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Mata Hari on 1906 postcard

Margaretha Gertruida Zelle (b. 7 August 1876, d. 15 October 1917), better known as Mata Hari, was an exotic dancer during the Belle Epoque period, and is arguably the most notorious female spy in history due to her actions during the First World War.

Early Life (1876-1904)[]

Margaretha Zelle was born in Leeuwarden the capital of the Dutch province of Friesland. Her father, Adam Zelle, was a prosperous hatter of German descent. Her mother, Antje Van Der Meulen, came from a well-off Frisian family. There was reportedly some Woudker blood in her ancestry, the Woudkers being a gypsy-like local minority with dark complexions.

As Mata Hari, Margaretha claimed to have been born in India; “Mata Hari” is also one of the many names of Parvati, a Hindu goddess and consort of Shiva, the god of creation, destruction, and dance.

Margaretha’s early childhood was happy and she soon gave evidence of the strong personality and talent for self-dramatization that were to remain with her as an adult. In 1889, her father went bankrupt and the family split up. Margaretha’s mother died in 1891. The young Margaretha went to a teachers’ college in Leiden where she trained as a kindergarten teacher, but there were whispers that she had conducted an affair with the headmaster. In 1894, Margaretha was living with an uncle and was still without a job or a stable home life.

In 1895, Margaretha married Rudolph MacLeod, a Dutch Army officer of Scottish descent, after replying to his personal ad the year prior. Soon after, the couple sailed to Indonesia, where MacLeod’s unit was stationed, where they soon had two children: Norman (b. 1897), and Jeanne "Non" (b. in 1898).

The marriage was not a happy one; MacLeod was twice Margaretha’s age, a rough soldier who drank hard and slept with prostitutes. The young, romantic, and elegant Margaretha attracted the attention of many men in Indonesia. There is no solid evidence that she was ever unfaithful, but MacLeod was still highly suspicious of his young wife. He complained often of Margaretha’s expensive taste in clothes, and may have even been violent towards her. The couple’s son Norman died in 1899, and his death effectively ended any affection that remained between husband and wife. In 1902, the MacLeods returned to Holland and were soon separated.

Exotic Dancer and Prostitute (1904-1914)[]

Margaretha soon drifted to Paris, the city of her dreams, but she was unable to find steady work and lived a precarious existence as a prostitute and artist’s model. Despite her sensuous nature, Margaretha was initially very reluctant to take off her clothes for artists, which of course limited her usefulness as a model. She got some help in these early Parisian years from Henri de Marguerie, a French consular official whom she had met in Holland. She finally got a good job as an equestrienne (a female rider or performer on horseback) in a Parisian circus. The owner of the circus suggested that she try dancing. In her original act, Margaretha performed three dances in Oriental costume: the ‘passion flower dance;’ the ‘kris dance’(in which she wielded a spear or a long Malay dagger); and the ‘veil dance,’ the most famous and successful of the three, in which Margaretha danced before a statue of Shiva, shedding her clothes until at the end of the performance she was completely naked save for a jeweled brassiere.

Billing herself as Madame MacLeod, Margaretha gave her first private performances late in 1904. During this period she met Emile Guimet, a wealthy art collector and amateur Orientalist who had turned his home into a museum for Asian antiquties. Guimet served as an adviser to Margaretha, and helped improve her act. Guimet gave her expensive Asian costumes from his private collection, and apparently suggested her new stage name: Mata Hari. Margaretha’s public debut as Mata Hari came on 13 March 1905 at the Musee Guimet. The audience of 300 included the German and Japanese ambassadors. Mata Hari’s performance was a sensation with the public and the critics alike. For several years afterwards, Mata Hari was a top star in Paris, performing at such choice venues as the Trocadero, the Cercle Royale, and the Olympia. She also toured internationally, dancing in Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, and Monte Carlo. Mata Hari was much in demand for private performances, dancing in the homes of the rich and in leading Paris salons. At her peak, Mata Hari could command fees of up to 10,000 Francs (Approximately $920 US dollars, or about $22,500 US dollars today, adjusted for inflation) for an engagement. She was so popular that her name was used on brands of cigars, cigarettes, and other products.

