L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i



Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mata Hari - a triumph of reinvention and its cost



Mata Hari - the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod née Zelle (7 August 1876, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands – 15 October 1917, Vincennes, Paris, France) - is a catchphrase. The femme fatale - the fatal woman - the duplicitous seductress, the beautiful, voracious woman who uses sex to deceive and destroy men. The immoral lady spy, the worst sort of man-devouring female.

When I posted about Mata Hari before - Mata Hari, lady of fashion - I focused only on images of her beautifully dressed and as she would
have wished to present herself to the respectable world: the glamorous lady artist, off-stage. Here, I've collected photographs of her as she
was costumed - and uncostumed - for performance, mostly from the early years of her relatively short stage career.

There are few historical figures more misrepresented than the real woman, the woman behind the catchphrase. And it's very difficult to sift the fact from the fabrication; the truth isn't helped by her own predilection for the sort of biographical fantasy with which she embroidered her public persona. She's been portrayed countless times in the theatre, on television, and in film - even Garbo gave an impersonation - all of it almost always wholly fiction. And even the myriad biographies claiming to tell the "real story" are usually a recycling of misinformation, myth, and her old fabrications. But that "real story" of her life is indeed fascinating. If only to see how other people's perceptions and prejudices were so often used against her. But if her life can be seen as marked out for tragedy, she never would have seen herself as a tragic figure. Frequently and ultimately victimized by the men, she refused to be a victim. 


The daughter of a prosperous but imprudent merchant, she had a rather pampered childhood until the age of thirteen. But that year her beloved father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and, two years later, her mother died. The family in shambles, she was sent to live with her godfather. Studying to become a kindergarten teacher, she was sexually harassed by the headmaster. But it appears she was held up to blame - she was thought "too flirtatious", she hadn't done enough to hide her blossoming sexuality - and she had to leave the school. Unhappy, she ran away to live with an uncle. At eighteen, still trying to find a way to transcend her limited horizons, she answered an advertisement placed in the paper by a Dutch Colonial army captain looking for a wife. It was a way out and a way up. 


Not quite nineteen, she married Captain Rudolf MacLeod - twenty years her senior - in 1895, and two years later he returned with his wife to Java. Married to an army captain, Margaretha had moved into a better class of society, but this did little to compensate for the wretchedness of her marriage. MacLeod was a bullying alcoholic, jealous of his young, popular wife. Aggressive and abusive, he also openly kept a native mistress. Worst of all, he infected his young wife with syphilis; there was no cure at the time, and Margaretha would have to deal with the affects of the disease for the remainder of her life. While in the East Indies the couple had two children. In 1899 both children became violently ill, and their two year old son died. There were many rumors, then and later, about the cause, but it's now believed that both children became ill due to complications related to the treatment of inherited syphilis. (Their daughter survived, but would die suddenly at the age of twenty-one - two years after the execution of her mother - syphilis and/or the earlier syphilis treatments being the likely cause.)

The couple and their daughter returned to the Netherlands, but in 1902 the couple officially separated; a divorce was not made final until four years later, and there would be arguments about the custody of their daughter until the time of Mata Hari's death. (MacLeod eventually stopped letting the mother see her child; after she became famous, Mata Hari's notorious reputation would be used against her.) Divorced, effectively homeless, with really no way to support herself, in 1903 she moved to Paris. There, in two years time she would reinvent herself.


By now the mistress of a millionaire industrialist, she was an overnight sensation after making her dancing début in March of 1905. She was now Mata Hari, a Javanese princess and Hindu priestess, indoctrinated from birth in the art of sacred Indian dance. Her performances were very "exotic" to be sure, but were most notable for her slow and graceful shedding of all her clothes until she was quite nude save for some bracelets, a head dress, and a jeweled brassiere. (She was never seen without the brassiere; she was apparently self-conscious about the appearance of her small breasts.) As to the artistic merits of her dance, there were those who thought she was no dancer at all, merely an audacious amateur. But there were many who - in the time of Isadora Duncan and, soon, the Ballets Russes - thought her a great artist; the composers Massenet and Puccini were among her admirers.


