RIP Mata Hari, the greatest femme fatale

12 October 2017 - 06:40 By AFP
I, SPY Mata Hari Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I, SPY Mata Hari Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Exotic dancer and suspected double agent Mata Hari was executed in Paris 100 years ago but her name endures today as that of the ultimate seductive spy.

She was just 41 when she faced a firing squad on October 15 1917, accused of spying for Germany during World War 1.

On the anniversary of her death, here is a recap of her life of eroticism and intrigue that drew in a string of lovers, including ministers, military officers and diplomats from both sides of the frontline.

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands, she fled to Paris in 1903 aged 27 to start a new life after a rancorous divorce.

Penniless in Paris, the tall beauty reinvented herself, becoming a dancer in a striptease act and taking the name Mata Hari, Indonesian for "Eye of the Day", apparently a reference to the sun.

Her fame as an exotic beauty quickly spread across Europe and she became a celebrity, also raising eyebrows for her many love affairs.

Her Oriental "sacred dances" pushed the boundaries of pre-war European tolerance and often saw her appearing to wear little more than a bejewelled brassiere.

"In her time, she was as famous as Madonna," the Washington Times said in a 2007 book review. "By the time she was executed by the French for espionage in 1917, she was perhaps the most famous non-royal in Europe if not the world."

By 1914, however, her popularity was waning. She became a call girl in Paris, entertaining ministers and becoming known for her extravagant parties. Broke, due to her lavish lifestyle, in 1916 she accepted an offer from a German diplomat to pay off her debts if she spied on France.

Mata Hari then offered her services to France's counter-espionage bureau where agents were already suspicious of her. They gave her several missions but kept her under surveillance.

By the time she was executed by the French for espionage in 1917, she was perhaps the most famous non-royal in Europe if not the world.

The French suspicions deepened when she requested a pass to travel to Vittel, near the eastern front and where a new military aerodrome was being built. She said her visit was to meet a young Russian officer who was her lover.

Then in January 1917, the French authorities intercepted a cable from Germany appearing to identify Mata Hari as their "Agent H 21". She was arrested and charged with being a double agent.

On the cold morning of October 15 1917, Mata Hari was executed in Paris, President Raymond Poincaré having refused her request for clemency.

Witnesses wrote that she wore a long, black velvet cloak with fur trimmings and a large square fur collar. She is said to have declined a blindfold and blew kisses to her executors. 

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