Leeuwarden (Netherlands): A century ago on Sunday, an exotic dancer named Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad, condemned as a sultry Dutch double agent who supposedly caused the deaths of thousands of soldiers during the First World War.
Her life and death became fodder almost overnight for one of the greatest spy stories of all time — featuring an alluring temptress who could dance, dazzle and draw secrets from the hapless military men unable to resist her.
Increasingly, though, Mata Hari — the stage name adopted by Margaretha Zelle — is also being reinterpreted as a victim of a time when a sexually liberated woman with artistic ambitions faced harsh judgement.
The irony is not missed on Yves Rocourt, curator of “Mata Hari. The Myth and the Maiden,” an exhibit opening this weekend in Leeuwarden, the Dutch town where Zelle was born in 1876.
“Unfortunately, issues like money and having to sleep with someone in a position of power to achieve something are not time-related,” Rocourt said.
“You cannot help but think about what is going in Hollywood at this very moment,” said Julie Wheelwright, author of the biography The Fatal Lover.
“All these allegations that are coming out now and you just wonder, ‘But what’s changed in 100 years?’ Not much.”
On a canal close to her childhood home, where vicious winds and icy temperatures can freeze the water for months, a statue erected in 1976 shows Mata Hari in her typical stage regalia. Dressed in little more than pearls and veils, she stands with legs apart and arms outstretched, ready to take on the world.
How she got to the glittering salons and theatres of Paris and Berlin before ending up in front of a firing squad was due to desperation as much as boldness.
Her comfortable youth was disrupted when her father went broke and her mother died. At age 18, she answered an ad placed by an aristocrat military officer seeking a wife. Soon, she was living in the Dutch East Indies, in what is now Indonesia.
The couple had two children despite her husband’s violence and unfaithfulness and Margaretha’s own fiery, flirtatious personality. After their son died, the marriage disintegrated and her ex-husband refused to pay alimony. Zelle, facing being a single mother without financial support, gave up custody of her daughter and in 1903 left for Paris, where she reinvented herself.
“I am tired of struggling against life,” she wrote. The choice she saw was to “be a decent mother or live life as it is dazzlingly offered to me here.”
Lourens Oldersma, who edited a book of Mata Hari’s letters published late last year, said “she evolved from being a flirt into the woman that started living this loose, decadent life.”
Building a dance repertoire on the sensuous temple dances she had observed in Asia, Mata Hari had her breakthrough performance at the Paris Musee Guimet on March 13, 1905. She soon became a sensation across Europe.
But the brilliant life she envisioned was expensive to maintain, especially as she got older and her popularity as an exotic dancer declined. When the First World War broke out, she used her passport from a neutral country to continue travelling and took wealthy, well-connected lovers from all sides of the conflict.
The promise of a steady supply of francs to support herself persuaded Zelle to accept an offer to spy, first for Germany and then for France.
“She thought that spying was just another role. It was another kind of performance,” Wheelwright said. “She was very naive.”
French intelligence eventually intercepted a German telegram discussing the work of an agent code-named H-21. The details revealed Mata Hari as a double agent two-timing France. She was arrested while having breakfast in her suite at the Elysee Palace Hotel.
During 16 interrogation sessions, she cracked and admitted to working for the Germans. At 41, she was shot at a military ground close to Paris at dawn on October 15, 1917.
The rest is history — and an awful lot of books and movies, including one starring Greta Garbo. Mata Hari’s story ebbs and flows with the mood of the times and geography.
“When I was talking to people in France, even until quite recently, their view was very much more that ‘Here was this decadent woman who was responsible for all these deaths, so why should we feel any sympathy for her?’” Wheelwright said.
In the Netherlands, there was more ambivalence.
“They stressed more the spy story and the exotic dancer rather than the fact she was a decadent woman,” Oldersma said in front of the Mara Hari statue as it was being restored for the commemorations.
With the publication of his book last year, “people started realising that, yes, this is also a mother, and she had to go through a fight,” he said.
Still, the question of who Mata Hari really was defies easy answers. One year she refused to pose naked for a painter, the next she slept with men for money. The verdict on whether the secrets she gained from her lovers’ lips’ doomed thousands of young Allied soldiers continues to be debated but seems increasingly unlikely.
“There is a kind of paradoxical thing going on,” Wheelwright said. “On the one hand, she is very vulnerable. But then on the other hand, she’s also got a sense of manipulating people.”
The mystery of Mata Hari still confounds Rocourt, the exhibit curator.
“The truth is very complex,” he said. “I don’t know what the truth is.”