Eye of Dawn

 

She stood alone in the sodden field on the outskirts of Paris, her fashionable ankle boots firmly planted in the mud churned up by the cavalry who drilled there. No she would not be tied to the stake, she told her executioners politely. Nor would she allow them to blindfold her. She faced the barrels of the firing squad without flinching.

They had awoken her at 5am in her filthy cell in the Prison de Saint-Lazare to tell her this was the day she would die. She dressed in her best: stockings, a low-cut blouse under a dove grey two-piece suit. On her head she perched a three-cornered hat at a jaunty angle, hiding her greying hair, unkempt and unwashed through nine months of incarceration. Over her shoulders she slung a vivid blue coat like a cloak to keep out the cold October air.

In a black car with its window blinds down, Margaretha Zelle, convicted of espionage, was then driven swiftly through the still streets of the capital-a place she loved with a passion, though she was Dutch not French- to this damp and drear spot.

The 12 soldiers in their khaki uniforms and red fezzes raised their rifles. She waved to the weeping nuns who had been her comfort in prison and on her last journey. She blew a kiss to the priest and another to her lawyer, an ex-lover.

The sun was coming up when the shots rang out. Zelle slumped to the ground. The officer in charge marched forward and fired a single bullet into her brain, the coup de grace. An extraordinary life was over.

The woman executed that day in 1917 was better known as Mata Hari, a name Zelle had chosen for herself when she became Europe’s queen of unbridled eroticism, an exotic dancer, courtesan, harlot, great lover, liar, deceiver and thief. It was said she had caused the deaths of tens of thousands of French soldiers, a crime that would ever after make her synonymous with seduction and treachery, the ultimate femme fatale.

Born on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, she was the second child of Adam Zelle and his wife Antje van der Meulen and was the only girl in a family of four boys. Adam Zelle had a successful hat business in an era when virtually no man would be seen in public without a hat. He kept his family in comfortable circumstances and seemed to especially enjoy indulging his vivacious and lovely daughter. She would someday recall that her father seemed to regard her as "an orchid among buttercups."

For her sixth birthday, her father gave her a most special present: a miniature carriage to which two goats were harnessed. Manually skilled, Papa Zelle had made the carriage, which would seat four passengers. Young Margaretha knew how to drive a carriage because she had often taken the reins of her father’s jitney so she was delighted to show off her present and pick up her friends in it.

In many ways, Margaretha showed a flair for the dramatic early on. She loved wearing flamboyant clothes to school and regaling pals with stories of her exalted origins. "I was born of illustrious ancestors," she would claim. "My cradle stood in Caminghastate." The Caminghastate was a mansion in Leeuwarden in which an authentically noble family resided. Margaretha sometimes told them she lived in a castle. Although her friends suspected her stories were fantasy, she was still a popular person. Teachers liked her too for she was a bright child who showed herself especially quick with languages.

Disaster struck the family when she was thirteen years old. Adam Zelle went bankrupt as a result of a series of misguided speculations on the stock market. After selling off their nice furniture, the family moved from its spacious home in one of the better parts of the city to a tiny, shabby house in a poor section. Adam told them he was going to Amsterdam to try his luck there and left Antje to look after four children by herself.

Antje was not up to the task. She soon became deeply depressed, then physically ill. She died when Margaretha was fifteen years old. Although she was a "daddy’s girl," Margaretha had also been quite close to her mother and took her death very hard. Adam Zelle came home for the funeral but did not repossess his young. Instead, he distributed them among those relatives who could be persuaded to take in an impoverished and orphaned young person.

At the age of 16, away at school she was caught up in a romantic scandal with the headmaster. Sent away in disgrace she went to live with her uncle. The restless teenager set about finding a man to take her away from her circumstances. When, through a Lonely Hearts as, she met Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a hard living, hard drinking officer from Holland’s vicious colonial wars in the East Indies, she didn’t care that he was 22 years older than her.

He was handsome, with a splendid moustache. She was tall and elegant, with flirty dark eyes and a dark olive complexion. She told him she longed to do “crazy things” and they were engaged within six days. Three months later they were married, she in a bright yellow gown rather than the traditional white.

