74: Mata Hari

We’re diving into the classics this week as we compare history with Mata Hari. Released in 1931, Mata Hari tells the story of the woman who many considered to be one of the most dangerous spies during World War I.

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Episode Transcript

In 1982, author Roald Dahl released what would go on to become a beloved children’s tale: The BFG. Then, just last year—in 2016 for anyone listening to this in the future—legendary director Steven Spielberg’s 3D animated version of the children’s book was released.

The screenwriter who adapted Roald’s book to the big screen was none other than Melissa Mathison. Haven’t heard of her? That wouldn’t surprise me. Screenwriters and authors don’t typically get much of the spotlight.

Sadly, Melissa passed away in 2015 so she wasn’t able to see The BFG get released in theaters.

Still, even if you haven’t heard of Melissa’s name before, you’ve almost certainly heard of her work. That’s made even more impressive considering that over the course of her career in Hollywood that spanned nearly over 30 years, she had a hand in writing a total of five screenplays.

Two of those five screenplays were projects that had Steven Spielberg as a director.

OK, maybe you can say three of the five—Melissa was also one of a total of ten writers who worked on the four different segments that went into Twilight Zone: The Movie. Each of the four segments had a different director and Steven Spielberg was one of them.

So maybe a more accurate way of saying it would be that two of Melissa’s five screenplays in her three-decade-plus long Hollywood career had Steven Spielberg—and only Steven Spielberg—as a director.

One of those was the aforementioned The BFG.

The other was a film you’ve probably heard of. Maybe even seen. I’m speaking of 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Despite being early on in Melissa’s career, it wasn’t the first major film that Steven Spielberg directed. After all, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark came out just the year before in 1981.

But there was someone who played a roll in E.T. who was new to Hollywood. Little six-year-old Drew Barrymore’s career is widely regarded as taking off thanks to her role as Gertie in E.T.

Of course, that overlooks the other three movies she made before those. But have you ever seen Drew as a toddler in the 1978 made-for-TV movie called Suddenly, Love? I didn’t think so. Me either.

But how could a little girl born in 1975 already star in her first movie in 1978? Well, for Drew Barrymore, you are born into a family of actors. Her dad was an actor. Her mom was an aspiring actress. Her aunt was an actress; her grandparents were actors; her great-grand parents were actors; her great-great-grandparents were actors…and the list goes on.

One of those relatives in Drew Barrymore’s impressive ancestry filled with actors was a man named Lionel. He was born in 1878 and lived until 1954. During his lifetime, Lionel Barrymore starred in 225 different films. Oh, and he also starred in plenty of theater roles, too.

Maybe you remember him as the villain, Mr. Potter, in the 1946 classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

But that’s not the film we’re looking at today.

15 years before It’s a Wonderful Life, Lionel starred in another Christmas film. A short film, actually, called The Christmas Party. That was released in December of 1931. But it’s not the only movie Lionel starred in that was released in 1931. The day after Christmas in 1931, December 26th, a film Lionel starred in called Mata Hari was released.

Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Mata Hari is someone that I’d venture to guess most people haven’t heard of. But like screenwriter Melissa Mathison, you’ve heard of some of the things Mata Hari worked on. In this case, I’m not talking about a movie.

But the real Mata Hari was an exotic dancer during World War I and, according to many, used her skills to gain information from French officers as she worked as a spy for the Germans. She’s often referred to as one of the greatest spies of World War I.

So whether or not you’ve seen the 1931 movie named after her or even heard her name, let’s take some time to compare it to history and as we do, learn more about Mata Hari’s amazing story.

The true story behind Mata Hari

Our story today begins with some text in the movie that sets up the timeline. According to the film, in 1917, France was in the middle of a war and dealt harshly with anyone they found to be traitors or spies.

Although this statement is quite vague, the key points are setting the story up to be in France in 1917. The war mentioned, of course, is World War I.

By the time 1917 rolled around, World War I had been raging on for three years, and France was in the thick of it.

After this vague introductory text, we see three men tied to posts being shot by a firing squad. The men in the movie aren’t ever really identified, but they’re shown primarily to get across the message we just read in the text: France takes spies seriously. In other words, they’re shot.

This scene isn’t based in history, but the basic gist is true. There were many spies who were shot during World War I.

It’s during this scene that we first hear the name Mata Hari. She’s mentioned by an investigator named Dubois. He believes Mata is a spy, but the officer he’s with doesn’t agree.

Dubois isn’t a real person, but the woman he’s talking about is. Of course, we already talked about her a bit in the introduction to this episode, but because this movie starts in 1917, let’s take a couple minutes to learn more about the real Mata Hari.

Let’s start with her name.

Mata Hari wasn’t her real name.

Her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, and she was born on August 7th, 1876 in Leeuwarden to a Adam and Antje Zelle as the first of four children.

In case you’re not familiar with the where Leeuwarden is, that’s only about 10 miles—16 kilometers—south of the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands.