Her filmy and bejeweled costumes were cobbled together to corroborate her impersonation of a Javanese temple dancer; today, she'd certainly be pilloried for cultural appropriation. But many performers of the day invented colorful backgrounds for their stage personas, and the hunger for exoticism was at its height in the years prior to World War I. With her dark coloring, and what with the Europeans' scant knowledge of the East Indies, she was able to pass herself off as genuine for quite some time. Having spent several years in Indonesia, she had actually learned a good deal about the local cultural and dance traditions. And while there, she even adopted the moniker which had now become her stage name: Mata Hari, "the sun", literally "the eye of day".


An immediate celebrity, the "story" of Mata Hari, as told by the subject and by imaginative journalists, became ever more improbable and convoluted. Now sometimes referred to as Lady MacLeod, her picture was in all the fashionable periodicals, often modeling the creations of the leading Parisian dressmakers. Seen in all the right places among the best people, she was also a noted equestrienne. Her theatrical agent was the famous Gabriel Astruc, and together they did everything in their power to keep her in the public eye, to procure prestigious bookings. 


By 1910, though, she had many imitators, and the public was beginning to tire of her particular "brand". She began to diversify. She performed more traditional Indian dances and tried on some that were ostensibly Spanish. And she gracefully performed what might be called "walk-ons" in a few ballets and operas. In 1912, after much lobbying by Astruc, she was given an audition for a "mime" role by the great Diaghilev, but was much chagrined when he then failed to hire her.


By now, though, she was at least as well known as a courtesan as she was a performer. She needed a lot of money to sustain the comfortable, glamorous life she had created for herself, and her increasingly sporadic appearances on the stage did not come anywhere near being able to support that lifestyle. Even before the commencement of her career, she had used her charm and her body toward financial gain. She would have liaisons with many important and influential men, some for only a night, some for a little while longer. State ministers and millionaires, princes and chiefs of police, men she encountered in all the capitals of Europe. Now, with bookings falling off and debts mounting, her assignations became less prestigious and her actions almost entirely motivated by a need for cash. This led her to make lapses of judgement that would entangle her in the world of wartime espionage, a real-life theatre for which she had no aptitude and not the slightest understanding.

Depending on the venue and audience, Mata Hari often only suggested nudity by wearing a flesh-colored body stocking under her costume.

At the outbreak of World War I she was in Berlin rehearsing for a new show. With the commencement of hostilities the theatres were closed, her trunks and furs impounded and, holding a Dutch passport, she was forced to return to the Netherlands, a presently neutral country she had not visited for many years. (While there she tried desperately to see her daughter, but was continually foiled by her ex-husband.) Set up in The Hague by a former lover, she could think of nothing but returning to Paris.

At the height of her first celebrity, postcards of Mata Hari - many of them colored - were widely circulated.

The details of her "espionage" are murky and conflicting. The intelligence services of the countries who would be involved in her downfall - France, Germany, England - were anything but sophisticated at the time, and their accounts of the events don't tally. The motivations and activities of the officers of the bureaus involved are not above suspicion, either; four days after Mata Hari's execution, the chief of French military counterintelligence was arrested and accused of being a spy for Germany. And her own later testimony about her activities would sometimes be undermined by her familiar patterns of dissimulation. 

Was she actually even a spy? Was it the French or Germans who contacted her first? Which if either country had her allegiance? Certainly her sympathies would have been more with the French, but her only real motivation for agreeing to cooperate with either side was the large sums of money she was promised. (She also hoped to get her impounded possessions back from the Germans.) But she was in over her head from the start. She appears to have had no interest in gathering information, and on the two times she was actually forced to provide any, what she passed on was only rumor and proved useless. 


To complicate matters, in the midst of all of this, she fell in love. For perhaps the first time in her life. He was a young Russian officer, Vadim de Masloff, soon to be seriously wounded. Almost twenty years her junior, he wanted to marry her - the young, wounded soldier and the aging prostitute; like something out of La Dame aux camélias - and now she was even more reckless in her pursuit of money, to help in his recovery and to be able to leave her old life behind and start anew.

