Mata Hari the femme fatale and Malabar

History has many an interesting character but there is only one person whose name is synonymous with spying, espionage, intrigue, and sensuality, it is none other than Mata Hari, a purported German spy who was executed by the French during the First World War. This gorgeous, 5’10” feet tall woman could be easily described as the most famous or for that matter, the most talked about spy in the world after James Bond. But there is one large difference; she was a real person, a horizontal agent as Toni terms her, unlike Mr. 007. What would you think looking at her name? Variously explained as sunrise, the mother of Vishnu or eye of the day by just translating the Hindi or Sanskrit words, she was an exotic dancer with a very interesting life story. From the depressing streets of Pre-World War 1 Holland, she moved to sunny Java and back to Europe to set a blazing trail through the night club scenes of Paris, Germany and Holland, and sharing her bed with scores of bigwigs along the way. From Paris she moved to Germany, then to Holland as the First World War descended but doubled back to Paris after a few dull months. That was her undoing, for with a few months she faced death in front of a firing squad, after being summarily convicted of treason, spying and death of many thousand Frenchmen.

Why not spend a few minutes learning the reasons for her mystique and how she claimed to be a woman from Malabar? It will be but a brief account of Margaretha Geertruida "Grietje" Zelle, ‘the horizontal agent’ who warmed the bed of many a military man on both sides of the war and through to her eventual death. But was she a spy? That has always been the million dollar question and most are inclined to believe today that she was just foolish but never a spy…But people still pore over a few hundred articles and books about her and new ones continue to be written as you read this, this shows you her everlasting appeal
When she started her sensuous dancing show career in Paris, she announced…

I was born in the south of India on the Malabar Coast to a Brahmin family.  My father was called Ashirvadam, known for his piety and pureness of heart.  My mother was a dancer who died giving birth to me; she was only 14.  The priests who adopted me gave me the name Mata Hari and I was raised in the great underground world in the temple of Shiva.
As time went by, a few variations crept in …in which her origins moved to Jaffna Pattanam in Ceylon. And her mystique grew and people crowded her shows to see her (I had been to Indonesia and Cambodia recently and saw the version that Mata Hari adapted, it is more like the Apsara dance in Cambodia which does have some Indian dasiattam moves, steps and actions. In fact her dressing and head gear is quite close to the Apsara costumes – the Robam Tep Apsara) and her version of the seminude oriental dance which was not Indian in any way, but purported to be Indian. In a clever way she manipulated the eagerness people had, to learn about the hidden secrets of India, perhaps magnified in the writings of the English who returned to their dreary shores. The French newspaper Le Journal, taken in by her declarations, declared Mata Hari as the very symbol of Indian culture: “Mata Hari personifies all the poetry of India, its mysticism, its voluptuousness, its languor, its hypnotizing charm … rhythm, poems of wild voluptuous grace” The critic as you can see compared India with female attributes, notably as one writer explained, those which elude the rational mind such as voluptuousness, hypnosis and mysticism.

The biggest difference from the Apsara dance of Cambodia was Mata hari’s dress or the lack of it. She sometimes wore a body stocking, sometimes nothing other than a padded breast piece or Cache-sein (she usually refused to uncover her breasts in public or in private as most reports go – they say that she was rather shameful about their inadequacy, but then Mata Hari did dance bare-breasted more than once, and her topless performance as Salome in 1912 brought her acclaim. Perhaps she knew that concealing a small part of the body while exposing the rest had an exciting effect).
I will provide you a very quick overview of her life before she hit the Paris streets and the limelight, for without it the story will not be complete. It was in Java that she learnt about the mysterious Malabar, where the Portuguese and later the Dutch colonized Batavia and other islands to form the Dutch East Indies. Perhaps she heard about how Rama of Mahabharata dispatched Sugriva to look for Sita in Java, perhaps not, she must have just learnt some of the dances out of boredom and acute depression. Why so?

