Mata Hari, femme fa­tale ex­e­cuted 100 years ago

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Ex­otic dancer and sus­pected dou­ble agent Mata Hari was ex­e­cuted in Paris 100 years ago but her name en­dures to­day as that of the ul­ti­mate se­duc­tive spy. She was just 41 when she faced a fir­ing squad on Oc­to­ber 15, 1917, ac­cused of spy­ing for Ger­many dur­ing World War I. On the anniversary of her death, here is a re­cap of her life of eroti­cism and in­trigue that drew in a string of lovers, in­clud­ing min­is­ters, mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and diplo­mats from both sides of the front­line.

‘As fa­mous as Madonna’

Born Mar­garetha Geertru­ida Zelle in the Nether­lands, she fled to Paris in 1903 aged 27 to start a new life after a ran­corous di­vorce. Her mar­riage had been to an older army of­fi­cer who was based in the for­mer Dutch East Indies, now In­done­sia, where she lived for some years. Pen­ni­less in Paris, the tall beauty rein­vented her­self, be­com­ing a dancer in a strip­tease act and tak­ing the name “Mata Hari”, In­done­sian for “Eye of the Day”, ap­par­ently a ref­er­ence to the sun.

Her fame as an ex­otic beauty quickly spread across Europe and she be­came a celebrity, also rais­ing eye­brows for her many love af­fairs. Her Ori­en­tal “sa­cred dances” pushed the bound­aries of pre-war Europe and of­ten saw her ap­pear­ing to wear lit­tle more than a be­jew­elled brassiere. “In her time, she was as fa­mous as Madonna...,” the Wash­ing­ton Times said in a 2007 book review. “By the time she was ex­e­cuted by the French for es­pi­onage in 1917, she was per­haps the most fa­mous non-royal in Europe if not the world.”

From call girl to spy

By 1914, how­ever, her pop­u­lar­ity was wan­ing. She be­came a call girl in Paris, en­ter­tain­ing min­is­ters and be­com­ing known for her ex­trav­a­gant par­ties. Broke, due to her lav­ish life­style, she ac­cepted in 1916 an of­fer from a Ger­man diplo­mat to pay off her debts if she spied on France. Mata Hari then of­fered her ser­vices to France’s counter-es­pi­onage bureau where agents were al­ready sus­pi­cious of her. They gave her sev­eral mis­sions but kept her un­der sur­veil­lance.

The French sus­pi­cions deep­ened when she re­quested a pass to travel to Vit­tel, near the east­ern front and where a new mil­i­tary aero­drome was be­ing built. She said her visit was to meet a young Rus­sian of­fi­cer who was her lover. Then in Jan 1917, the French au­thor­i­ties in­ter­cepted a ca­ble from Ger­many ap­pear­ing to iden­tify Mata Hari as their “Agent H 21”. She was ar­rested and charged with be­ing a dou­ble agent. No rev­e­la­tions

On the cold morn­ing of Oct 15, 1917, Mata Hari was ex­e­cuted in the Parisian sub­urb of Vin­cennes, Pres­i­dent Ray­mond Poin­care hav­ing re­fused her re­quest for clemency. Wit­nesses wrote that she wore a long, black vel­vet cloak with fur trim­mings and a large square fur col­lar. She is said to have de­clined a blind­fold and blew kisses to her ex­ecu­tors. Asked by a mil­i­tary clerk whether she had any last rev­e­la­tions, she replied: “None, and if I had, I would keep them to my­self.”

The ul­ti­mate femme fa­tale, she has in­spired a dozen films, nu­mer­ous books, his­tor­i­cal works, ex­hi­bi­tions and even a bal­let by the Dutch Na­tional Bal­let. Her iconic sta­tus was ce­mented in 1931 when Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo played her in a film en­ti­tled “Mata Hari”. The na­ture and ex­tent of her es­pi­onage ac­tiv­i­ties re­main, how­ever, un­cer­tain, and her guilt is still widely con­tested to­day. “She never pro­vided the least valid information, nei­ther to the Ger­mans, nor to the French,” ac­cord­ing to the French magazine Le Point in 2016, echo­ing a view ex­pressed in other me­dia.

This un­dated file pic­ture shows Dutch dancer and spy Mar­garetha Geertru­ida Zelle, bet­ter-known as Mata Hari.

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