August 7, 1876 – Mata Hari:
“Death is nothing, nor life either, for that matter. To die, to sleep, to pass into nothingness, what does it matter? Everything is an illusion.”
Mata Hari (1931) is a film directed by George Fitzmaurice loosely based on the life of the famous exotic dancer/courtesan/spy. As with so many pre-Code Hollywood films, Mata Hari was censored when it was reissued, with the strict enforcement of the Hays Code starting in 1934.The MGM movie features Greta Garbo in the title role. It was Garbo’s most commercially successful film, and MGM’s biggest hit of 1931.It was a sensation worldwide.
In the censored version, Mata Hari’s dance to a statue of Shiva was drastically cut. At the end of what remains, a glimpse of Mata Hari almost completely nude and slumped motionless at the feet of the statue was left in, evidence now of how much was cut out. A brief fragment of the deleted dance survives at the end of the original pre-Code trailer.
In another scene, the fade-out at the end the was moved up, eliminating views of Mata Hari after she changes into a see-through nightie, and some explicit lovemaking.
There was a scene where Garbo as Mata Hari visits Ramon Novarro‘s character’s flat, and after he blows out the candle he was shown carrying her to his bedroom. The next sequence showed the removal, copying and return of the secret documents, followed by a scene of the pair in bed, discreetly lit only by the glowing ends of their cigarettes, a once-famous scene the censors removed completely.
Apparently, a print of the original uncut version survives at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique in Brussels.
Her real life was just begging to be made into a film version. The idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers made the real Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the “femme fatale”. Her life inspired Mata Hari (1927), a German film; Mata Hari, Agent H21 (1964), a French film starring Jeanne Moreau; and Mata Hari (1985), a soft-core porn version starring
Stormy Daniels, I mean, Sylvia Kristel. Mata Hari’s life also inspired at least five stage musicals and an opera, dozens of books, and even more legends.
On an autumn morning in 1917, Mata Hari, the most famous female spy of the 20th century, was shaken awake in her prison cell. She was allowed to write two letters before changing into black stockings, high heels and a velvet cloak lined with fur. Then, she said: ‘“I am ready”.
She was driven from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to an old fort on the outskirts of Paris. AS the sun rose, she faced a firing squad of 12 French officers. Offered a white cloth to wear as a blindfold, Mata Hari refused, saying: “Must I wear that?”
According to legend, as the officers drew their weapons, Mata Hari blew a kiss to her executioners. Then they fired.
In 2017, on the 100th anniversary of her execution, her trial archives, kept secret by the French government, were released to the public. The documents show that the notorious spy was a mother who fled an abusive marriage, and was used as a scapegoat for France looking to distract from heavy casualties during World War I.
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle to a prosperous family in 1876. When she was a teenager, her father lost his fortune and left the family. Then her mother died. When Zelle was 18 years old, she married Rudolph John MacLeod, an officer in the East Indies Army who was twice her age. The couple left for the Dutch East Indies where they lived for four years in military housing.
Her husband was abusive. The couple lost a son and nearly lost a daughter, possibly from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis contracted from their parents, though the family claimed they were poisoned by a nanny, or possibly MacLeod’s enemies may have poisoned a meal to kill both of their children.
They returned to Holland and divorced in 1906. Zelle was awarded custody of their daughter. MacLeod was legally required to pay child support, but never did, making life very difficult for Zelle and her daughter. During a visit, MacLeod decided not to return his daughter to her mother. Zelle did not have resources to fight. Their daughter died when she was 21 years old, from complications relating to syphilis.
Without her daughter, Zelle made the choice to make a life for herself, instead of living in poverty. She chose to go to Paris and have a career, but she always missed her daughter. Zelle:
“I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris.“
She found work with a theater company, but she also had sex with men for money. Who among us has not? She wrote:
“Don’t think that I’m bad at heart. I have done it only out of poverty.“
For her acting and dancing roles, Zelle took the name Mata Hari.
Although she was not especially attractive according to her biographers (most of whom were women), she worked as an artist’s model, did some acting and dancing, and turned some tricks. Yet, she was ambitious, and she saw a path to fame and fortune.
Drawing on her Indonesian experiences, she reinvented herself. She was supported by the creator and owner of the Musée Guimet (now one of the world’s most notable collections of Asian art), Émile Guimet, who made suggestions on her performances, including what to wear, lending her items from his museum’s collection: jeweled headdresses, exotic textiles and armbands. Her gala performance at the museum was a triumph and was widely reported in the Parisian press.
She was the toast of Paris, performing swathed in diaphanous veils discarded in a striptease that left her audiences throbbing.
As her notoriety grew, Mata Hari attracted many admirers, including financier Henri de Rothschild, composer Giacomo Puccini, designer Erté, and many wealthy clients. She earned more lying down than as a dancer.
The most celebrated part of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments on her arms and head. She elevated exotic dance to a respectable status. She posed for provocative photos, but also mingled with the upper-class. Since most Europeans at the time were unfamiliar with the Far East, Mata Hari was thought of as exotic, and it was assumed her claims were genuine.
Paris fell under the spell of this mysterious creature, and her fame spread throughout Europe. She toured in her act in Berlin, Istanbul, Monte Carlo, and Milan.
In August 1914, Mata Hari was in Berlin for a six-week engagement at the Metropol Theatre, but the show was abruptly cancelled by the start of the war. One of her lovers was the Berlin police chief, Traugott von Jagow, who was infatuated with her. But, in wartime, the rules that guided her career no longer held. The exotic image that she had nurtured was considered distasteful and dangerous.
Mata Hari retreated to her house in The Hague, a gift from a lover, but after some months, she again grew restless. As a citizen of a neutral country, she was able to cross borders freely, and she returned to Paris.
Hearing of this, a German consul made contact, and, out of work, she allowed herself to be recruited as Agent H21, assigned to pass on French secrets. She targeted a French attaché, Colonel Denvignes, who fell for her.
Back in Paris, in early 1917, she moved into the less than luxurious Élysée Palace, on the Champs-Élysée. Her way of life of came to an end when she was arrested in February. Her trail was in July.
The French convicted Mata Hari of spying, but it turns out that she was hopeless at espionage, conveying nothing of value, even if she had intended to. Shamed in the international press as a traitor, she was accused of revealing closely kept secrets about Allied tanks, leading to the death of over 50,000 soldiers. Her relationships with German and French officers put her under special scrutiny, as did her travels around Europe during the war.
She had always been used to talking with officers, going out with them, dancing with them, sleeping with them.
Mata Hari was a big catch for the French, who were eager to jail anyone suspected of spying. Even so, the government of France feared what she could reveal about her liaisons with their own high-ranking officers. She had relied on the favors of powerful men, and on a little bit of spying, which sealed her own fate.
Supposedly secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup. After being accused, Mata Hari told the court:
“A harlot? Yes, but a traitor, never!”