Mata Hari always maintained that her dances were authentically Asian and had religious significance, just as she also claimed to be Indian or Indonesian herself. Ignorance of Asian dance was so widespread at the time that few challenged her claims. Though taken seriously both by critics and a few anthropologists, Mata Hari’s dances were in fact a pastiche of her own invention. Her success was largely due to the contemporary fascinations with exotic eroticism and all things Oriental. Since the 1890’s European writers and composers had been fascinated by the figure of Salome. Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play began the “Salomania” craze, and in 1905 (the very year of Mata Hari’s public debut) Richard Strauss wrote his hit opera on the same theme. Dangerous, highly-sexed Asian women were in demand by the public. The strip-tease had been known in France since at least the 1890’s. It was hardly fashionable or respectable, but semi-nude dancing was a feature of the developing modern dance movement. Isadora Duncan had already shown the way, but she had not been a great popular success in France and had not dared to take all her clothes off. Mata Hari chose the right place at the right time, not only artistically but legally. In 1902, the French courts struck down previous restrictions on nudity, both on the legitimate stage and in print media. Ordinary strippers might still get into legal trouble, but Mata Hari’s “artistic” and “religious” dances were within the law. By 1905 nude postcards were being widely sold in France, and nude images of Mata Hari became highly popular.

Contemporary critics identified Mata Hari with the modern dance movement; some thought her superior to Isadora Duncan. Without a filmed record, her true ability is difficult to assess. Her performances were certainly exciting, and she was a master at subtle changes of mood and expression. At the end of the ‘veil dance,’ she would fall prone to the floor and simulated orgasm. Mata Hari first did this in 1904, years before Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer with the Russian Ballet, created a major artistic sensation by doing the same thing in his performance of “The Afternoon of a Faun”.

Sometimes Mata Hari claimed to be a great artist and poured scorn on her “inauthentic” imitators. On other occasions, she said cynically that no one would have come to see her dance at all if she had not taken her clothes off. Later in her career, she worked with the Indian musician and Muslim mystic Inayat Khan to create a truly authentic Indian dance. Mata Hari longed to dance the role of Salome, which she did in 1912. None of Mata Hari’s later ventures brought her the same popular success as her early nude dances.

Mata Hari’s newfound stardom came at a personal cost. Her bankrupt father wrote an exploitative book about her. Mata Hari had been separated from her husband for several years, but her nude appearances on stage gave Rudolph MacLeod grounds for divorce. MacLeod got custody of the couple’s daughter, Non, which was a heavy blow to Mata Hari. MacLeod would not allow Mata Hari to send letters or gifts to Non, much less to see her. Despite her father’s hostility, Non remained loyal to her mother’s memory and carried a picture of Mata Hari in her lunchbox.

Despite her early success, Mata Hari did not pursue her dancing career consistently. From 1908 to 1912, she lived mainly off of men. Mata Hari became one of the most sought-after prostitutes in Paris, and had numerous clients and lovers. She had a special fondness for military officers, and also preferred wealthy and powerful men, such as diplomats, bankers, and lawyers. Among Mata Hari’s known or probable lovers were the composers Jules Massenet, Giacomo Puccini, Baron Henri de Rothschild, chocolate magnate Gaston Menier, Edouard Clunet, a leading expert on international law; General Adolphe-Pierre Messimy, French minister of war in 1914; Henri de Marguerie, French ambassador to Holland and Japan; and Jules Cambon, French ambassador to the United States, Spain, and Germany.

Mata Hari was certainly hard for men to resist. A German policeman who investigated Mata Hari on a charge of “indecency” eventually took her to dinner and slept with her. Jules Massenet admired her enough to write a dancing part for her in his 1906 opera, “Le Roi de Lahore”. Felix Xavier Rousseau, a successful banker and a married man, was another of Mata Hari’s lovers and her chief patron for several years. Rousseau bought Mata Hari an expensive villa in the fashionable Parisian suburb of Neuilly (nearly bankrupting himself in the process) and he also allowed her to use his chateau in the country, where she rode frequently. For a number of years, Mata Hari also had an on-and-off affair with a wealthy German cavalry officer named Alfred Kiepert. Under pressure from his family to end the relationship, Kiepert finally paid Mata Hari off with the enormous sum of 300,000 marks. Kiepert also took Mata Hari to see the German Army manuevers in Silesia. Mata Hari spent a good deal of time in Germany and later claimed that the German Crown Prince Wilhelm also had an affair with her, but there is little evidence for this. Such German associations, however, were later to prove dangerous for Mata Hari.