Throughout this time, with the aid of a passport from a neutral country, she traveled frequently. She secretly met with leaders of both intelligence services, she was detained and questioned on more than one occasion due to her suspicious peregrinations. Mostly, she was sleeping with men for money, not all that often in connection with the promised information gathering. But the game she had naively entered with nothing more than mercenary intent - and where she now found herself increasingly entangled, increasingly confused by the actions of her contacts - was quickly coming to its conclusion. Though she was unaware of it, both sides had turned against her. And the Germans, finally, resentful that they'd paid her for services she'd never really delivered, set a trap for her with the French. She was arrested in Paris 13 February 1917.


For six months she was kept in a series of grim prisons. She was exhaustively interrogated, repeatedly maintaining her innocence. Her lawyer, an old lover, was totally inexperienced in the sort of case before him and was not up to the task. Most of the letters she wrote seeking support were kept by the authorities and never sent, letters sent to her were not delivered. The men who might have helped her case were not called or chose not to come forward. Or they denounced her in a effort to distance themselves. Men she had known intimately. Many of them were very important men, very many of them married, not wanting to involve their names in scandal or suspicion. In the tense atmosphere of wartime, xenophobic and censorious - so different from the expansiveness of only a few years before - no one was eager to associate themselves with this figure of licentiousness, an obscene reminder of times best forgotten.


During her imprisonment and eventual trial there appears an obvious and malignant strain of misogyny in her treatment and condemnation. She was surrounded by hypocritical men, the same men who had once lauded and also deeply loathed the woman for the freedom of her sexuality, and now seemed only bent on degrading and destroying her. Not allowed permission to regularly wash or groom herself, or permitted regular changes of clothing, there also seemed to be a deliberate effort on the part of the authorities to insult the femininity of this proud woman who had always taken such care with and traded on her appearance.

She was finally brought to trial in July; it lasted only two days. It was full of procedural irregularities and was, by any standards, a travesty. Even the prosecutor later admitted that there had not been enough evidence to "hang a cat". Instead, the prosecution of Mata Hari was nothing more than a misogynist attack on her character, her immoral lifestyle; epithets like "Salome" and "Messalina" were bandied about. She really wasn't so much tried as a spy as she was a whore.


The jury decided her fate in half an hour. Condemned to death, it was three more months before her appeals were exhausted. Bitter that no one had come forward to defend her, that no one had stood by her - of all the men who had loved her, had showered her with adulation - she never knew about the love letters de Masloff had continued to write to her; they remained undelivered and she thought he had abandoned her, too.

Shortly before 5:00 a.m. on the morning of 15 October 1917, Mata Hari was awakened by one of the nuns of the Saint-Lazare prison for women in Paris with the news that her request for clemency had been rejected. The nuns of the prison had become fond of the aging courtesan, impressed by her dignity and forbearance, and it is reported that the nun, Sister Leonide, moved to comfort Mata Hari, who answered her, "Don't be afraid, Sister, I shall know how to die."


Then she dressed in the best clothing that remained to her: a pearl-grey suit, a lace-trimmed blouse, long gloves. She put on an elegant tricorne hat and threw a blue coat over her shoulders. She was escorted to the ground floor of the prison where she wrote letters to her daughter and to de Masloff; neither was to receive her letter.


Accompanied by Sister Leonide, she was driven to the old chateau of Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris and escorted to a large clearing where a firing squad of twelve soldiers of the 4th Zouave Regiment were assembled. She embraced the nun and took her place opposite the soldiers. She refused a blindfold or to have her hands tied, and stood before the stake, her head up. After the volley of eleven shots - one of the soldiers had fainted - her fallen body was approached by an officer who delivered the coup de grâce. Her remains were to go unclaimed and her body was given over to dissection at a medical school.







4 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this remarkable story. I have often heard and/or read about the name Mati Hari but had no idea she was even a real person. Her story is sad but it sounds like she was a real survivor, that she made the best of her circumstances wherever she found herself and it's fitting that her legend survives even to this day.

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    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you read the story the way you did. That was my intent: to make her something other than merely a name that was a definition for "evil woman".

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  2. Well delivered but very, very grim...it is difficult to take in information from a time that had such a strangled view of independent women. You really did a fine job here and the images of her are still so beautiful and intriguing.

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  3. Thank you for this! Gorgeous woman and as always, a smart woman who knew what she had to do to survive. The real story is so much more interesting than the myth. Great photos, too, Stephen.

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