Henry Wales was a British reporter who covered the execution. We join his story as Mata Hari is awakened in the early morning of October 15. She had made a direct appeal to the French president for clemency and was expectantly awaiting his reply.
The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.
Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.
The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.
‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.
Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.
She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.
Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.
She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.
Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:
‘I am ready.’
The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.
The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.
Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.
The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.
The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.
As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.
‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.
‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.
‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away.
Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.
The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.
A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.
She did not move a muscle.
The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.
It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.
At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.
Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.
A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.
An extraordinary life was over. The woman who was executed that day in 1917 was better known as Mata Hari, the name Zelle had chosen for herself when she became Europe’s queen of unbridled eroticism, an exotic dancer, courtesan, harlot, great lover, spendthrift, liar, deceiver and thief.
And German spy? That is what – in the fevered atmosphere of France in World War I, with the Kaiser’s troops encamped within its borders – she had been shot for. She caused the deaths of tens of thousands of French soldiers, it was said, a crime that would ever after make her synonymous with seduction and treachery, the ultimate femme fatale.
Except that she may not have been guilty at all.
In the fascinating biography, American academic Pat Shipman makes the case that, far from being the betrayer, she was the one betrayed, and by that breed she loved all her life – men.
It was men who, like witchhunters, built the case against her, driven by prejudice not fact. And with France gripped by anti-German spy mania, few would stick their heads above the parapet to defend her. Britain’s fledgling intelligence service, MO5 (soon to change its name to MI5) also helped dig her grave with, as we will see, the dodgiest of dossiers.
But in the story of Mata Hari, there was one thing that needed no sexing-up – Mata herself. Sex was the driving force of her life.
In the little Dutch town where she grew up, her shopkeeper father lavished extremes of affection on his “little princess”. It made her vain, self-centred and spoilt, and with an insatiable longing for male attention.
At school, the 16-year-old bedded the headmaster. Was he the seducer or her? No one knows, but this was 1893 and it was the girl who was sent home in shame.
The restless teenager now set about finding a man to take her away from the stuffiness of Dutch society. When, through a Lonely Hearts ad, she met Captain Rudof MacLeod, a hard-living, hard-drinking officer home on leave from Holland’s vicious colonial wars in the East Indies, she didn’t care that he was 22 years older than her.
He was handsome, with a splendid moustache. She was tall (5ft 10in) and elegant, with flirty dark eyes and a dark olive complexion. The attraction was immediate, sexual and very strong. She told him she longed to do “crazy things” and they were engaged within six days.
They married three months later, she in a bright yellow gown rather than the traditional white.
There were problems almost straight away. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the other officers and, as she was the first to admit, did not have it within her to be “a good housewife”.
“I was not content at home,” she later confessed. “I wanted to live like a colourful butterfly in the sun.”
He was jealous, though saw no reason why he should forego the womanising, drinking and coarseness of his bachelor days. He was constantly in debt; she was extravagant, always spending. As for his syphilis, caught overseas, he neglected to tell her.
The omens were not good. Nonetheless, she bore him two children, and they returned as a family to his new posting in the colonies. There, in the exotic surroundings of Indonesia, their marital problems multiplied.
She did not fit the mould of the officer’s wife, not least because her dark skin made the snobbier women suggest she had native blood in her. To the men, however, that look was seductive, and she made the most of it.
“Her languid, graceful style of moving, her dark eyes and luxurious hair, telegraphed her sexuality to any male in her presence,” writes Shipman. “She drew every man’s lustful admiration and every woman’s envy. She was seen as morally dangerous, selfish and frivolous.”
The marriage deteriorated into sharp quarrels, too much drinking, rows about money and accusations of infidelity. But what destroyed the union was tragedy. Their son, Norman, was struck by serious illness and died at the age of two. His sister, one-year-old Nonnie, nearly died, too, but pulled through.
The boy’s death shattered both parents. Who was to blame? A local nanny was said to have poisoned the children because of some grievance, real or imagined, against MacLeod, though no case was ever brought. Nor was the death ever reported in the colonial press. For some reason, it seemed to have been hushed up.
Shipman’s hypothesis is that the children were being treated for congenital syphilis, caught from their father, and the garrison doctor accidentally overdosed them with mercury. Whatever the real cause of the boy’s death, the couple blamed each other.