There were problems almost straight away. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the other officers. She was also the first to admit that she did not have it in her to be “a good housewife”.

“I was not content at home,” she later confessed. “I wanted to live like a colorful butterfly in the sun.”

He was jealous; though saw no reason why he should forgo the womanizing, drinking and coarseness of his bachelor days. He was constantly in debt; she was extravagant, always spending. As for his syphilis, caught overseas, he neglected to tell her. Nonetheless she bore him two children, and they returned as a family to his new posting in the colonies. There, in the exotic surroundings of Indonesia, their marital problems multiplied.

She did not fit the mold of an officer’s wife, not least because her dark skin made the snobbier women suggest she had native blood. To the men however, that look was seductive and she made the most of it.

“Her languid, graceful style of moving, her dark eyes and luxurious hair, telegraphed her sexuality to any male in her presence,” wrote Pat Shipman. “She drew every man’s lustful admiration and every woman’s envy. She was seen as morally dangerous, selfish and frivolous.”

The marriage deteriorated in sharp quarrel, too much drinking, rows about money and accusations of infidelity. The true nail in the coffin however was tragedy. On June 27, 1899, and Margaretha had settled down to her comfortable bed for the night. Suddenly she heard terrible screams of agony from the children’s nursery. She leapt up from her bed and raced up the stairs to their room.

The room stank of vomit and both youngsters were soaked in it. Moreover, the vomit itself was a bizarre black color. The children convulsed in pain, their bodies twisting grotesquely as they cried and shrieked. Weeping and terrified, Margaretha hugged her vomit-covered children to her while a frantic Rudolph ran from the house in search of a Dutch doctor.

Little Norman was dead by the time the physician arrived. The doctor pulled the sick Non from her mother’s grasp in order to take the child to the hospital.

The daughter was saved and eventually made a full recovery. Both children had apparently been poisoned. No one ever proved who had done the dreadful deed but it was widely rumored that it was a perverse retaliation by someone, possibly the nanny, whom Rudolph MacLeod had wronged.

The family de-camped to Europe were their relationship settled into a deep, seething hatred. They split, but not before Rudolph made sure that Margaretha was cut off from all income and lines of credit. Sexual favors were her only useful assets, but she did not see Holland as the best place to exploit them. In 1903, with little money and no contacts, she left for Paris.

She wanted a new life so she baptized herself with a new name: Mata Hari. In Malay, matahari is the term for the sun. Literally speaking, it means "eye of dawn."

It was under this name that a bold, exotic dancer debuted in the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905. The scene is detailed in Russell Warren Howe’s book, Mata Hari: The True Story: "…a half life-size carving of Siva, with four arms, was placed on the improvised stage with a bowl of burning oil at his feet. Mata Hari was dressed from the museum collection, as were four supporting dancers who, in the course of the rite, would vie for Siva’s attentions but retire in humility as the god directed his invitation to Margaretha Zelle alone. Bracelets from the collection embellished her wrists, biceps, and calves. A belt from India, encrusted with previous stones, held a translucent Indian sarong in place. She attempted to maximize what nature had given her a minimum of by stuffing with cotton wool the bejeweled metal breast cups she sported for the occasion.

"The diaphanous shawls she wore as the dance began were cast away to tempt the god until finally, as the candelabras were capped and only the flickering oil light gleamed on Siva’s features, the sarong was abandoned and her silhouette, with her back to the audience, writhed with desire toward her supernatural lover. The four dancing girls chanted their jealousy as Mata Hari groaned and worked her loins deliriously. All passion spent, she touched her brow to Siva’s feet; one of the attendant dancers tiptoed delicately forward and threw a gold lamé cloth across the kneeling figure, enabling her to rise and take the applause."

And the applause was deafening for the audience went wild over Mata Hari’s extraordinary performance. She was an overnight success and a success that would have repercussions throughout the world for she was pivotal in elevating the striptease to an art form. The fabulous dancer was courted by many European venues and triumphantly took her act to Spain, Monte Carlo, and Germany. She often stripped down until she was almost naked — but never quite. The dramatically jeweled breastcups stayed in place so people could not see what she did not have. She was also covered by a body stocking, one that was similar in color to her own skin but obscured her pubic hair.

