A name that remained synonymous with eroticism, betrayal and acting as a double agent. Mata Hari, meaning “eyes of the day” in Indonesian, the language of the Dutch East Indies, was the sobriquet that Dutch-born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle adopted after escaping to Paris.
As a schoolgirl she had already upset the status quo after a Lolita-esque encounter with her headmaster. To escape the stuffiness of Dutch Society she answered the personal ad of Capt Rudof MacLeod who was 22 years her senior.
They were quickly married and moved to his posting in the Dutch East Indies where her eyes were opened to the wonders of the exotic East. Their marriage soon fell apart and upon their return to Holland, they divorced. Penniless but eager to escape the tedium of home life, she moved to glamorous Paris where Zelle reinvented herself as Mata Hari, exotic dancer and courtesan.
Her act was a heady mix of sex, art and eastern mysticism, aided by rumours that she was a Balinese princess raised by a monk in a temple. She wore a fitting headpiece, armbands and sheer fabric that moved seductively as her undulating feline moves captivated audiences with various tantalising stages of undress. But she also wore a bejewelled bra that never came off. It was a stroke of genius, which distinguished her from the rather boisterous fanfare of the Moulin Rouge where dancers were flashing their knickerbockers and revealing their bosoms.
Mata Hari became the queen of unbridled eroticism and the talk of the Parisian salons of high society. Travelling freely in the capital cities of pre-war Europe, she was soon recruited by the Germans as a spy. They gave her a princely sum that she promptly spent without any real intention of ‘working’ for it. In pursuit of a Russian captain, with whom she had recently fallen in love, she found herself at the mercy of a French Intelligence Captain to grant her travel papers. He recruited her as a French spy. In the murky world of pre-war espionage, she became a casualty.
Legend has it that she bathed in milk whilst thousands of French troops marched to their deaths on the war fronts thanks to her indiscretions. Put on a secret military trial by the French with the help of the British Secret Service, she was sentenced to death by a firing squad. Mata Hari, who thought nothing of facing the leering looks of men, died after instructing the firing squad not to bind or blindfold her as she bravely embraced the end wearing stockings, high-heel slippers and a dove-coloured two piece-suit.
Text by Celine Teo-Blockey