The relationship sank into hatred. His wife was “scum of the lowest kind” MacLeod told his family back in Holland, “a woman without heart, who cares nothing for anything”.
On that he was wrong – she cared for officers. He caught her with a second lieutenant. She flaunted herself in a low-cut dress at a ball. She was punishing him by stoking up his jealousy. He punished her in return with a cat-o’-nine-tails.
She wrote to her father: “I cannot live with a man who is so despicable. I eat and live apart and I prefer to die before he touches me again. My children caught a disease from him.”
MacLeod left the army and the family returned to Holland. There they separated. But MacLeod had one more weapon to use against her.
He put an advertisement in the local papers warning shops not to give her credit because he had resigned all responsibility for her. It left her penniless. She had to earn money – and there was only one way she knew how.
Sexual favours were her only useful assets, but she did not see Holland as the best place to exploit them. In 1903, with little money and no contacts, she took herself off to Paris. There, she would recreate herself as a model, an actress, perhaps, or a chic cosmopolitan in that chicest of cities.
But, as Shipman tells us, “the only dependable source of income available to her was pleasing men for money” – prostitution. But then a circus gave her a job, and the owner advised her where her talents lay – dancing.
And dance she did. From the depths of her experiences in the East Indies she invented what she called “sacred dances”. They were exotic and seemed to have some mysterious eastern mythology about them.
She began by performing in private homes, but soon the stories of her “artistry” and, above all, her nudity were passing round the salons of Parisian high society.
The critics enthused, “feline, trembling in a thousand rhythms, exotic yet deeply austere, slender and supple like a sacred serpent”. She added spice to the performance with lies.
First there was her name – Mata Hari, meaning “sunrise” or, more literally, “the eye of the day”, in the language of the Dutch East Indies. Then there were the stories to the press, that she was the daughter of an Indian temple dancer who had died giving birth to her, that she grew up in a jungle in Java.
Her life became an unending performance, both on stage and off. Her success seemed unstoppable and the money came rolling in. But she still managed to spend more than she earned as she travelled Europe, picking up lovers, dropping some, keeping others.
“Tonight I dine with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B. If I don’t have to dance, I make a trip with Marquis C. I avoid serious liaisons. I satisfy all my caprices,” she said.
All too soon she was suffering from over-exposure in another sense. By 1908 anyone who was anyone in Europe had seen her dance at least once, while the lesser theatres were overrun with imitators doing Oriental dances.
The dance work was now more irregular and increasingly she would have to rely on her men friends for her livelihood.
One, a stockbroker, provided her with a chateau in the Loire and another house on the Seine – until he went bankrupt. Still she refused to cut her prodigious spending or alter her outrageous lifestyle. When she was frantic for money, some said, she would ply her trade at Paris’s maisons de rendez-vous, one step up from ordinary brothels.
Her financial problems seemed eased when in May 1914 she signed a contract to dance for six months at the Metropol in Berlin, starting in September.
But the political situation overtook her. When war broke out in August that year, though Holland was neutral, she was stuck in a now belligerent and increasingly jingoistic German capital with no money and no job. Her fur coats and money had been seized. She charmed a Dutch businessman to pay her train fare to Amsterdam.
Back in Holland, she took up again with a former lover. Aristocratic and wealthy, he was just her type. There she was visited by Karl Kroemer, the German consul, who told her he was recruiting spies. He gave her 20,000 francs and a code name, H21.
She took his money but she didn’t take him seriously. She told herself the cash was compensation for the furs taken from her in Berlin and threw away the invisible ink he gave her.
“As she never had the slightest intention of spying for Germany, she felt no guilt or obligation to do anything for the money she had accepted. She had always taken money from men because she needed it and they had it; she always felt she deserved it,” says Shipman. Others, ominously, would not agree.
Naively, she failed to realise the Europe she had travelled through so freely and so promiscuously had disappeared for ever.
British counter-intelligence certainly had her number. They stopped her at Folkestone, while she was travelling from Holland to France via Britain to avoid the front-line, and recorded that “although she was thoroughly searched and nothing incriminating was found, she is regarded by police and military to be not above suspicion”.