Mata Hari gave the public a history of her life designed to aggrandize both herself and her art. While her autobiography varied from time to time, the downtrodden and often impoverished Dutchwoman she had been was always absent from it. Her usual story was that she had been born in India of a Brahman family. Her mother had been a temple dancer who died while giving birth to Mata Hari. She had been raised in the temple of the god Siva and consecrated to his service.

Her European audience, ignorant of the specifics of Indian and Southeast Asian culture, accepted her statements on her own background as well as the Hindu spirituality of her dancing. She would tell them, "My dance is a sacred poem in which each movement is a word and whose every word is underlined by music. The temple in which I dance can be vague or faithfully reproduced, as here today. For I am the temple. All true temple dances are religious in nature and all explain, in gestures and poses, the rules of the sacred texts."

Her life became an unending performance, both on stage and off. Her success seemed unstoppable and the money came rolling in. But she still managed to spend more than she earned as she travelled Europe, picking up lovers, dropping some, keeping others.

The professional life of a dancer, like that of an athlete, is generally short. Mata Hari was no exception to this rule. She had begun her career when she was close to 30, much later than most dancers do. Over a few years’ time, the muscles of her body started losing their tone, she put on weight as people usually do as they age and the metabolism slows down, and her act simply lost its freshness. Many of her imitators were younger and prettier and quite a few were better dancers. Her heyday lasted from 1905 to 1912. As she approached 40, Mata Hari’s support increasingly came from being a courtesan rather than a dancer.

Her financial problems eased when in May 1914 she signed a contract to dance for six months at the Metropol in Berlin, starting in September. The political situation overtook her however, and when war broke out in August of that year she was stuck in a now belligerent and increasingly jingoistic German capital with no money and no job. Her fur coats and money seized, she charmed a Dutch businessman to pay her train fare to Amsterdam.

Back in Holland, she took up again with a former lover. Aritocratic and wealthy, he was just her type. There she was visited by Karl Kroemer, the German consul, who told her that he was recruiting spies. He gave her 20,000 francs and a code name: H21. She took the money, but would later claim that she didn’t take him seriously. She told herself the cash was compensation for the furs taken from her in Berlin.

Leaving Amsterdam for Paris via Britain she was stopped by British counter intelligence. They searched her but found nothing incriminating. Nonetheless they sent ahead a report to their allies the French with a note about rumors of payments from the German embassy and “One suspects her of having gone to France on an important mission that will profit the Germans.”

While in Paris she resumed her glamorous life, taking up with a young Russian officer, Vladmir “Vadim” Masloff 18 years her junior. All the while unawares that she was being tailed and investigated by secret policemen. Her love affair was interrupted when Masloff was ordered back to the Front. There he suffered an injury, losing the sight in his left eye as a result of being gassed by the Germans.

The young Russian was recuperating in a military hospital near Vittel, a place officially in the war zone so civilians required special permission to travel there. It was while seeking that permission that Mata Hari would meet Georges Ladoux, a man instrumental in her undoing.

He regarded Mata as little better than a prostitute; she thought him small-minded and coarse. They fenced words with each other. She wanted a pass to Vittel. He agreed, if she promised to enlist as a spy for France.

Mata accepted his offer, believing that she could score a huge payday to settle debts and marry Vadim. What she didn’t know was that both Ladoux and the British believed that she was already a spy for Germany. Ladoux sent her on her first mission, to German occupied Belgium, where she said an ex-lover could steer her into the arms of the German military governor.

Belgium proved impossible to reach and she ended up in Spain. There she turned her charms on a German captain; an intelligence officer named Kalle, and stretched out on a chaise lounge as he told her secrets about German maneuvers in North Africa.

This information she triumphantly passed on to Ladoux, believing she was earning the million francs he had promised her. Instead she fell into his trap, and the meetings with Kalle would be used against her. Mata was accused of handing over French secrets rather than teasing out German ones. On February 10, 1917 a warrant for her arrest was signed by the French war minister.

Rumor around Paris was that when served, they found her naked.

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adapted from Daily Mail and TruTV

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