Although frequently absent from the stage in these years, Mata Hari remained a prominent figure in the social and artistic world of Belle Epoque Paris, and many famous people knew her well (a fact they would later deny). Mata Hari was an excellent rider and doted on her horses, of which she had several. She often attended fashionable horse races at Auteuil, Longchamps, and elsewhere. She ate at the best Parisian restaurants (Maxim’s, Rumpelmeyer’s, and Le Larue), and stayed in the city’s finest hotels (including the Grand and the Meurice). In her prime years as a prostitute, Mata Hari rented rooms for her business in the Rue de Galilee, one of the most fashionable brothel quarters in Paris.

During this period, Mata Hari tried repeatedly to enter the world of legitimate dance, opera, and theatre. In 1910, she performed a dancing role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Antar”. In 1912, she performed in Gluck’s opera “Armide” and Antonio Marceno’s ballet “Bacchus and Gambrinus” at the prestigious La Scala in Milan. Unfortunately, Mata Hari had a reputation as a “difficult” performer who often quarreled with directors, managers, and other artists. Her attempt to join Serge Diaghilev’s famous Russian Ballet ended in disaster; Diaghilev and his assistants insisted that Mata Hari audition for them in the nude. Mata Hari found this condition insulting but submitted to it, only to be humiliatingly rejected.

Mata Hari’s career was not entirely unique. Other women had followed a similar path in France. The stage was not completely respectable for a woman before 1914, and some women who became famous as singers, dancers, actresses, models, or prostitutes moved easily from one of these professions to the other, sometimes practicing several at a time. The most successful and desirable of these “Demimondaines” became true courtesans or “Grandes Horizontales,” well above the level of the ordinary streetwalker. They had their pick of wealthy and powerful lovers, sometimes wielded political influence, and often married well and became respectable hostesses, presiding over their own salons. The dancer La Belle Otero and the actress Liane de Pougy, both near-contemporaries of Mata Hari, followed this path to success. Mata Hari never quite rose to such an influential level. She longed for respectability and aristocratic connections, but never fully acquired either. Her outspoken and erratic personality may have worked against her; certainly none of Mata Hari’s fellow courtesans exhibited their sexuality in such a blatantly public way.

By 1913, Mata Hari was aging, deep in debt, and no longer in great demand as a performer; she faced increasing competition from similar dancers like Maud Allan, who made the part of Salome her own. Mata Hari was also finding it harder to attract and keep wealthy lovers, and had taken to trolling for men in hotel lobbies. In May 1914 she began rehearsals for a new show in Berlin, but the outbreak of the First World War prevented the show from opening. Mata Hari’s luggage and costumes were impounded by the German government, and she was forced to return to Holland (a neutral country) after an absence of many years. Before long she met up with an old lover; Colonel Baron Van Der Capellen of the Dutch Army, who set her up in a modest house in The Hague.

The “Spy” and the Victim (1914-1917)[]

Until recently, Mata Hari was commonly depicted as a brilliant spy. In fact, she was barely a spy at all. Mata Hari was a typical figure of the free-living Belle Epoque, and she never understood the fundamental change in attitudes brought about by the First World War. In all belligerent countries, including France, the war brought a new atmosphere of sexual repression, spy mania, and xenophobia. Mata Hari was an independent, cosmopolitan woman, an outspoken individualist with a reputation for sexual license. Many men and some women had always regarded such “femmes fortes” as socially and morally threatening. In the grim and earnest wartime atmosphere, a woman like Mata Hari was bound to appear suspicious and dangerous to the authorities not for what she did but simply for what she was. Mata Hari’s failure to recognize this basic reality led her into a pattern of recklessly self-destructive behavior.

In late 1915 Mata Hari was approached by one of her neighbors, Karl Cramer, an official of the German consular service in Holland, to go to Paris and obtain low-level intelligence information. Mata Hari was initially cautious, but finally accepted Cramer’s proposal. The German intelligence service gave her the designation Agent H21. The H stood for Hoffmann, the latter being the name of the German intelligence officer who ran the network to which Mata Hari was assigned.

