The Honest Truth: How ‘double agent’ temptress Mata Hari became the talk of Paris

Dutch spy and dancer Mata Hari (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A NEW book about Mata Hari draws on previously unreleased MI5 files to paint a picture of a woman whose life was a fantastical web of lies, half-truths and magnetic allure.

Mary Craig, author of A Tangled Web, tells Tracey Bryce the Honest Truth about the dancer, courtesan and spy …

Who was Mata Hari?

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland in The Netherlands in 1876.

Tell us about her early life.

She was the eldest of four children and the only daughter. She was her daddy’s darling little princess and was showered with gifts of pretty dresses and dolls.

How did she get her name?

When she started dancing, she needed an exotic name. Mata Hari is a Malay term meaning “eye of the dawn” or “sunrise”. It may be she adopted it from a Masonic Lodge of the same name in the Dutch East Indies.

How did she become a spy?

She was approached by the Germans. She also said the French had asked her to spy for them. She said she would for one million francs.

What were some of her most memorable moments?

Mata Hari broke on to the Paris scene in March 1905 when she performed her oriental dance in the Guimet Museum. She was described as “voluptuous” and “slender and supple like the sacred serpents”.

Within days all Paris was talking about her. She went on to dazzling success all around Europe.

Why did she give up her child?

After her divorce her husband did not provide for her or their daughter, known as Non. She left for Paris to make her fortune but left Non behind.

Why was she executed?

She was a highly sexual woman. Not only was this disapproved of, but it was thought at the time to be a sign of criminal depravity.

The First World War was going badly for the French and morale was at an all-time low. They had won the Battle of Verdun but at a massive cost. The authorities desperately needed to catch a spy to raise morale. Mata Hari, the “criminally depraved” woman, had to be sacrificed.

Was she set up?

She was employed by the Germans as a “tension traveller”, someone who picks up pillow talk-type gossip. But Mata Hari had no intention of spying for Germany. Her furs had been confiscated by the Germans at the start of the war so when she took money from them it was, as far as she was convened, payback.

The Germans had other more highly-skilled agents and used her as a distraction.

Was she an agent for the French?

The French claimed they knew she was a German agent and merely pretended to employ her to trap her. But the person who employed her, Georges Ladoux, may himself have been a German agent.

The evidence against her was slim. But what proof there was of her activities for Germany was easily found by the British and French authorities. Telegrams were sent from Berlin that may have identified her as a German agent but they were sent in a code that the Germans knew the French had broken. Were they decoded properly?

Is it true that her last act was blowing a kiss to her firing squad?

This is false. I believe it was made up for the film starring Greta Garbo. However, Mata Hari was brave at her execution in 1917. She refused to be tied to the stake or blindfolded. She faced the firing squad without flinching.

What happened to her body afterwards? Rumour has it her head went missing?

Her coffin was removed from its grave and taken to the medical faculty at The Sorbonne where medical students used it to practise surgery. The head was removed and embalmed and then kept in the medical faculty as an example of a “criminal type”. In 2000, when the medical museum was rearranged, it was discovered that her head was missing.