For ten years, she managed to hold sway over Europe, dancing in Monte Carlo, Berlin, Vienna, and Spain. She even auditioned for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, although she was incensed that he sent Massine to audition her instead of showing up himself. She danced in Operas, and in music halls. But time was running out, she was pushing forty, and in the wake of her success, came imitators. The one role that she was most suited for, she never got, Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera, although she tried desperately. She was no longer as original as she had once been. She took to holding concerts in her mansion in Neuilly, where she danced accompanied by a Sufi holy man and master musician, Inayat Khan. Otherwise, she was supported by her various lovers, many of whom were officers.
Everything changed for Mata Hari when the war started. She was in Berlin where she had been engaged to perform for several months in the autumn. When war broke, Mata Hari tried to get out of her contract. Her dresser kept her jewels and furs for lack of payment and her bank accounts were frozen by the Germans. With very little money, Mata Hari took a train to Switzerland but ran into difficulties because she didn’t have a Dutch passport. She finally made it back to Holland, where she became the mistress of Baron Edouard Willem van der Capellan. But Holland was too staid for her after the bright lights of Paris, so Mata Hari resolved to go back to perform.
It was in Holland that Mata Hari made her first mistake. She had been approached by a man named Karl Kroemer, the honorary German consul in Amsterdam, to spy for Germany. He offered 20,000 francs and told that it was a test, and that she could earn more if she was successful. Here was where she made her first mistake. Mata Hari accepted the money, but she had no intentions of spying for Germany. She felt that the money was owed to her for having to leave her furs and jewels behind, and having her accounts frozen. Kroemer apparently gave her several bottles of invisible ink which she later told her interrogators she emptied in the river.
Her second mistake was to give conflicting reasons for her trip to a British security officer while enroute from Holland to France, which instantly raised alarms. Initially she said that she was going to perform, but then she admitted that she was going to join her lover. A notation was placed in her file that she was now considered “undesirable” and should be refused entrance to the UK. What was the reason? Could be that any woman, traveling alone, who was fluent in several languages had to automatically be assumed to be a spy? Or was it the fact that Mata Hari made her living dancing scantily clad and admitted that she had lovers? From that moment on Mata Hari was under constant surveillance by British intelligence.
Her third mistake was her constant wanderlust. Mata Hari seemed to forget that there was a war on as she crossed back and forth from Holland via Britain to France and then to Spain. She requested a pass to go to Vittel to take the waters although the town was near the front lines and was considered dangerous for civilians. She seemed to know very little of what was going on in the war, despite the fact that it was on the front pages of the newspapers every day, and the officers she entertained were more interested in forgetting about the war than talking about.
Her fourth mistake was falling in love for the first time in her life. How could falling in love have led to Mata Hari’s downfall? Mata’s love was a Russian officer, named Vladimir de Massloff, at twenty-one he was eighteen years her junior. From the moment they met in July of 1916, they developed a deep relationship, she called him Vadime, and he called her Marina. Mata later told people that they were engaged to be married, despite the disapproval of his superior officers. Her love for Vadime led her to her final mistake.
Mata wanted to settle down with Vadime, she was tired of the years of travel and sleeping with other men for money. She had met Georges Ladoux, the head of the Deuxieme regime, which was the French counter-espionage group, when she was still trying to get a pass to travel to Vittel. Ladoux already knew that the British considered Mata Hari to be dangerous and possibly a German spy. By this time, Mata also knew that she was being followed by at least two French agents.
Georges Ladoux was in a tricky situation. France was not doing well in the war, and the country and the intelligence community has yet to recover from the debacle that turned into the Dreyfus Affair which had been an international cause celebre. Arresting a high profile spy would do wonders for the morale and restore French pride. Ladoux admitted to Mata Hari that she was suspected of being a German spy. He then asked her to spy for France! Mata Hari agreed but asked to be paid one million francs, believing that this money would set her and Vadime up after the war.
Why would both the Germans and French try to recruit Mata Hari as a spy? She was well known in Europe, her every move had been reported in the gossip columns of the day. Pictures of her had appeared in the paper almost daily, she was famous in an era before television, radio and movies. Even without her fame, Mata Hari was a striking woman; she stood out in a crowd, not just because of her height but also because of her beauty. The whole idea of a spy is to blend in, no? Espionage had yet to achieve the allure of James Bond and shows like Alias and MI-5. It was considered a rather dirty but necessary evil. Both the Germans, the French and later the Russians, who also tried to recruit Mata Hari as a spy probably assumed that if she would take money for removing her clothes on stage and from men, why not to spy?
