From erotic dancer in Paris to double agent: The story of Mata Hari 100 years after her death

Exotic dancer and suspected double agent Mata Hari was executed in Paris 100 years ago but her name endures today as that of the ultimate seductive spy.

From erotic dancer in Paris to double agent: The story of Mata Hari 100 years after her death
Photo: AFP
She was just 41 when she faced a firing squad on October 15, 1917, accused of spying for Germany during World War I.
On the anniversary of her death, here is a recap of her life of eroticism and intrigue that drew in a string of lovers, including ministers, military officers and diplomats from both sides of the frontline.
'As famous as Madonna'
Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands, she fled to Paris in 1903 aged 27 to start a new life after a rancorous divorce.
Her marriage had been to an older army officer who was based in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, where she lived for some years.
Penniless in Paris, the tall beauty reinvented herself, becoming a dancer in a striptease act and taking the name “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “Eye of the Day”, apparently a reference to the sun.
Her fame as an exotic beauty quickly spread across Europe and she became a celebrity, also raising eyebrows for her many love affairs.
Photo: Ainhoa Núñez Reyes/Flickr
Her Oriental “sacred dances” pushed the boundaries of pre-war Europe and often saw her appearing to wear little more than a bejewelled brassiere.
“In her time, she was as famous as Madonna…,” the Washington Times said in a 2007 book review.
“By the time she was executed by the French for espionage in 1917, she was perhaps the most famous non-royal in Europe if not the world.”
From call girl to spy
By 1914, however, her popularity was waning. She became a call girl in Paris, entertaining ministers and becoming known for her extravagant parties.
Broke, due to her lavish lifestyle, she accepted in 1916 an offer from a German diplomat to pay off her debts if she spied on France.
Mata Hari then offered her services to France's counter-espionage bureau where agents were already suspicious of her. They gave her several missions but kept her under surveillance.
The French suspicions deepened when she requested a pass to travel to Vittel, near the eastern front and where a new military aerodrome was being built.
She said her visit was to meet a young Russian officer who was her lover.
Then in January 1917, the French authorities intercepted a cable from Germany appearing to identify Mata Hari as their “Agent H 21”.
She was arrested and charged with being a double agent.
Greta Garbo playing Mata Hari in the 1931 film “Mata Hari”. Photo: Susanlenox/Flickr
No revelations
On the cold morning of October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes, President Raymond Poincare having refused her request for clemency.
Witnesses wrote that she wore a long, black velvet cloak with fur trimmings and a large square fur collar.
She is said to have declined a blindfold and blew kisses to her executors.
Asked by a military clerk whether she had any last revelations, she replied: “None, and if I had, I would keep them to myself.”
The ultimate femme fatale, she has inspired a dozen films, numerous books, historical works, exhibitions and even a ballet by the Dutch National Ballet.
Her iconic status was cemented in 1931 when Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo played her in a film entitled “Mata Hari”.
The nature and extent of her espionage activities remain, however, uncertain, and her guilt is still widely contested today.
“She never provided the least valid information, neither to the Germans, nor to the French,” according to the French magazine Le Point in 2016, echoing a view expressed in other media.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.