To get to France, Mata Hari took passage via the United Kingdom, an act which quickly brought her under suspicion from British intelligence. The British passed on their suspicions of Mata Hari to the French. Mata Hari spent a month in Paris, closing up her Neuilly house and earning money through prostitution. While staying in a Paris hotel, Mata Hari met a fellow guest who was one of her old lovers; Henri de Marguerie, and also found a new lover in the Marquis de Beauffort, a Major in the Belgian Army. All three lived in the hotel, and the men shared Mata Hari’s favors. During this time, Mata Hari sent in only one very brief report to the Germans about a possible French offensive in the coming spring. This was no more than common café gossip, which the Germans might just as easily have learned from reading neutral newspapers. French agents watched her every move. She soon returned to Holland, but from that point on, Mata Hari was a marked woman.

Mata Hari’s initial performance as a secret agent had been very disappointing, but Cramer’s superiors were determined to make use of her, in the hope of redeeming their investment. In May 1916, Cramer approached her again. This time he offered even more money; in return, Mata Hari was asked to undertake a more serious mission: Several of Mata Hari’s former lovers held prominent positions in the French military and diplomatic hierarchy, because of her connections, Colonel Walter Nicolai, head of the German General Staff’s intelligence service (Section 3B), regarded Mata Hari as a potentially excellent agent. Nicolai interviewed her personally in Cologne, but was rather disconcerted when she attempted to seduce him. Despite this, he assigned Mata Hari to gather information from her highly placed friends and lovers in Paris. Messimy was to be the prime target. Nicolai gave Mata Hari the additional code name "Beauty".

Mata Hari may have had some doubts about all this, but having gone so far with the Germans (and done so little for them) she was not in a good position to refuse. Mata Hari’s new mission required some training, and she traveled to Frankfurt to attend a brief course at a German spy school. Here she came under the tutelage of Elsbeth Schragmueller, a former female professor known as “Fraulein Doktor”. This woman later became nearly as notorious as Mata Hari herself, and many wild legends circulated about her. In her autobiography Schragmueller said that Mata Hari was a charming, witty, and sophisticated woman, whose company she enjoyed. Yet Schragmueller also considered Mata Hari very poor spy material, and she accurately predicted that “this demimondaine” would turn out to be more trouble than she was worth; however, Schragmueller was actually quite enthusiastic about Mata Hari’s potential as an agent.

Mata Hari took the German money and sailed from Holland to England. When the British refused to let her pass through en route to France, she traveled via ship to Spain instead. A Dutchman named Henry Hoedemaker (who claimed to be a British agent but was probably simply a civilian obsessed by spy-mania), harassed Mata Hari on the ship and tried to search her cabin. Mata Hari confronted Hoedemaker and slapped him hard enough to draw blood. Hoedemaker made trouble for Mata Hari with the French authorities, and she was stopped at the Franco-Spanish border. Mata Hari appealed to her old lover, Jules Cambon, who used his influence in order to allow her to enter France.

Mata Hari spent more than five months in Paris, once again plying her trade as a prostitute in the city’s hotels. Wars are always flush times for prostitutes, and Mata Hari was much in demand. In less than six weeks, she slept with eleven officers from four different Allied armies. Despite later allegations, however, she never attempted to get any intelligence information from her military customers during this time. She certainly made no special effort to pursue her old lover Messimy. Ernest Hemingway later claimed that he had slept with Mata Hari around this time, but this remains unconfirmed.

Unfortunately, Mata Hari then made the worst mistake a prostitute can make: she fell in love. The man in question was a very young Russian officer, Vadim Masloff, who was soon badly wounded. Mata Hari’s deep and genuine love for Masloff seems to have affected her attitude towards her German employers. She had done virtually nothing for the Germans anyway, but now she felt that she could no longer work at all for the side her lover was fighting against. Masloff proposed marriage, and Mata Hari accepted. She was anxious to help Masloff recover from his injuries, and she also wanted to give up prostitution so that she could be true to him. This, however, would require a great deal of money.

In order to see Masloff, Mata Hari also had to get a special pass to travel to a restricted military zone. The pass required the approval of Captain Georges Ladoux, the chief of French military counterintelligence (the Deuxieme Bureau). Ladoux was an extremely ambitious officer of doubtful competence who had been reading reports on Mata Hari since December 1915. Ladoux later insisted that he had already made up his mind that she was a German spy, and that he sought only to draw her out and expose her, but it is believed that Ladoux probably thought that he could “turn” Mata Hari to the French side and make some real use of her. One of Mata Hari’s favorite customers, Lieutenant Jean Hallaure, was actually one of Ladoux’s agents, and he steered Mata Hari towards his chief. Ladoux said he would give Mata Hari the pass she sought if she would become a spy for France. Mata Hari agreed, but asked for no less than one million French francs in return. Ladoux put off her demand for money, but gave her the pass she wanted.

In November 1916 Mata Hari left Paris on her way to Belgium via Holland. She was now a French agent and she intended to spy on the Germans in Belgium. She aimed to seduce at least three German officers: General Moritz Von Bissing, the elderly German military governor of occupied Belgium; Ernst August, Duke of Cumberland, a younger officer whom Mata Hari claimed to have known before the war; and Crown Prince Wilhelm, whom she had supposedly slept with previously.

Traveling via Spain and England, Mata Hari was detained by British authorities when she arrived in the United Kingdom. The British confused her with another woman named Clara Benedix, whom they believed to be a German agent. The extent of British suspicion was indicated by the high-powered team they assigned to interrogate Mata Hari: Basil (later Sir Basil) Thomson of Scotland Yard, one of that force’s most distinguished detectives, and Captain (later Admiral Sir) William Reginald “Blinker” Hall of the Royal Navy, one of the greatest intelligence officers in history. Mata Hari told the British that she was a French agent, but the angry and embarrassed Ladoux denied it and asked the British to send her back to Spain.

Scarcely grasping the dangerous subtleties of the game in which she was engaged, Mata Hari refused to give up. Without orders from Ladoux, Mata Hari tried to spy on German officials in the Madrid embassy. She had sex with the German military attache, Major Arnold Von Kalle, who passed on some minor rumors to her. These were the only real pieces of intelligence that Mata Hari ever collected for France, and were just as worthless as the rumors she had earlier reported to her German employers. Mata Hari passed her findings to the French, but was puzzled and then angered when she got neither congratulations nor the promised million francs from Ladoux.

The Germans held a grudge against Mata Hari, and they deliberately entrapped her. She had taken money from Cramer and done almost nothing in return for it. Her approaches to Von Kalle were so awkward and obvious that Von Kalle was immediately suspicious of her. The French military attache in Madrid, Colonel Denvignes, was unaware of Mata Hari’s plans, but he pursued her ardently, and this made the Germans even more wary of her. Mata Hari even sent reports to the French through ordinary mail, reports which the Germans easily intercepted. The Germans in Madrid then sent a series of radio signals to Berlin, identifying Mata Hari as German Agent H21. These signals were sent in a code which the Germans knew the French had broken. Their interception was enough for Ladoux; he was determined to arrest Mata Hari. Mata Hari obliged him by returning to Paris in January 1917. She was anxious to confront Ladoux and demand payment, but she never got the chance. The French arrested her on 13 February 1917.

For months, Mata Hari endured grim conditions in several French prisons. She was thoroughly interrogated, but continued to maintain her innocence. Her accusers gave her no opportunity to prove it. Most of the letters she wrote in prison were never forwarded by the French. The many famous persons who had known her now denounced or ignored her. Mata Hari was not brought to trial until July, 1917, and the trial lasted only two days. Even by the low standards of wartime military courts, Mata Hari’s trial was a miscarriage of justice; there were many procedural irregularities, witnesses whom Mata Hari requested were not allowed to appear, and Edouard Clunet, her lawyer and former lover, had no experience of criminal cases. Under his advice, Mata Hari committed a serious strategic blunder when she admitted to having been in contact with the Germans. Under the court’s interpretation of French military law, this was almost tantamount to a confession. Clunet and Mata Hari may have hoped that such an admission would win clemency or a reduced sentence, but Mata Hari would have been much better off to deny everything.

Lieutenant Andre Mornet, the prosecutor, later admitted that there was not enough evidence in the case “to hang a cat.” Mornet failed to cite a single specific instance of espionage; mere association and contact with the Germans was considered evidence enough. Unable to produce real examples of espionage, Mornet used misogynist rhetoric to blacken Mata Hari’s character instead; he called the former nude dancer a “Salome” and a “Messalina”. Mata Hari’s many lies about herself did nothing to help her in the eyes of the court. The worst blow to Mata Hari came in a letter to the court from Masloff, who now denounced the lover who had endangered her life for his sake. In fact, Masloff had remained secretly loyal to Mata Hari, but she never knew this; his love letters to her while she was in prison were held back by the authorities.

The court took only half an hour to reach a verdict. Mata Hari was condemned to death on 25 July 1917. She remained in prison for nearly three more months, as her lawyer tried every conceivable appeal. The Dutch government asked for a pardon, but this was rejected and other appeals also failed. It was never likely that they would succeed.

In her last days, Mata Hari was bitter towards former lovers and friends who refused to aid her. Yet she also showed considerable dignity and honesty; she admitted that she had made mistakes, but she refused to apologize for herself or her life. The Catholic nuns who were sent to comfort her grew very fond of her. Mata Hari was finally executed by a firing squad on 15 October 1917. She showed great bravery, refusing a blindfold and exhorting the weeping nuns to be strong. No one claimed her body, which went to a French hospital for examination and dissection.

Post-Trial Controversy[]

There is still a great deal of controversy about Mata Hari’s trial and execution. Most of the French Army’s dossier on the case has now been published. The French have so far declined to revise the verdict, and the French Army still adheres to a narrow interpretation of the facts in the case. In the strictest sense, Mata Hari was guilty of being a German agent. This being so, the fact that she gave the Germans no useful information was of no importance in the eyes of French military law.

This interpretation, however, ignores a multitude of other facts in the case. Mata Hari’s change of loyalties to France was certainly sincere, since it was motivated by her love for Masloff (which no one has ever questioned). By the time she reached Madrid, the Germans had clearly ceased to regard Mata Hari as one of their own agents, and were in no doubt that she was working (however clumsily) for the French. The incrimination of such a useless or hostile double agent with the enemy intelligence service -- ”burning,” as it is known -- was and is common in espionage, and the Germans practiced it frequently in World War I. Given her poor performance when in their service, and her clear change of loyalties to France, the Germans had every motive to frame Mata Hari. The French simply took the German bait.

Mata Hari’s trial took place in a tense atmosphere. In 1917, France and the Allies appeared to be losing the war. In the spring of that year, the failure of an offensive on the Western Front led to massive mutinies that affected most of the French Army. War-weariness was growing on the home front, and a defeatist movement was gaining strength. This movement included some prominent politicians, and some defeatists were in contact with the Germans. The Germans secretly subsidized some French newspapers to spread anti-war propaganda. Under these circumstances, the French Army and the French people were vulnerable to spy mania and prone to lash out at scapegoats. Mata Hari was available for just such a role. As Mornet allegedly said, “Innocent though she was, she had to disappear.”

The irregularities in the trial and general conduct of Mata Hari’s case by the French have already been mentioned; the military court that tried Mata Hari, the 3eme Conseil de Guerre, had an ugly record of such misconduct. The court was specially constituted to try sensitive and politically charged cases of espionage and disloyalty, and its job was to convict whatever the cost to justice and proper procedure. The anarchist Miguel Almereyda, whose case was tried by the 3eme Conseil de Guerre, was later found dead in his cell, mysteriously strangled. Two defeatist politicians accused by the court, Louis Malvy and Joseph Caillaux, would probably have been executed like Mata Hari but for their political influence; their cases were handled with equal unfairness by the 3eme Conseil de Guerre.

Mornet and the chief investigator in Mata Hari’s case, Captain Pierre Bouchardon, remained together on military courts for many years after 1917 and even served the pro-German Vichy Regime during World War II. Despite this, they also formed the prosecuting team in the post-World War II trial of Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister. Laval may well have deserved his ultimate sentence of execution, but his trial was conducted with scandalous partiality. Mata Hari, then, was simply another victim of the Mornet-Bouchardon team.