Ladoux sent Mata Hari off to Holland to await his instructions, not knowing that she was walking into a trap of his making. On her way, she was detained in Britain, under suspicion that she was a spy named Clara Benedix. When Mata Hari told the arresting officer that she had been recruited by Ladoux to spy for the French, unbeknownst to her, Ladoux informed the British that contrary to what she had told them, they were certain that she was suspected of being a German spy, just not the one they were looking for. Mata Hari was released but she was not allowed to enter Holland. Instead she was sent to Spain, where she made the acquaintance of a German officer named Kalle. Mata Hari took the opportunity presented in front of her to do a little spying. She managed to discover that the Germans knew that the French had finally broken the code. Writing all the information down that she was given by her new lover, she took the information to the French consulate in Madrid to be sent to Ladoux.
Back in Paris, Mata Hari was ready to reap the reward of all her hard work. Instead, after rendezvousing with her lover, Ladoux gave her the runaround. The noose was tightening, and she was eventually arrested in February 1917. She was brought in front of Captain Pierre Bouchardon, who was an investigative magistrate of the Third Council of War. The Third Council of War was the military court that tried espionage crimes. At first, Mata Hari didn’t realize the seriousness of what she was being charged with, and she waived the right to council. After telling Bouchardon her story, she naturally thought she would be released as she was in England. Naturally flirtatious, she thought that she could charm her way out of the interview. But Bouchardon was not inclined to be merciful. As far as he was concerned, Mata Hari was the worst kind of woman. He had recently discovered that his wife had cheated on him with another man. Instead she was sent to one of the worst prisons in France, Saint-Lazare.
Bouchardon interrogated Mata Hari repeatedly trying to break her story, but she stuck steadfastly to her story. But the dismal conditions inside the prison began to break her spirit. After years of luxury, first class accommodations and a fastidious detail to her personal hygiene, Mata Hari couldn’t cope with the freezing cell, and dirty conditions that she was forced to accept. She wrote repeatedly to Bouchardon to be released or at least moved to better accommodations. Her attorney, Maitre Clunet, was also not equipped to deal with the charges that Mata Hari was facing. Fifty-three officers, who Mata Hari had ‘entertained’, were called in for questioning but every single one told the investigators that Mata Hari had never asked them about anything regarding the war or the military. Joseph Devignes, the attaché that Mata Hari, had confided the information that Kalle had given her, turned against her. But the cruelest cut of all was from Vadime, who told investigators that the relationship hadn’t been serious, and that he had been about to end it, when Mata Hari was arrested.
Investigators were stuck. They had examined her accounts, her jewelry, her make-up to see if she had anything that could be turned into invisible ink. They read the reports of the surveillance on her, but they still had no evidence that Mata Hari was a spy for the Germans. Finally Ladoux revealed the contents of the messages that had been transmitted from the German military attaché in Madrid to Berlin, concerning the spy known as H21, later identified as Mata Hari. Remarkably, the messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leaving some historians, including Pat Shipman, to suspect that the messages were contrived by Ladoux to implicate Mata Hari. The fact that she had been in custody for two months before these cables were given to Bouchardon were highly suspect. In light of the fact that both Ladoux and Devignes were both arrested after Mata Hari’s execution for being double-agents, it seems likely that either the Germans threw Mata Hari into the mix to deflect suspicion away from the double-agents that they had working for them, or Ladoux faked them in order as an act of unbridled ambition. Capturing a German spy would have done wonders for his career, particularly a beautiful famous woman. Ladoux also claimed that it was Mata Hari who offered to spy for France not the other way around.
Whatever the case, Mata Hari was doomed from that point on. No matter how many letters she wrote to Bouchardon or Ladoux proclaiming her innocence, the die was cast. Her subsequent admission that Kroemer had given her 20,000 francs to spy for Germany and that she had kept the money as payment for her stolen furs and clothing added to her supposed guilt. Even her own country, neutral in the first World War, seemed to care what happened to her. When they finally learned of Mata Hari’s arrest (the French had kept the news from the Dutch consulate), they were largely silent. And the French weren’t exactly forthcoming with the information about why she had been arrested (they cited that old chestnut national security).