When she was 13, Margaretha’s father Zelle's business went into bankruptcy (in 1889 at Friesland) and her misfortunes started after her mother’s death. By the age of 18, she had become conscious of her power over men and her overt sensuality and soon put it to use, perhaps without much thought. First it was the headmaster of her teacher’s training school and this resulted in her being moved out to relatives in Hague. That was when a boorish 39 year old alcoholic and heavily mustachioed Rudolph Macleod, back home in Holland on leave from Java put up a matrimonial advertisement. The bored Margaretha applied and they met, soon to get married and enter into a nightmarish world of unhappiness, violence and sadism. They had two children in quick succession, but the elder boy Norman died due to apparent poisoning (or syphilis) as Rudolph’s career went into a tailspin. The girl Non survived and the couple returned to Holland in 1902 where the now 26 year old Margaretha applied for divorce which ended with Rudolph keeping custody of Non. All Margaretha was left it was her knowledge and powers over men as well as a bit of dancing that she had learnt in Java. That is how she decided to seek a new career as an exotic dancer and a high class paid courtesan with a story (which was her Indian origins) and a new name, Mata Hari. Her initial performances were at Musee Guimet. The dance was called the Les Danses Brahmaniques. In fact Guimet was the person who suggested that she add an exotic name and thus Mata Hari was born to dance a sometimes writhing, reptilian dance form, slithering over the floor and eventually into many an arm. 

Though videos of her dances do not exist anymore, vivid descriptions such as this provide a good idea of her cabaret performance - One of the descriptions in the Neue Wiener Journal from 15th December 1906 entitled Brahma Dances in Vienna, the critic reviews her performance at the Viennese Secession Hall thus: The auditorium was steeped in mystical darkness. Covered blue, green, white lights. A Brahma-altar, surrounded by a blossoming fruit tree, has been erected at the front side of the room. Steaming incense burners augment the almost solemn atmosphere of the small auditorium. Then the Hofburg actor Gregori enters the room ... he improvises a little introductory speech. [He says] Mata Hari’s dances are like a prayer ...the Indian people dance when they venerate their Gods. Mata Hari herself enters with measured tread. A Junoesque apparition. Big, fiery eyes lend her noble-cut face a peculiar expression. Her dark complexion [...] suits her marvelously. An exotic beauty of first order. A white, gathered veil envelopes her, a red rose adorns her deep black hair. And Mata Hari dances ... That is: she does not dance. She performs a prayer before the idol, as a priest performs a service [...].[Then] Mata Hari dances the budding love of a chaste girl. A while veil – the slendang – serves as a symbol of chastity. Beneath the veil, the beautiful dancer wears on her torso a breast ornament and a golden belt ... nothing else. The audacity of the costume is a minor sensation. But without the slightest trace of indecency ... What the artist reveals in dance is art. Each muscle of the upper body is engaged. The dance ends with a victory of love over restraint ... the veil drops [...].Finally the dance of Siva, the destroyer. The priestess, in a passionately engaged dance, sacrifices every piece of jewelry, so that He hears her prayer. One veil after another drops until in the end she stands in her pure, undressed beauty [...]. The priestess sinks, unconscious, to the floor in front of the feet of the stern god [...] Stormy ovations …………
The major attraction of Mata Hari was, of course, her brazen novelty in the prudish prewar Paris. She converted stripping into an artistic, exotic and acceptable format, now cloaked inside a Hindu religious dance form as though it was always the norm in Malabar (while the concept of Dasiattam was very much in vogue in Malabar and the Tamil speaking Kongunadu, stripping was not a custom though some classes of women were uncovered above their hips - in contrast, Mata Hari always covered her breasts). The general consensus in those days was that Mata Hari made you feel that you were actually satisfying your desire with her. That was her allure and the allure took her far and high, earning her a fortune which she spent freely. But as you know, the heights don’t just make you giddy, they were also precarious perches from where you could have a great fall.

Her story started to change as days went by, and in later dances she said that she learnt the dancing from her foster Indian mother who dedicated her to Lord Shiva and that was how she, aged 13, danced for the first time in the nude. In fact this mystery and cloak and dagger act completely masked her poor dancing skills. But as legends go, she was quite vigorous on the floor and off it, and the lighting and special stage props as well as her beautiful eyes and amorous expressions made it very enticing and original. The next few years were her high times, where she ruled the revue floors and minted money while at the same time warming many a bed. But imitators started to appear on the scene and the dancer Mata Hari and her dance was becoming a bit jaded.

To make her private parties and dances even more authentic another person and his troupe was
roped in. The group was named ‘The Royal Musicians of Hindustan’. When I first read about this connection, I was taken aback, for the person heading it was none other than Inayat Khan the founder of The Sufi Order in the West and the father of the famous English spy code named Madeline a.k.a. Noor Inayat Khan or the princess spy (Many a year ago, I had written a somewhat inadequate article about her). Inayat left India in 1910 to come to the West, traveling first as a touring musician and then as a teacher of Sufism, visiting various places along the way, France and Netherlands included. It is in France that Mata Hari and Inayat met.
The Royal Musicians of Hindustan performed with Mata Hari, providing live accompaniment for her dances, before Inayat moved on to Russia and fathered Noor with Nora Baker. Their pairing was opportune, for the group came to promote Indian music and Mata Hari was of course the self-proclaimed pioneer of oriental dancing in the west! The photographs (from her garden in Neuilly) of them together in a British society magazine are striking with Matahari looking every bit an Indian, this time fully clothed and demonstrating some typical Indian dance moves. The timing of their collaboration seems to have been between 1912 and 1913. Her announcements and press releases as well as witness accounts state that the troupe were Indian Brahmin musicians (Interesting that a Sufi Muslim propagator went along with this)! By that time, Mata Hari’s birth place had moved from Malabar to Jaffna pattanam in Ceylon and in 1914, it was placed at the banks of the Ganges!! The storyline also changed - to that from there she went on to become a Javanese court dancer. The public lapped all of it, for the lady did ample justice by providing a good amount of eye candy. But what could have got her into the world of spying? That part of the story is the last act of her life and evidence of her desire to be among officers.
Times were soon to become more difficult for the ageing Mata Hari and her repetitive dances were reducing in number. There was not much left of her body to be revealed, and the upper society had already sampled her. Her ways became more erratic and to keep up with her high living, became non selective and was soon noticed at all kinds of seedy places with men. She now decided that the dance routine had to be changed to something Egyptian and this perhaps took her to the German town of Berlin.
And that was when the war clouds started to form and her bank accounts got frozen. Fleeing Germany in 1915, she went to Holland and here the Germans contacted her asking her to spy for them for a sum equivalent to about $61,000 and by giving her a code name H21. She agreed to do so and collected the money, but actually planned to do nothing. From there she went to Paris to sell her stuff there and collect some money. On her way, the British M05 interrogated her and placed their suspicions on record. Between the years 1914-16, her travels are well recorded and so I will not get into details of her purported spying. And then she came back to Paris and soon after fell in love with an injured Russian soldier much younger than her named Vadime - Vladamir de Massalof, and later offered to spy for the French. Her love for the uniform had taken her places, but soon it was to be the reason or her downfall.

It was in the summer of 1916, that a Captain Ladoux heading the French counterintelligence, requested her to become a French agent. Not understanding the complexities of what she was doing, she agrees and is soon caught in a spider web of intrigue. The war is not going too well for the allies and the French and some affirmative action is expected from Capt Ladoux who has started to believe that Mata Hari is a double agent. Bouchardon’s (the prosecuting lawyer) investigation on the matter looked dead and the Allies’ war was going disastrously. A scapegoat was needed to save face and the Germans wanted her ‘burned’. As it happens, a set of messages sent by Germany provide information on agent H21 and these are sent in a code that the Germans knew were broken by the allies. Perhaps they wanted to fix H21 when they found out she had agreed to spy for the French, perhaps, they did what Ladoux wanted since he was involved with the Germans himself. Ladoux’s testimony at the trial based on German inputs confirming that she was H21, and connected her to espionage

He sets out to get her and soon Mata Hari is arrested in Paris on 13 February 1917 and sentenced to death as a pro-German spy after a dubious trial ( as somebody said – one where there was not even enough evidence to flog a cat!). On 15 October 1917, she is executed by firing squad. . Interestingly, soon after Mata Hari’s execution, Ladoux and others were arrested later, as German agents!!
The death is well reported, so also the trial and it is stated that Mata Hari faced death bravely,
though no longer a beauty, walking proud with her head high and refusing a blindfold. The fire order was shouted out, the shots rang their death knell, and Mata Hari was gone. As was recorded, an unnecessary, coup de grace was also completed, with a French officer emptying his gun into her ear. No one claimed her corpse which was finally taken to a medical school to be used by students there for study on the dissecting table. Her body thus continued to be kept for public view and as a public property. In 2000, it was discovered that her head had disappeared. Now no one knows what happened to it or to the rest of her body.

Shipman writes - It was men who, like witch hunters, 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. All because Mata Hari said and did what she wanted, with her life which was - I wanted to live like a colorful butterfly in the sun, rather than in the calmness of the inside of my room. And then again, she was convicted not for espionage but for her lack of shame."

EK Mahon concludes - 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.

Mata Hari thus lived the life typical of an Indian Nautch girl or devadasi. She was as they said, justly famous for her true talent which was exotic dancing and pleasing men, not espionage. The only person she loved, the Russian officer Vadime let her down completely by claiming that all they had was a fleeting affair. And it is not that Mata Hari did not know her limitations and strengths – she said “I never could dance well. People came to see me because I was the first who dared to show myself naked to the public. I prefer to be the mistress of a poor officer than a rich banker. It is my greatest pleasure to sleep with them without having to think of money. I have said yes to them with all my heart. They left thoroughly satisfied, without ever having mentioned the war, and neither did I ask them anything that was indiscreet.
Was she ever a double agent? Perhaps she was, of that I am still not too sure as she was circumstantially involved in some cases. Rudolph her husband, died in 1928. Jean Louise ‘Non’ Macleod, her daughter died in 1919, somewhat mysteriously, the day before she was to board a ship to Java, in her sleep.

De MarguĂ©rie’s a high ranking official in the foreign ministry, one of her patrons and rare defense witness during the trial concurred - It was a great relief to spend three days talking of philosophy, Indian art, and love with her. It may seem unlikely to you but it is the truth." Without being asked, he volunteered, "Nothing has ever spoiled the good opinion that I have of this lady."
Femme fatale – Love, lies, and the unknown life of Mata Hari – Pat Shipman
Sisters of Salome – Toni Bentley

Femme fatale - an irresistibly attractive woman, esp. one who leads men into danger or disaster

1.       With Inayat courtesy Fries Museum
2.       Others from Google images – with due acknowledgements to uploaders


Ramachandran said...

Exotic-recently I saw a movie on her,with not much nudity!

Maddy said...

I doubt if todays films can depict what relaity was in pre war europe. Coming back to Mata Hari, I think she had a fair idea of the devadasi culture in South India from the coromandel traders who came to Java.

According to one of her biographers Ostrovsky -
Mata Hari encouraged tales naming her an expert “in the sixty-four rites of lust practiced in Hindu temples, the rumors that she had studied love philters, incantations, and amulets with aphrodisiac powers…Legends could only add to her mystery; the exotic was her best ally. She also claimed that art and erotic dancing were connected to the worship rites of her temple and suggested that prostitution was also a type of worship—one that allowed her to communicate with her deity