisoning, but no autopsy was done.
Non still remained ill, but eventually recovered.
Three hypotheses relating to Norman’s death:
· food poisoning or poisoned by Rudolf’s former lover
· The garrison physician was treating the children for congenital syphilis and miscalculated the mercury compounds dosage
By the early 1900s after moving back to the Netherlands, the couple officially separated in 1902, and divorced in 1906.
During one of Non’s visit with her father, MacLeod decided not to return her to her mother. Zelle was forced to accept the situation, not having the resources to fight it, in the knowledge that whatever kind of husband MacLeod had been, he had always been a good father. Jeanne later died at the age of 21, possibly from complications relating to syphilis.
Paris 1903 – 1906 - Transformation from military wife to siren of the East … enter: Mata Hari - “eye of the day” in Indonesian dialect
Greta moved to Paris in 1903 (age 27). There, she became the mistress of a French diplomat. To support herself she performed as a circus horse rider using the name Lady MacLeod, much to the disapproval of the Dutch MacLeods. Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as an artist's model.
W. Somerset Maugham … “money is the 6th sense without it is difficult to enjoy the 5 completely.”
Taking Paris by Storm
In Paris ALL things “Oriental” was the fad – 1906
The time seemed ripe for Mata Hari's exotic looks and the "temple dance" she picked up in the Indies. With characteristic confidence, she seized the moment, billing herself as a Hindu artist, dressed in veils—artfully draped from her body.
“Eye of the Day”
Completing her dramatic transformation from military wife to siren of the East, she coined her stage name, "Mata Hari," meaning "eye of the day" in Indonesian dialect.
Promiscuous, Flirtatious, and Captivating
Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, Mata Hari captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet in March 1905. She became the long-time mistress of the millionaire industrialist Émile Guimet. She posed as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood.
Mata Hari took the Paris salons by storm, then moving on to the bright lights of other cities. Along the way, she helped turn the striptease into an art form and captivated critics.
A reporter in Vienna described Mata Hari as:
"Slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair." Her face, he wrote, "makes a strange foreign impression."
Another newspaper reporter wrote:
"… so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms."
Her style and free-willed attitude made her very popular, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles. And although her claim about her origins were fictitious; her act was spectacularly successful. It elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status, breaking new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous.
Mata Hari's career went into decline after 1912 (age 36); 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.
On 13 March 1915 (age 39), she performed in what would be her last show of her career. She had begun relatively late for a dancer, and had started putting on weight. However, by this time she had become a successful courtesan, known more for her sensuality and eroticism than for her beauty.
1915 Daily Life
Liaisons with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries took her frequently across international borders.
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 as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.
As war swept the continent, she had freedom of movement as a citizen of neutral Holland, country-hopping with trunks of clothing, furs and jewelry in tow. Before long, however, Mata Hari's cavalier travels and liaisons attracted attention from British and French intelligence, ultimately placing her under surveillance.
Russian Captain Vadim Masloff, Finding Love
Now nearing 40, plumpish and with her dancing days clearly behind her, Mata Hari fell in love with 21-year-old Russian captain, Vadim Masloff.
During their courtship, Masloff was sent to the Front, where an injury left him blind in one eye.
This battle-scarred youth, with his halting French, awakened something in the aging Mata Hari. For all her adult life, she had relied on men for her existence.
She became protector of a much younger man, giving him part of her allowance she received from a wealthy Dutch baron to pay his gambling debts,
Spy for France
… short on funds, she accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, an army captain who assumed her courtesan contacts would be of use to French intelligence.
Her plan was to seduce her way into the German high command, obtain secrets and hand them over to the French—but she never got that far. She met a German attaché and began tossing him bits of gossip, hoping for valuable information in return. Instead, she was named as a German spy in communiqués he sent to Berlin—which were promptly intercepted by the French.
Some historians believe that the Germans suspected Mata Hari was a French spy and subsequently set her up, deliberately sending messages knowing they would be easily decoded by the French, falsely labeling her as a German spy.
Recruiter, Accuser and Prosecutor,
Georges Ladoux 1916 – an army major head of the French military intelligence during World War I. He was responsible for recruiting Mata Hari as a French spy, whom he met in Vittel in 1916. Ladoux was later arrested for being a double agent, but eventually cleared of all charges.
In any case, the French authorities arrested Mata Hari for espionage in Paris on February 13, 1917 (age 41). Throwing her in a rat-infested cell at the Prison Saint-Lazare, where she was allowed to see only her elderly lawyer.
During lengthy interrogations by military prosecutor Captain Pierre Bouchardon, Mata Hari—who had long lived a fabricated life; embellishing both rearing and resume—bungled facts about her whereabouts and activities.
Eventually, she dropped a bombshell confession:
She had received 20,000 francs from a German diplomat to gather intelligence, but she never fulfilled the bargain and always remained faithful to France. She told them she simply viewed the money as compensation for furs and luggage that had been confiscated by German border guards.