A copy of the report was sent to intelligence officials in France, Britain’s ally against Germany.
But on what was this suspicion based? The report noted that she “speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German. Handsome, bold type of woman”.
And that, says Shipman was the key. “The problem was not what Mata Hari said but who she was. She was a woman travelling alone, obviously wealthy and an excellent linguist – too educated, too foreign. Worse yet, she admitted to having a lover. Women like that were immoral and not to be trusted.”
A British intelligence officer in Holland now added to Mata Hari’s dossier with rumours about payments to her from the German embassy. He added, with no evidence whatsoever: “One suspects her of having gone to France on an important mission that will profit the Germans.”
In Paris, Mata resumed her glamorous life, living at the Grand Hotel and with plenty of men in uniform to keep her occupied. She did not know that two secret policemen were tailing her.
They steamed open her letters, questioned porters, waitresses and hairdressers and collected abundant evidence of her love life – but not of espionage. She spent a day and a night with the Marquis de Beaufort, had a flirtatious dinner with a purveyor of fine liquors and then met another lover, who embarrassingly for the secret policemen was a senior colleague from their own bureau.
But her main intention at this time was to get a permit to go to the town of Vittel, which was in the eastern war zone, because she was desperate to see the man with whom she had fallen deeply in love, a Russian captain 18 years her junior named Vadime.
For that, she had to apply to the head of French Intelligence, Captain Georges Ladoux, an ambitious man who had staked his reputation on France being riddled with foreign spies and his being able to destroy their network. He was in need of an attention-grabbing case to prove the worth of his bureau.
He regarded Mata as little better than a prostitute; she thought him small-minded and coarse. They fenced words with each other. She wanted her pass to Vittel. He agreed, if she promised to enlist as a spy for France.
The entire encounter was bizarre, Shipman argues. If Mata Hari was already a German spy, as Ladoux believed, then he was foolhardy to try to recruit her to be a French one.
Mata Hari was known by sight throughout Europe. Her comings and goings were reported in gossip columns. Wherever she went, she was the centre of attention. It is difficult to imagine a woman less able to engage in clandestine activities.
But she accepted his offer – as long as she was given enough money to pay off her massive debts and settle down with Vadime. The great seductress wanted out of the game.
But it was too late. Ladoux was convinced she was a German spy, however ridiculous that was. So, too, were the British. For Mata Hari, everything in her tangled life was unravelling dangerously.
She went to Vittel and had a blissful interlude in the spa town with her Russian. On her return to Paris, Ladoux sent her on her first mission – to German-occupied Belgium where she said an ex-lover could steer her into the arms of the German military governor.
But Belgium proved impossible to reach and she ended up in Spain. There, she turned her charms on a German captain, an intelligence officer named Kalle, and stretched out on a chaise longue as he told her secrets about German manoeuvres in North Africa.
This information she triumphantly passed on to Ladoux, believing she was doing his bidding, earning the million francs he had promised her. Instead, she had fallen into his trap. Her meetings with Kalle would be turned against her, twisted to claim that she was handing over French secrets to the enemy rather than teasing out German ones.
On February 10, 1917, a warrant for her arrest was signed by the French war minister. Three days later, police officers knocked on the door of her hotel room and found her eating breakfast in a lace-trimmed dressing gown. She was not, as wild rumours around Paris soon claimed, naked.
At the Palais de Justice she faced the investigating magistrate, Pierre Bouchardon. “From the very first interview, I had the intuition that she was a person in the pay of our enemies,” he wrote later. “I had but one thought – to unmask her.”
The process was under way that would lead her unfairly but inexorably to her execution.
It did not seem to matter that no one had the least bit of evidence against her. Nor could anyone point to a single document, plan or secret that she passed to the Germans. Suspicion, envy and the prejudices of small-minded men would triumph.
Only 30 years after her death would one of her prosecutors concede the truth – “there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat”.
The German government publicly exculpated her in 1930, and the French dossier documenting her activities reportedly indicated her innocence. Viewed by only a few people, the dossier is scheduled for public release in 2017.
FEMME FATALE: A Biography Of Mata Hari is by Pat Shipman and is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Source Credits: EyeWitness to History, Daily Mail, Encyclopaedia Britannica