So, who was Mata Hari ? Snippets of French history.
Mata Hari was a Dutch woman living as an exotic dancer in Paris before and during World War I, and executed by the French for being a German spy. For some time it was mooted that she was innocent, and she indeed claimed innocence, but papers discovered in 1970 proved that she was guilty.
Mata Hari was born as Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands in 1876 the eldest of four children, and the only daughter. Her father had been a milliner but had made some clever investments and was a wealthy man. The young Margaretha grew up in luxury, much doted on, and received a good education.
When she was thirteen, however, her mother died. Her father re-married and Margaretha went to live first with her god-parents and then with an uncle. She almost never saw her father or her brothers again.
When she was eighteen she met and married a Dutch colonial officer named McLeod – of Scottish origin, hence the name. He worked and lived in the East Indies (Indonesia) and had plenty of money, something of utmost importance to Margaretha. Once in Java, however, McLeod became aggressive and unpleasant and openly cavorted with his mistress (though that was quite common in colonial households at that time). Despite the unhappy marriage, they had two children. Norman, who died in Java when he was two years old, and Louise-Jeanne who died in the Netherlands when she was only twenty-one.
Probably to escape her unhappy household, Margaretha joined a Java dance class, and she was found to be very talented and much admired. Her provocative technique attracted attention, and soon she adopted the nickname Mata Hari which is Malay for the sun (literally it means “eye during the day”).
Eventually divorced, Mata Hari, as she was now known, left Java in 1903 and went to live in Paris. She rapidly became famous as an exotic dancer. She was promiscuous and flirtations and it was this, rather than any beauty, that attracted men to her. In 1905 (aged 29) she met the French millionaire, Etienne Guimet and remained his mistress almost to the end of her life.
Mata Hari did not do strip-tease in the usual sense. She never stripped completely. Her art was dance as an artistic expression, not dance as a sensual tease – even though it was sensual. In many ways she elevated exotic dance to a higher social level.
She invented all sorts of stories about herself, much of which was believed by the awe-struck public around her. She said she was a Java princess, or from the Indian nobility. This added to her overall air of the exotic and increased her charm. By 1910, however, her popularity had waned.
War broke out in 1914. Because Mata Hari was Dutch, and the Netherlands were neutral, she was able to travel relatively freely over the borders to visit her homeland. There was fighting along the eastern border of France, so she usually took a ship to England, and then travelled over to the Netherlands from there. This attracted unwanted attention to her.
In 1916 the British broke the German communications code and picked up information, which they then passed to the French, about a spy living in France and named M21. French intelligence confirmed that this was Mata Hari.
She was arrested on the Champs Elysees in Paris. At her trial she was not allowed a defence, and Mata Hari wrote several times to the Dutch authorites begging for intervention and professing her innocence. French intelligence had no evidence against her, but nonetheless executed her by firing squad in Paris in 1917. An eye witness said she did not wear a blindfold and, shot, sunk to her knees where she appeared to be kneeling for a few moments before toppling over.
A tragic life.
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