Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mata Hari - Mysterious life and death of a dancer

In 1917, a famous oriental dancer Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad for acting as a German spy during World War I. But the charge has never been proved!

Mata Hari was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, a Dutch dancer who excelled in oriental dances and was a courtesan, born on 7 August 1876 in Leeuwarden in The Netherlands and executed on 15 October 1917 in Vincennes in France.

Margaretha was born as the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen. She had three younger brothers. Her father owned a hat store, made investments in the oil industry, and became affluent enough to give Margaretha a lavish early childhood and exclusive schooling until age 13.

Margaretha's father went bankrupt in 1889 and her parents divorced soon after. Her mother died in 1891. Her father remarried in Amsterdam in 1893, but he had no children from that marriage. So, as the family fell apart, she moved to live with her godfather Heer Visser. She studied at a teachers' college in Leiden to be a kindergarten teacher, but when the headmaster began to flirt with her openly, she was withdrawn from there by her offended godfather. Then, a few months later, she fled to her uncle's home in The Hague.

At the age of 18, she answered an advertisement, in an Amsterdam newspaper, placed by a Dutch army officer of Scottish origin seeking a wife, and married the balding 39-year-old Rudolf John MacLeod in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895. They lived in Holland for two years and from 1897 to 1902 they lived in Java and Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). They had two children, Norman-John and Jeanne-Louise.

Her husband MacLeod was a violent alcoholic who would blame his failures on his wife and beat her. At least once he threatened her with a loaded gun. He also openly kept both a native (Indonesian) wife and a concubine. A story states, in 1899 their son Norman was poisoned by a native soldier, whose girlfriend, the boy’s nurse, was seduced by MacLeod. But possibly, and more convincingly, Norman died of complications relating to the treatment of syphilis he contracted from his parents.

The disenchanted Margaretha found solace in flirting with young army officers and planters. Finally, she abandoned MacLeod, moving in with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. For months, she watched the Indonesian temple dancers who inspired her future career, studied the Indonesian traditions intensively, and joined a local dance company.

At MacLeod's urging, Margaretha returned to him although his aggressive demeanor hadn't changed. After moving back to the Netherlands, the couple separated in 1902 and divorced in 1906, with Rudolf forcibly retaining the custody of their daughter Jeanne-Louise, who later died at the age of 21, also possibly from complications relating to syphilis. MacLeod later married twice more.

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider, using the name Lady MacLeod. Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as an artist's model. By 1905, she began to gain fame as an oriental dancer, adopting the stage name Mata Hari (Malay for ‘eye of the day’, the sun). She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement, which looked to India, other Asian countries and Egypt for artistic inspiration.

Mata Hari enthralled her audiences and was an overnight success from her debut at the Musée Guimet, where, on 13 March 1905, she gave an electrifying performance of oriental dances, dressed in jeweled bra and diaphanous draperies in a setting of palms, bronze statues and garlanded columns. Thereafter, she became the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Emile-Etienne Guimet, who had founded the Musée.

Mata Hari had spun around a story about herself, a new identity: she was the child of a 14-year-old Indian temple dancer who had died giving birth; was raised by temple priests who had taught her dances sacred to the Hindu god Shiva; danced nude for the first time at the age of 13 before the altar of a Hindu temple. She looked very much such a character – tall, dark, strong-featured and velvety-eyed. At times she posed as a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood.

Mata Hari’s career sky-rocketed – she was a sensation in most of the European capitals and major cities. The most celebrated segment of her performance was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head. According to some sources, Mata Hari was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious her small breasts. Other sources claim that she always concealed her breasts which had been bitten and permanently disfigured by MacLeod. Pictures taken during her performances suggest she might have worn a body-stocking, as navel and genitals are not seen even in poses where they should be visible on a nude person.

Mata Hari’s performance was spectacular because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status, and 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 very popular, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She moved in wealthy circles. At that time, as most Europeans were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and thus thought of Mata Hari as exotic, it was assumed her claims were genuine.