The whole case was surrounded by ironies. Such was the extent of French spy mania at the time that Ladoux himself was jailed and accused of espionage. The Germans had “burned” Mata Hari in revenge for her disloyalty to them. Once she was dead, however, the Germans made great propaganda capital out of the French execution of an innocent woman from a neutral country. Rudolph MacLeod hated his ex-wife, but even he was shocked by her execution.

Misfortune continued to pursue Mata Hari even in death. Her body was unclaimed and went to a French medical school for dissection. Her head was preserved in alcohol and used for medical study as well, but eventually disappeared decades later. Non, Mata Hari’s only surviving child, lived only a few years later than her mother, dying of illness while still a very young woman.

The Mata Hari Legend[]

Mata Hari’s death was the beginning of her legend as the archetypal female spy. The French did much to propagate this myth, in order to justify her execution. The first biography of Mata Hari in English, by a British intelligence officer named Coulson, was made up largely of sensational stories and allegations and bore little relationship to the facts. For nearly 50 years, such stories were universally accepted and repeated, even in otherwise reliable histories of intelligence and espionage.

The inaccuracy of the historical record allowed the popular media free rein to distort Mata Hari’s life even further. Novels, plays, musicals, and operas have been written about her. At least 4 films have been made of her life, starring Magda Sonja in “Mata Hari”, Greta Garbo in “Mata Hari”, Jeanne Moreau in |“Mata Hari, Agent H21”], Sylvia Kristel in “Mata Hari”.

Mata Hari has also figured in innumerable other fictional works and films as a secondary character. In the James Bond pastiche “Casino Royale”, Joanna Pettet played Mata Bond, supposedly the daughter of Mata Hari and Agent 007. In the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”, Mata Hari gives the young Indy his first sexual experience. The comic book writer and graphic novelist Alan Moore is apparently fascinated by Mata Hari, who makes several appearances in his work. Mata Hari is also a main character in the recent “steampunk” graphic novel series “Alter Nation” and she has been featured in several video games. Mata Hari has even made an appearance, of sorts, in Anime; the character Nancy Makuhari is stated to be a clone of the historical Mata Hari in Read or Die.

A bogus “Diary of Mata Hari” has become something of a pornographic classic. Nearly all fictional depictions of Mata Hari portray her simply as the typical femme fatale. To this day, to call a woman “a Mata Hari” evokes a traditional stereotype.

In recent decades, however, the truth of Mata Hari’s life and espionage career has been gradually uncovered. In the 1960’s, the Dutch author Sam Waagenaar published a biography based on Mata Hari’s own surviving papers, interviews with those who had known her since her schooldays, and other primary sources. Waagenaar was the first to cast doubt on the image of Mata Hari as a superspy. In 1985, author Russell Warren Howe finally got the French government to open its files on Mata Hari. The flimsiness of the French case was thus revealed. In recent years, Julie Wheelwright and Toni Bentley have placed Mata Hari and her career in proper historical context. For such writers--many of whom are feminists--Mata Hari is a wronged woman and even something of a heroine, a victim of wartime hysteria and sexual repression. Leon Schirmann has organized a campaign to clear her name, and an international society for that purpose now exists. Mata Hari, once a scandal to her home town of Leeuwarden, has become a leading tourist attraction there and a statue of her now stands in the town square. A recent exhibition on her life at the Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden was opened by wikipedia:Xaviera_Hollander Xaviera Hollander the Dutch-born prostitute of “Happy Hooker” fame. The Amsterdam Sex Museum now features an animatronic semi-nude figure of Mata Hari. Most recently, the British filmmaker Martha Fiennes has announced plans for a film of Mata’s life starring the American stripper Dita Von Teese.

Appearance and Personality[]

Mata Hari was not a classic beauty by the standards of her own day, lacking the fine features and pale complexion then favored by popular taste. The many photographs of her, however, show that she was indeed a strikingly handsome woman. Her dark eyes were particularly expressive, and in some images she looks very Asian. Mata Hari was a tall (5’9” or 5’10”), dark-haired woman with a classic hourglass figure: narrow waist, wide hips, and long, strong legs. She usually wore her hair up, though she sometimes let it down or braided it. On rare occasions, she may have bleached her hair blonde. Mata Hari seems to have been rather sensitive about her bust. She usually kept her breasts covered with a “cache-sein” (a thinly padded bra), even while having sex and in performances where she was otherwise nude. She claimed that her ex-husband had bitten off her nipples in a fit of jealous rage, but this was untrue. The doctor who examined her body after her execution said that her breasts were ugly, but a former lover denied this strongly, insisting that Mata Hari had “quality breasts.” One official French Army document described her breasts as “heavy.” Mata Hari danced bare-breasted more than once, and her topless performance as Salome in 1912 brought her great acclaim. Her breasts may not have been ideal according to some standards, but more probably she knew that concealing a small part of the body while exposing the rest had an exciting effect. Exotic dancers today still observe the same principle.

