The Sultry Spy and the Coverup

JUST BEFORE a French military firing squad executed her 100 years ago
this October, prosecutors described Mata Hari as “perhaps the greatest woman spy of the century” whose treachery led to the deaths of someIt was after her marriage ended in 1902 and her abusive husband, a Dutch Army captain, gained custody of their 4-year-old daughter that Dutch-born Margaretha Zelle began working in Europe as a scantily clad dancer under the Malay name “Mata Hari,” a nod to her married years in the East Indies. Because of her fame, extensive travels and many liaisons, French and German intelligence services recruited her during World War I, and she accepted espionage assignments and money from both nations, perhaps thinking that as a citizen of a neutral nation she could do so. Though she failed to discover information of value to France and only fed the Germans stale gossip, a French military tribunal convicted her of being a double agent and she was executed. This past January, the French government released a 1,295-page dossier filled with interviews, letters and reports compiled by investigators. Scholars who viewed the documents say the evidence against her was thin and loaded with innuendo—one memo said she was “deceitful and artificial, accustomed to toying with men”—and they’ve argued that her efforts led to no deaths at all. Some historians say her accuser, a French intelligence official named Georges Ladoux, was the double agent. “She was clearly targeted because of being female and openly sexual,” says Pat Shipman, a biographer and anthropologist. “If she had been a modest, demure woman, or a man, what she was doing would not have been in the least suspicious.” An October exhibition at a museum in Zelle’s hometown, Leeuwarden, further challenges the myth of the coldblooded femme fatale. It includes a journal she kept about her children’s early lives. (Her son died at age 2, her daughter at 21.) Mata Hari, says curator Yves Rocourt, was actually “a warm and loving mother.”

(Smithsonian, September 2017)

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