The life and times of the world’s most famous female spy.
Just before dawn on October 15, 1917, footsteps echoed along the grimy walls of the Saint-Lazare prison, just outside Paris. An armed guard, escorted by a pale and trembling lawyer and a nun in a white wimple entered one of the cells. After a short prayer, a woman was escorted out and driven to the Vincennes Barracks.
It was to be the end of the line for possibly one of the most famous female spies in history.
She was led into a walled courtyard where a ridiculously young squad of the Fourth Regiment of Zouaves waited for her, dressed in khaki uniforms with red fezzes.
She was offered a blindfold but refused it. She gave her lawyer a little wave and blew a kiss to one of the young men as he aimed his rifle.
A moment later she was dead.
The woman remains the great femme fatale of the twentieth century. Her life has inspired films, musicals, books, even a ballet.
Who was she?
She was born Gertrud Margarete Zelle in 1879. In a society best known for blonde, blue-eyed children, little M’greet stood apart with her thick black hair, black eyes, and dark, exotic looks.
Her father was a successful businessman and M’Greet was heartily spoiled, groomed for the high life. But when she was thirteen, her father went bankrupt and her parents divorced. When her mother died soon afterwards, her family was torn apart. Her father remarried and her three brothers were sent to live in Switzerland.
Looking for a man to rescue her from this chaos, M’Greet unfortunately settled on a Dutch colonial official, twice her age, who went by the very un-Dutch name of Rudolph John MacLeod.
He was soon posted to Java and there she bore him two children, Jeanne and Norman-John. But Rudolf turned out to be an inveterate womanizer. Their son died of syphilis when he was two, a disease he almost certainly contracted from his father. When M’Greet and Rudolph divorced in 1902, he turned her out and secured custody of their surviving daughter.
For a while M’Greet sought refuge with various relatives and became a sad charity case. She had no marketable skills, no husband, no job, and no income.
But she was a woman of some resource. She salvaged her situation by re-inventing herself as Mata Hari, (it’s Malay for Eye of the Dawn), a Javanese princess, who performed sacred temple dances from the Indies. Her act was an Oriental pastiche, basically a striptease performed in front of a spoof Javanese idol. She created an overnight sensation. Think Marilyn Monroe meets Lady Gaga.
Naturally, M’greet soon attracted a string of wealthy and powerful men, among them high-ranking military officers, diplomats, financiers and aristocrats who kept her in furs and jewels for over a decade. Her liaisons took her to all the major European capitals.
For ten years, she dazzled. When World War 1 broke out, her high-level contacts in Germany and France made her even more alluring – this time to the espionage community.
Some accounts say she was a double agent. She probably was, just not a very good one. What seems most likely is she took money from both sides and did very little for it. But it was a dangerous game. Finally, they all turned on her.
Her nemesis was Major Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché, who was one of her many lovers. He had paid her handsomely to provide him with sensitive information and he had nothing to show for it. He didn’t like being made a fool of, so here was the payback. Using a code that he knew the French had already cracked, he transmitted a message identifying her as a spy.
The French government took the bait. The war was going badly for them and they were in need of a scapegoat. It suited them to cast Mata Hari, the immoral foreigner, as a wicked master-spy. The public ate it up. Besides, why should she live the high life while French soldiers were dying in the mud of the Somme?
There were darker moods at play. This was a hundred years before #metoo. Back then, women were lauded as grieving mothers or self-sacrificing nurses, but here was a woman who had achieved fame and fortune on her own terms, and who felt she no longer owed any loyalty to anyone. She was anathema.
On February 12, 1917, a warrant was issued for her arrest. When a French judge and a dozen police officers barged into Suite 113 in the Hotel Elysée Palace, M’Greet offered them all chocolates, wearing a captured German helmet and little else.
This time her charms didn’t work.
Pierre Bouchardon, the investigative magistrate, was disapproving of such “immoral” women. He placed her in isolation in the most horrific prison in Paris, the Saint-Lazare.
Her trial took place behind closed doors five months later. Though the prosecution blamed her for the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers, they supplied no evidence that she had provided militarily useful information to anyone. What she was undoubtedly guilty of was having a coterie of lovers and spending a lot of their money on jewelry and clothes.
That was reason enough for them.
After her death, rumours circulated that the firing squad had fired blanks, enabling her to escape. The truth was less romantic: her remaining fortune was seized by the government, leaving nothing at all for her daughter. Her mummified head was then donated to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. Even that has mysteriously disappeared from the vaults.
But the legend lives on. Since her death, the idea of an exotic dancer using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her rich and powerful lovers has fired the popular imagination.
Ironically, the woman whose name has become synonymous with espionage, was really no spy at all.