It’s almost due east of Manchester in the U.K., across the North and Wadden Seas that separate the island of the U.K. with mainland Europe. On the other side, it’s almost due west of Hamburg, Germany.

Growing up in Leeuwarden, little Margaretha benefited from her father’s rather successful business moves. Most notably, he ran a hat shop and then took the profits he made to invest into the oil industry early on.

As a result, Margaretha was sent to some private schools that offered her a great education from a young age. If things continued on this trajectory, Margaretha’s life might’ve been quite different.

Then tragedy struck.

In 1889, those investments turned sour and even though we don’t know the specifics of how it happened, what we do know is that Adam, Margaretha’s father, essentially lost all of his money. No more private schools for little Margaretha, who at this time would’ve been about 13.

Then tragedy struck again.

After going from some of the more affluential people in Leeuwarden to all of a sudden having no money, the stress became too much and Adam and Antje got divorced.

Now a teenager, Margaretha’s life all of a sudden took a completely different path.

Then tragedy struck again.

Two years after losing almost everything, including her parent’s marriage, Margaretha lost something even more important—her mother.

Antje Zelle passed away in 1891.

Adam tried his best to raise four kids on his own. A couple years later, he remarried to a woman named Susanna, but any hopes of having a wonderful family life was gone. Margaretha left her father and step-mom and moved in with her godfather about 12 miles, or 19 kilometers, to the south of Leeuwarden in a small town called Sneek.

Then at the age of 18, Margaretha did something that would guarantee she’d never return home.

She answered a newspaper ad placed by a man looking for a wife. That man was Rudolf MacLeod, a Captain in the Dutch Army who was 20-years older , and he was looking for someone to move to Indonesia and be his wife.

Well, at the time they called Indonesia the Dutch East Indies.

Less than a month before her 19th birthday, Margaretha Zelle became Margaretha MacLeod when she married Rudolf on July 11th, 1895. Thanks to her marriage, she enjoyed the benefits of Rudolf’s family money, which he apparently had enough of to put Margaretha right back into the high society.

But, as they say, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Rudolf and Margaretha had two children together, but their marriage was rocky at best. At worst, Rudolf would come home drunk and regularly beat Margaretha. That’s something they actually mention in the movie at one point. Not only that, but Rudolf also had a concubine—basically a second wife, but not technically a wife.

Margaretha grew increasingly unhappy with her situation, but she still had two kids that she loved.

Then tragedy once again struck when both of Margaretha’s children got really sick amid some speculation that someone might’ve poisoned their family at an attempt to get at Rudolf.

Sadly, little Norman MacLeod passed away. Margaretha’s other child, Jeanne, got better, but it was essentially the final straw in their marriage.

On August 30th, 1902, Rudolf and Margaretha moved back to the Netherlands, and Margaretha immediately left Rudolf, taking Jeanne with her. Four years later, a court gave her official custody of Jeanne when Rudolf and Margaretha were divorced.

Oh, sure, the courts declared that Rudolf was supposed to pay child support, but he didn’t.

Yet again, all of a sudden Margaretha was without money and forced to fend for herself—and for her daughter. So she did what most single parents do…anything she could to provide for her daughter.

Then tragedy struck again.

Well, at least for Margaretha. After a typical visit to her father’s place, Rudolf refused to return Jeanne. Defeated and without the finances to be able to fight it in court, Margaretha decided to put her family life behind her.

After this latest tragedy for Margaretha, she decided to leave that life of hardship and adversity behind. But how would she do this with no family, no money and essentially no career education?

Well, she decided to leave the Netherlands and move to Paris.

It was here that, after a brief stint in the circus, she tried dancing in a saloon one evening and immediately became a hit. She pulled from her experience living in Indonesia to start wearing jewels and very little clothing as she danced seductively around—all eyes on her.

She began to eat up the attention she received as a stark contrast to most of her life up to that point. But if she were to complete her new persona, she’d have to take a new name. So she decided to go with Mata Hari, a name many believe she actually started calling herself while in Indonesia.

Mata Hari, by the way, is an Indonesian term meaning “eye of the day”…basically, the sun.

But here in Paris it took on a whole new meaning.

For years, things seemed to finally be turning around for her. She was learning how to be a completely independent woman; earning her own living, and a fine one at that.

But then, on July 28th, 1914, the world changed when it plunged into war. It was The Great War. Or, as we know it now, World War I.

That was just ten days before Mata Hari’s 38th birthday.

Many historians think it was because of her age as she danced nearly naked—she almost never went without a bra because she was very self-conscious of her breast size. Many think it was because she’d started to gain some weight as she got older and earned more money.

Or maybe it was just because Parisians all of a sudden found a lot of their extra spending money going to the war effort.

No matter the reason, Mata Hari’s career started to see a downturn. We don’t know all of the details because much of this isn’t documented, but most historians believe it was around this point that Mata started to rely more and more on the financial support from military men who stopped in to see her dance.

Well, they cared more about spending time in her company than they did seeing her dance. Or, really…well, I think you get the idea.

