After doing Friday's "Year-in-Review" post, I remembered how much I loved writing my "Badass Women" posts. So I decided to do one about Mata Hari, who is famous for being a spy, and also for setting all the men in Europe aquiver like Jello in a high wind.
All direct quotations are from They Went Whistling by Barbara Holland, though info may come from other sources.
She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland in 1876. Her family was well-off financially, so she had a lavish childhood that gave her a taste for the high life. Unfortunately, her father went bankrupt, forcing her to move in with a godfather to help keep family costs down. Instead of being daddy's little princess, Margaretha now realized she'd have to pay her own way, and tried to become a kindergarten teacher.
A kindergarten teacher? I'm telling ya, it's always the quiet, unassuming ones.
In 1895, at the ripe ole age of 19, Margaretha found an advertisement in the paper from a Dutch Colonial Army Captain named Rudolf MacLeod. He was twenty years older than she was, and looking for a wife. Since his mother was a baroness and since Margaretha wasn't doing anything better with her time, she answered his ad. They got married and moved to Indonesia where he was stationed, and popped out two kids.
And they say romance is dead.
On the whole, their marriage was a disaster (though his mother's aristocratic connections certainly helped give Margaretha an out). He was an alcoholic and repeatedly abused her and cheated on her, openly keeping a concubine. After two years of this nonsense, she left her husband and moved in with another officer and began to get her groove back by studying Indonesian dance and dress styles. She came up with the stage name "Mata Hari" and contemplated life in the public eye.
Her husband begged her to come back and, when she did, he thanked her for doing so by altering precisely 0% of his behavior. Fun times were had by all, especially the children who fell profoundly ill due either to 1.) complications from the congenital syphilis they may have contracted from their parents or 2.) a poisoning by a servant or by one of their father's many enemies. Jesus. He sounds like father of the year. The son died but the daughter survived, and this whole episode was really the beginning of the end.
The couple separated and played tug-of-war over the custody of their remaining daughter for several years, until Margaretha went, "Nope. Not playing this game anymore. I have waaaay too much 'fabulous' to be doing." So she began calling herself Mata Hari and told everyone that she was the "daughter of an Oriental prince and a baroness" (213), which I'm sure no one believed–why would a daughter of that stature be forced to turn into an exotic dancer? But Mata Hari didn't bother herself with such details. No one questioned her to her face, and that was enough for her.
She shot to fame really quickly with her "Eastern Postures" (exhibited in a series of theatre presentations and photos) which she claimed were authentic Oriental dance poses:
Of course, these are the tame ones. She also did a series of poses with decidedly less veil-osity and scarf-age:
No no, it's okay! It's not porn! Because it's art! You can tell it's art because there are carefully-placed legs over her hoo-haw. (Actually, she did wear a body stocking, but STILL). And also, she's wearing a ceremonial headdress, which has got to legitimize it somehow. This is culture, people, even if the culture she represents is totally made up and does not exist on this earth.
Paris ate this shit up because the French love anyone with major swiggity-swag and, ohhhhhhhh, did she ever have swiggity-swag. She had precisely 17 "vavooms"-worth of it (that's a metric "vavoom", of course, because we're in France). She was accepted in high society as the It-Girl of the day. And like every good It-Girl, she had a good time. A really good time. She went plain buck-wild with every military man she could get her hands on. If there's one thing we know about Mata Hari, she definitely had a "type": "apparently she never looked at a civilian, but officers inspired her" (213). Yeah, a good pair of epaulets "inspires" me, too.
Her career was short-lived, mostly because she couldn't really do anything else other than take her clothes off and pose. She didn't actually care that much about theatre or dance and critics eventually turned on her, calling what she did "cheap exhibitionism". Yeah. So?
"As theater work fell off during World War I, she began accepting money from her dates." (213). For Mata Hari, it was a very short road from being an escort to being a spy. But then again, when you only sleep with military men during a war, it's got to lead to some rather perfunctory pillow talk. "For a rumored one million francs, she agreed to spy for the French, and she was accused of making a similar deal with the Germans. She liked to live well, and that costs money" (213). It also didn't hurt that she was a Dutch citizen, which meant that she could cross borders with ease.
She was riding a tightrope as it was, but what pushed her over the edge was when a German message was intercepted by the French. It said that they had gathered information from a spy called H-21, which the French figured out was Mata Hari. They, of course, had to be a big girl's blouse about it and declared her a "traitor". Come on, guys, don't be like that! What's a little espionage between friends? No? Geez, I guess in WWI, errreybody got real tight assholes about this sort of thing.
She was promptly arrested "in the bar of the Plaza Athenee, still one of the most celebrity-haunted hotels in Paris" (213), because, hey, if she's going to go down, she's going to go down in style.
In fact, this is her mug shot:
"My muff and I are ready for you to take us. To prison, I mean. Sorry, everything I say is a double entendre. Because I'm Mata Hari, bitches."
"She was tried in France in 1917 for espionage, on rather shaky grounds. The records are still sealed, but whatever the evidence, she was sentenced to death.
"The night before, she slept like a baby and had to be shaken awake. She wrote a couple of letters and then dressed carefully in her prettiest things, a silk kimono, filmy black stockings, high-heeled slippers tied with silk ribbons, and a fur-trimmed black velvet coat. Topping this with a beribboned floppy black hat, she pulled on her kid gloves and said, 'I am ready.' Refusing the blindfold, she blew a kiss to the firing squad, which thoroughly unnerved it, and fell gracefully dead and enduringly famous.
"As final curtains go, this was a hard act to follow" (214). Yeah, that's pretty hardcore. But you know me. I'm a sucker for any historical figure who just does not give a shit.
She was apparently given to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, where her head was embalmed and put on display. In 2000, her head was discovered to have gone missing and the rest of her body was unaccounted for. OMG, spy shit is still happening to her even now! Hey, as in life, so in death.
My question is: what happened to all of her ceremonial headdresses? Because I could really use this. Just to wear around the house, really:
No, seriously. My kingdom for that headdress!