Mata Hari was also a successful courtesan. She had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries, including the German crown prince, who paid for her luxurious lifestyle. Her liaisons with powerful men frequently took her 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 by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.

The spy-plot in her story, true or not, started the day the First World War was declared, as she rode through the streets of Berlin with a police official. It was high drama; the bottles of invisible ink given her by the Germans (she threw them into a canal, she said); her German code number H-21; her seduction of high German officials (for money, love, or secrets?); her agreement to spy for the French for one million francs she needed to impress the father of the love of her life, Vadime de Massloff, a Russian captain; her grandiose plans for manipulating noblemen through jealousy, greed and lust; the French spies trailing her in Madrid…

During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch citizen, Margaretha was thus able to cross national borders freely. On one occasion, when interviewed by British intelligence officers, she admitted to working as an agent for the French military intelligence, although the latter did not confirm her story. It is unclear if she lied on this occasion; believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if the French were using her for espionage, but would not acknowledge it due to the 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 identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Unusually, the messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, making some historians to suspect that the messages were contrived.

On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris by the French. She was put on trial, accusing of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. The French held her guilty and she was executed by a firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.

The file on her case was six inches thick, but the evidence was inconclusive. A tube of ‘secret ink’ in her possession turned out to be oxycyanide of mercury, which she used as an injection after making love as a birth-control method. Her aged lover Maitre Clunet defended her at her trial; another lover Jules Cambon of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs testified on her behalf.

On the day of her execution, on her way out of prison, she was asked if she was pregnant – according to French law, a pregnant woman could not be executed. This question arose as a last ditch effort by Clunet to save her – he had even claimed to be the father of the unborn child. But, she was shot at the polygon of Vincennes, at her own request without blindfold. What is the truth? Was she guilty? The question remains unanswered.

Mata Hari's dead body was not claimed by anyone. So it went to a medical school for dissection and study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. But in 2000, archivists discovered that the head had mysteriously disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, when the museum had been relocated. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of her body, which was never found after that. So, where did her body disappear? It is a mystery!

Pat Shipman, in his biography of Mata Hari, ‘Femme Fatale’, argues that Mata Hari was never a double agent, and that she was used as a scapegoat by the head of French counter-espionage. Georges Ladoux had been responsible for recruiting Mata Hari as a French spy and later he was arrested for being a double agent himself. Truth about the charge on Mata Hari is hidden, because the official case documents regarding her execution were sealed for 100 years, although in 1985 biographer Russell Warren Howe managed to convince the French Minister of National Defense to break open the file, about 32 years early. On examination of the files, it was revealed that Mata Hari was innocent of charges of espionage on her.

The fact that an exotic dancer had been executed as a spy immediately provoked many unsubstantiated rumours and scandals. One is that Mata Hari blew a kiss to her executioners, although it is possible that she blew a kiss to her lawyer, who was a witness to her execution. Her dying words were purported to be, "Merci, monsieur". Another rumour claims that, in an attempt to distract her executioners, she flung open her coat and exposed her naked body. "Harlot, yes, but traitor, never," she is reported to have said. Nor did another lover bribe the firing squad to use blanks, put her in a ventilated coffin, and bury her in a shallow grave so that he could spirit her away.

The fact that almost immediately after her death questions rose about the justification of her execution, on top of rumours about the way Mata Hari acted during her execution, set a high-voltage story. An exotic dancer, working as a lethal double agent, using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers, fired the popular imagination, set the legend that made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale.

The hit film ‘Mata Hari’ (1931), starring Greta Garbo in the leading role, while based on real events in the life of Mata Hari, the plot was largely fictional, appealing to the public appetite for fantasy at the expense of historical facts. As Garbo's most successful film and MGM's biggest hit of the year, the film inspired subsequent generations of storytellers. Eventually, Mata Hari featured in more films, television series, and in video games. Many books have been written about Mata Hari, some of them serious historical and biographical accounts, but many of them highly speculative.

The Frisian Museum at Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, exhibits a 'Mata Hari Room'. 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.

No comments: