Nobody knew her by her given name, and barely anyone was in contact with her when she lived in Java. It was only after she was executed by firing squad in France on espionage charges that the press, literature and film worlds turned her into an icon.
Elsy Fors Garzón
Popular Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho was among those responsible for immortalising this beautiful Dutch woman with her jet-black hair and Asian roots inherited from her mother, who was born in what is now Indonesia.
In his novel The Spy, Coelho describes her as sensual, strong and complex, holding her up as an icon for defying the prevailing social norms and being a free and independent woman in a mixed-up world – a very fitting description of her background.
Born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, on 7 August 1876 as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, to a Dutch father and a mother of Javanese origin, she is described by her biographers as having had a childhood dominated by family conflict and money troubles.
Maybe seeking an escape from this environment, she got engaged at the age of 18 to a Scottish captain, Rudolf McLeod, who was older than her, after he placed an advert in the newspaper looking for a wife.
The soldier was posted to Java and while there the couple had two children, a boy and a girl.
The death of their son at an early age pushed the pair apart and Margaretha subsequently left her husband. In search of her own path, she studied Balinese folk dance, customs and rituals, including Eastern love-making techniques that were highly prized in the West.
Her husband accused Margaretha of infidelity in the courts, winning custody over their daughter.
Armed with her new identity as an exotic dancer, Mata Hari decided to move to Paris, arriving penniless in the bustling city in 1906.
She embellished her act and knowledge of Eastern culture by adding a few attention-grabbing lies.
The escapist romantic literature of the late 19th century had popularised a vague and idealised image of Eastern culture.
She turned this to her advantage; the legend of Mata Hari – Javanese princess turned exotic dancer – was born and immediately garnered fame.
She caused a stir in Paris, where fights broke out among people desperate to get to the front of the queue for her exotic dance shows in which she stripped almost entirely, hiding only her breasts.
Protected by the myth she had created, she had secret romances with numerous public figures, military officials and even high-level politicians from not only France but also Germany, as well as with high-society figures more generally. These relationships meant that she had access to state secrets before and during the First World War (1914 – 1918).
The effervescent Paris of the Belle Epoque and pre-war Berlin provided the backdrop against which this indomitable woman pursued her dreams.
At her trial in Paris no conclusive evidence was presented to confirm whether the Germans laid a trap so that the French intelligence agencies would suspect her or whether, in fact, she was a double agent.
It is said that during her hearing she exclaimed, “A whore? Yes! But a traitor? Never!”
On 15 October 1917, Mata Hari surprised the firing squad of 12 soldiers by taking off the black tunic she was wearing.
When the order to fire was given, only four shots hit their mark, one striking her in the heart and killing her instantly.
The mystery continued after her execution, since nobody claimed the body and it was donated to help medical students studying anatomy. Someone wanting the legend of Mata Hari to live on ensured that her head was embalmed and housed at the French Crime Museum but it was reporting missing in 1958, apparently stolen by an admirer. (PL)