Born Margaretha Geertruida "M'greet" Zelle on 7 August 1876, the heroine of this tale disguised her Dutch roots and adopted the stage name of 'Mata Hari' in 1897, which is Indonesian for "sun" (literally, "eye of the day"), in a transformation into a Hindu priestess. Indeed, Mata Hari actually only started her professional life as an exotic dancer at the ripe old age of 29 (yes this was considered ooold for a performer in the early 19th century). Her life until that point was blotted with tragedies, which she tried in earnest to leave behind her.
After the death of her mother and bankruptcy of her father, young Margaretha lived with her uncle. At 16 she engaged in a love affair with the headmaster at the school at which she worked. Naturally she was blamed for such a scandal in the community and it was only through a marriage of convenience to a Dutch Colonial Army Captain and widower named Rudolf MacLeod in 1985 that she became a 'respectable woman'. Following an answer by "M'greet" to a personal advertisement lodged on behalf of the reclusive captain by a well-meaning friend, the couple were wed and moved to the Dutch East Indies.
Old Rudolf proved to be a less than desirable partner and eventually Margareet was desparetly unhappy with his drinking, verbal and physical abuse, and the emotional abuse of flaunting his concubine activities. He was insanely jealous of her coquettish demeanor and was convinced that she was conducting affairs around the island.
"Sometimes he jumps out at me with red, bloodshot eyes
and spits on me... I wanted to be bitten by a snake tonight
so I would not have to go back to him."
June 27, 1899 both of the MacLeod children had apparently been poisoned. No one ever proved who had done the dreadful deed but it was widely rumored that it was a perverse retaliation by someone, possibly a servant Rudolph MacLeod had wronged. The other rumour that is still speculated today is that the children had somehow contracted syphillis from their parents. Anyhow, the marriage did not survive the tragic loss. Rudolph left his wife and out of spite insured that she was shunned from the expatriate community. Unable to feed her remaining child, Margaretha reluctantly had to leave him in the care of her ex-husband and set about the next chapter of her life.
Her European audience, ignorant of the specifics of Indian and Southeast Asian culture, accepted without question Mata Hari's statements on her own background as well as the Hindu spirituality of her dancing. She would tell them, "My dance is a sacred poem in which each movement is a word and whose every word is underlined by music. The temple in which I dance can be vague or faithfully reproduced, as here today. For I am the temple. All true temple dances are religious in nature and all explain, in gestures and poses, the rules of the sacred texts."
Great stuff, huh?!
On August 18, 1917, the New York Times reports:
After a very undignified stay on death row Mata Hari faced death bravely one fine French morning, refusing the customary offer of a blindfold. As she saw twelve rifles pointing at her, she blew an ironic kiss at her killers before the order was given to fire. A bullet had found her already broken heart and she died on the spot. Although it was completely unnecessary, custom demanded that a French officer administer the final coup de grace so one did, emptying his gun into her ear. Insult to injury really.
Evert Kramer, custodian of a large collection of Mata Hari memorabilia at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, in an article by John Lichfield, NZ Herald:
She was clearly guilty. She did spy for the Germans, that is certain. She also made several offers to spy for the French.
Until all the Mata Hari papers are declassified by the French government in 2017, we cannot know the full truth.
Even then, I doubt whether the full story will be revealed.
Another feminine victim of a cruel cruel world? It’s easier to draw lines in black and white but the murky greys are where you’ll find most things in life. Be careful not to collude with the painted Disney archetypes of the virgin and the whore – real women are woven in more colourful shades than that!
Daddy’s “little princess” had to grow up very quickly and utilized the charm she possessed even as a child to win her some graces in pre-war Europe. As was the case for many women now regarded as Old Hollywood sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe, Mata Hari found that her largest assets were her body and capacity to utilize it to level the playing fields in a patriarchal society. For further reading on the real story behind the first leading ladies of the silver screen, I highly recommend The Casting Couch.
She is very much a Lilith character (ok, that is a whole honours thesis of a post!) in terms of challenging the status quo by speaking her truth, and being demonized for eternity – cast as succubus. She would be an interesting figure to explore within in the neo-tantric scene actually...
Well, as soon as I can commission a costume like hers, and of course a Siva statue prop, I’d like to do a tribute burlesque piece – seems fitting, non?