"A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!" she defiantly told her interrogators. "I have always lived for love and pleasure."
2/13/1917 at her arrest
The Kangaroo Court
Trial for Espionage
On 24 July she was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany, and consequently causing the death of 50,000 soldiers.
Mata Hari's trial came at a time when the Allies were failing to beat back German advances. Real or imagined spies were convenient scapegoats for explaining military losses, and Mata Hari's arrest was one of many. Her chief foil, Captain Georges Ladoux, made sure the evidence against her was constructed in the most damning way—by some accounts even tampering with it to further implicate her.
Ladoux was unable to produce one piece of solid, verifiable evidence of Mata Hari’s guilt … there was no evidence of espionage. The flimsy web constructed of unproven guilt somehow grew thicker.
Ladoux firmly believed that Mata Hari was guilty because she slept with many men and traveled widely in wartime. Such a woman must be a spy. And, from his perspective, someone – someone he had been seen to catch – needed to be a spy.
When Mata Hari admitted that a German officer paid her for sexual favors, prosecutors depicted it as espionage money. Mata Hari's morals conspired against her.
"Without scruples, accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy,"concluded Bouchardon.
In the remaining months of investigation and interrogation, there wasn’t even the smallest shred of intelligence that Mata Hari had passed to the Germans. The overwhelming probable reason for this failure was that she had passed none.
She maintained her innocence throughout.
Saint Lazare Prison Interior and Cell
Her defense attorney, Edouard Clunet and former lover faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or to examine his own witnesses. Under the circumstances, her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
During the hyperbole of the prosecution used during her trial, she was blamed for the deaths of 50,000 Frenchmen – it is especially revealing that no one ever identified any specific defeat or leak of information that could be blamed on her. The military tribunal deliberated for less than 45 minutes before returning a guilty verdict.
Mata Hari stepped out as if dressed for dinner with one of her many lovers. Black stockings peeked over the top of her knee-length boots, a fur-lined velvet cloak hung from her shoulders.
But the exotic dancer, whose performances took Paris by storm, was actually going to face the firing squad for selling secrets to the Germans during the First World War .
Execution on October 15, 1917, by firing squad … it was the early hours of the morning, in Paris. (105 years ago)
Dressed in a blue coat accented by a tri-corner hat, she had arrived at the Paris execution site with a priest and two nuns. After bidding them farewell, she looked at the dozens of strangers, prison officials, journalists, onlookers all trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous Mata Hari. Whoever they were, they would be her audience and she would play her role to perfection.
Walking briskly to the designated spot, she assessed the firing squad of 12; they were all so very young and nervous. In another time and place, she would have charmed and flattered them, made them feel like men of the world, won them over. Now she felt sorry for them; to be responsible for executing Mata Hari was going to be their burden to live with.
She had a performance to give and it required all her nerve and skill. She refused to be tied to the stake, and so she stood, lonely, but regal. She then turned to face the firing squad, waved away her blindfold and blew the soldiers a kiss. They could take her life but they could not take her dignity.
And just before the order to fire, the sergeant major of the dragoons said in quiet admiration, watching her. “This lady knows how to die.”
After the volley of shots rang out:
"Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her."
It was an improbable end for the exotic dancer and courtesan, whose name became a metaphor for the siren spy who extracts military secrets from her many lovers, making her an enduring archetype of the femme fatale.
Mystery continues to surround Mata Hari's life and alleged double agency, and her story has become a legend that still piques curiosity. Her life has spawned numerous biographies and cinematic portrayals, including the 1931 film Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo.
Mata Hari's body was not claimed by any family member and was accordingly used for medical study.
Femme fatale Mata Hari was beautiful, a compulsive liar, and without morals -- but she wasn't a spy and suffered from syphilis contracted from her husband. Declassified information indicates that she was used as a scapegoat and was convicted of espionage and executed to bolster national morale.
" … "When she was arrested the war was going very badly for the French, she was a foreigner, very sexy, having multiple affairs, and living lavishly while people in Paris had no bread. There was a lot of resentment against her."
Mata Hari's standing in 1917 was similar to that of Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s -- she was recognizable everywhere and considered the sexiest, most desirable woman in Europe.
"This is why it is so ludicrous to think she was a spy. She couldn't be clandestine and sneak around. She couldn't help but attract attention."
"She was a self-made, self-created woman, and was to be admired for her beauty and her ability to reinvent herself time after time. She made herself someone she was not and was brilliant at it.”
Mournful fate of Mata Hari, the spy who wasn’t guilty:
New evidence indicates that the World War I siren was executed because her death was convenient to German and French intelligence.
On a canal close to her childhood home, where vicious winds and icy temperatures can freeze the water for months, a statue erected in 1976 shows Mata Hari in her typical stage regalia. Dressed in little more than pearls and veils, she stands with legs apart and arms outstretched, ready to take on the world.
The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, Netherlands has dedicated a hall for Mata Hari.
Read more: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/937920/mata-hari-leeuwarden-exhibit#ixzz7enkrLRMG
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