Mata Hari put on a little weight in her last years, but she still wore clothes elegantly. More importantly, she never lost the powerful sexual magnetism that had been hers from the beginning. The fact that she could find and keep a lover as young and handsome as Masloff is testimony to this. As a man who knew her well said, “she was “a personality”.”

Mata Hari and Lesbianism[]

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.

Women, as well as men, certainly found Mata Hari attractive and were aroused by her nude dancing. Natalie Barney, a wealthy American expatriate, was a well-known hostess in Belle Epoque Paris. Barney, known as “The Amazon,” was also the center of an artistic lesbian/bisexual circle that included the writers 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 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 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. On the whole, it seems that Nancy’s leanings in this direction are somewhat stronger.

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.

Mata Hari in her Own Words[]

Steampunk Wiki has a page dedicated to quotes by Mata Hari.


Steampunk Wiki hosts a page dedicated to Mata Hari Images.


  • Toni Bentley, “Sisters of Salome” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)
  • Colette, “My Apprenticeships; and Music-Hall Sidelights” (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979)
  • Phillipe Collas, “Mata Hari: Sa Veritable Histoire” (Paris: Plon, 2003)
  • Thomas Coulson, “Mata Hari, Courtesan and Spy” (London: Harpers & Brothers, 1930)
  • Janet Flanner, “Paris Was Yesterday” (New York: Popular Library, 1972)
  • Russell Warren Howe, “Mata Hari, the True Story” (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986)
  • Marijke Huisman, “Mata Hari (1876-1917): De Levende Legende” (Hilversum: Verloren, 1998)
  • Julia Keay, “The Spy Who Never Was: The Life and Loves of Mata Hari” (London: Michael Joseph, 1987)
  • H.W. Keikes, “Mata Hari” (Den Haag: Kruseman, 1981)
  • Fred Kupferman, “Mata Hari, Songes et Mensonges” (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1982)
  • Jean-Marc Loubier, “Mata Hari: La Sacrifiee” (Paris: Acropole, 2000)
  • Christine Lueders, “Apropos Mata Hari” (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1997)
  • Axel Madsen, “The Sewing Circle: Hollywood’s Greatest Secret: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women” (Secaucus (NJ): Carol Publishing Group, 1995)
  • Erika Ostrovsky, “Eye of Dawn: the Rise and Fall of Mata Hari” (New York: Macmillan, 1978)
  • Tammy M. Proctor, “Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War” (New York: New York University Press, 2003)
  • Suzanne Rodriguez, “Wild Heart, a life: Natalie Clifford Barney’s Journey from Victorian America to Belle Epoque Paris” (New York: Ecco, 2002)
  • Leon Schirmann, “Mata Hari: Autopsie d’une Machination” (Paris: Italiques, 2001)
  • Pat Shipman, “Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari” (New York: HarperCollins, 2007)
  • Diane Souhami, “Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: the lives and loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks” (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004)
  • Jean-Pierre Turbergue, ed., “Mata Hari: Le Dossier Secret du Conseil de Guerre” (Paris: Italiques, 2001)
  • Sam Waagenaar, “Mata Hari” (New York: Appleton Century, 1964, 1965)
  • Richard M. Watt, “Dare Call It Treason” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963)
  • Julie Wheelwright,”The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage” (London: Collins & Brown, 1992)
  • George Wickes, “Amazon of Letters: the life and loves of Natalie Barney” (New York: Putnam, 1976)
  • Theodore Zeldin, “France, 1848-1945: Ambition and Love” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1979)
  • ”France, 1848-1945: Taste and Corruption” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, 1980)

External Links[]