Mata Hari’s trial in July of 1917 was a travesty. Clunet was out of his depth defending Mata Hari in court, and it never seems to have occurred to either one of them to try and find another attorney who had experience with espionage trials, and there was no money to pay for one. Mata Hari’s letters were automatically read, and all the letters that she sent to her former lover Baron van Capellan were confiscated. Only one of her lovers, Henry de Marguerie came forward to defend her at her trial. Not once were Baron van Capellan or her maid questioned about the money that Mata Hari claimed the Baron had given her. It could easily have been proven that the money the prosecution claimed was for services rendered in espionage, came from her lover. Of the eight charges brought against her, Mata Hari was found guilty of every single one, despite the lack of evidence that she had caused the death of 50,000 soldiers.
If Mata Hari had been a spy for the Germans, she has to go down in history as one of the worst. Inspector Clouseau could a better job of spying. She had ample opportunity to ask her many lovers after they were sated to spill the beans about the war but she didn’t. Her only known attempt to spy for Ladoux, she wrote the information in a letter that anyone could have read, and when she couldn’t get in touch with Ladoux, she told Devignes the story, hoping he would get the information to Ladoux.
While she kept Maitre Clunet busy filing appeals, Mata Hari was now on death row. Finally all the appeals were exhausted and the date for her execution was set. Mata Hari wrote letters to her daughter, Vadime and her maid, none of which were ever sent. The date of the execution was set for October 15. On the day of her execution, at barely five o’clock in the morning, Mata Hari dressed plainly in a long black velvet cloak and was taken by automobile to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her. She was accompanied by two nuns from Saint-Lazare, Maitre Clunet, her lawyer and Pierre Bouchardon. When she saw the firing squad she whispered cheekily to one of the nuns, "All these people! What a success." She refused to be tied to the stake or to wear a blindfold, impressing everyone with her courage. She was 41 years old. After the final bullet was put into her brain, a sergeant major declared, "By god, this lady knows how to die."
The next morning the papers were full of the story of her execution. One newspaper even declared that Mata Hari had confessed to being a German spy, which was not the truth, but it no longer mattered. She had now passed into legend. No criticism of the execution was allowed in the papers and were suppressed or modified. The overall tone was that France had been saved by Mata Hari's death. Four days after execution Ladoux was arrested for being a double-agent, along with one of his agents Pierre Lenoir.
After her death, her body wasn’t claimed by any of her family. Instead it was taken and donated to science, although her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. In 2000, archivists discovered that the head had disappeared. No one knows what happened to it or to the rest of her body. When her ex-husband was told of her death, said “Whatever she has done in life, she did not deserve that.” Of course, he was also hoping that Mata Hari had left a will or an inheritance for her daughter Non. Unfortunately after all her debts were paid, there was nothing left. Tragically, Mata Hari’s daughter died suddenly just as she was getting ready to leave Holland for Indonesia to work as a schoolteacher. She was 21.
Ladoux was eventually acquitted of the charges of espionage but his career was effectively over. By the time he came to trial, the war was over, and he was saved. He later wrote a book about Mata Hari, a highly colored tale of how he brought down the most infamous spy in World War I. It wasn’t until 2000, that some of the files were released that proved that Mata Hari was innocent of espionage. The rest of the files will not be released until 2017. So why was she accused? Both Bouchardon and Ladoux could not get past the fact that Mata Hari was a beautiful woman who loved men, and gave herself freely to them, no matter the nationality. As far as they were concerned, she was a promiscuous and immoral woman, and for that alone she should have been condemned. Mata Hari's fatal mistake was that she loved officers, no matter what the nationality, not a good thing during wartime. Actually Mata Hari should have been given a medal for providing comfort and solace for a few hours to all the officers that she entertained.
Despite the new evidence, the myth of Mata Hari continues to hold sway. After her death, stories abounded that she had blown a kiss to her executioners, that she had appeared naked. In the 1930’s, Greta Garbo starred as the sexy sultry spy. It is this interpretation that many people think of when they think of Mata Hari. At her trial, Mata Hari made the distinction that there was Margaretha Zelle Mcleod and then there was Mata Hari. She has gone down in history as the very image of the femme fatale, beautiful, charismatic but deadly. But the woman who was once called "an orchid in a field of dandelions" was much more than a promiscuous courtesan who loved officers too well, she was a woman who, after fleeing a bad marriage, managed to reinvent herself, whose ambition and talent took her to the top and almost contributed to her downfall.
Sisters of Salome - Toni Bentley, Yale University Press, 2002
Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007