And finally, we’re almost caught up to the point where the movie begins. I know we haven’t really talked much about the movie to this point, but because I’m just guessing that many people these days don’t know who Mata Hari was, I think knowing her back story is important to understand what she did…and why she did the things she did.

Her early days weren’t easy by any means, and now we know why.

Oh, and by the way, Mata Hari is portrayed by Greta Garbo in the film.

Going back to the movie now, after the introductory scene we’re introduced to two other main characters in the film. One of them is a pilot who we see landing on an airfield. His name is Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff, and in the film he’s played by Ramon Novarro.

The other is General Serge Shubin, and he is played by Lionel Barrymore.

According to the movie, the Lieutenant is from the Imperial Russian Army and he’s arrived to deliver a dispatch to the French ambassador. Then, he has to stick around for the French ambassador to craft his response. During that time is when a bulk of the movie takes place.

Let’s start with some facts we can compare this to. The movie doesn’t mention any dates other than the vague 1917 date at the very beginning. So we don’t really know what month this is, which is important because the Imperial Russian Army was dissolved in 1917.

More specifically, it dissolved as a part of the dissolution of the entire Russian government during the Russian Revolution. There’s many dates that go into that—it wasn’t a one-day thing by any means—but the first revolution began in February of 1917 with most historians saying it was done in November of the same year.

You can learn a bit more about this in The Hunt for Red October episode of the podcast.

We also know from history that the Russians were allies of the English, Americans, Italians, Japanese, French and others during The Great War. So it’s very possible that the Imperial Russian Army could’ve been around during the timeline of the movie.

It’s also plausible that there would’ve been sending messages to and from the French. Would they have sent them by airplane?

Maybe. Some were. Some were sent via telegraph, which was invented at the end of the 18th century.

However, it’s not likely that the scene we saw in the movie with Rosanoff and Shubin because, well, Alexis Rosanoff is a fictional character as is Serge Shubin.

Which, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that this throws a major wrench into the historical accuracy of the film because those two characters play a huge role in the movie. In fact, most of the movie revolves around their interactions with Mata.

Rosanoff is supposedly Mata’s love interest while Shubin plays a crucial role in Mata’s espionage. Well, if they’re not real, then, as you can probably guess, there’s not a lot of the storyline in the film that’s based in truth.

Although, as I say that, going back to the film, the next scene where we see Greta Garbo’s version of Mata Hari dancing for the first time—and only time throughout the film—she’s doing so in front of a big statue of Shiva. There actually was a magazine that reported about one of Mata Hari’s dance routines where she did that same sort of dance.

Part of that was because Mata’s mystique was that of an Eastern goddess. Because of her exotic-sounding name, seductive dances and, well, being mostly naked while she did them, a lot of the French onlookers were sucked into her charm.

Mata would also commonly dress in Indonesian and Eastern islander costumes that were indeed quite authentic to help sell her image.

As a result, a lot of people believed her when she claimed to be a Java native. After all, that sounds a lot more exotic to the French than her true story as a Dutch immigrant. And, as we learned, she did live in Indonesia for some time, so she could certainly play the part.

In fact, there’s a lot of historical records and stories that mention Mata Hari’s mother as being Javanese. But most historians believe that was all a part of the tale she spun to help sell her celebrity.

Oh, and by the way, Java is one of the islands of Indonesia.
But perhaps that opening dance number by Mata Hari in the film is probably one of the more accurate moments in the movie. It’s after this that the plot line involving the fictitious Rosanoff, Shubin and the French investigator trying to prove Mata to be a spy, Dubois, starts to come into play.

But if that plot line isn’t true, that begs the ultimate question—what is the true story of Mata Hari?

Well, even though Rosanoff may not have been the real Mata Hari’s love interest, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have any romantic relationships.

We already learned a bit about that earlier.

In particular, though, there was a man that the newspapers of the day only refer to as Father Mortillac as being Mata Hari’s lover in 1917.

So maybe Mortillac was the person they based the Russian Lieutenant Rosanoff on…or, maybe not.

The real Father Mortillac was referred to as Father because after Mata was caught, he disappeared and was found many years later hiding out at a Spanish monastery. I really don’t think he was a Russian officer.

But that’s getting ahead of our story.

According to the movie, a French intelligence officer named Dubois starts to get suspicious of Mata Hari. And it’s for good reason, too, because in the film she makes contact with a man named Andriani at a gambling establishment of some sort that they refer to as the pavilion.

The movie doesn’t really mention who Dubois is, we only know he’s trying to prove Mata Hari is a German spy. But like Rosanoff and Shubin, both Dubois and Andriani are fictional characters.

Although there was a French secret service agent named Georges Ladoux who probably provided a lot of inspiration for the character of Dubois.

Oh, and Andriani at one point mentions the use of a new weapon called a tank and how it was used, according to the film, yesterday, at the Somme.

While the movie is correct in stating that tanks were used for the first time in history at the Battle of the Somme, the timeline is completely off. Remember how the movie starts with text saying it’s 1917? Well, the Battle of the Somme took place between July 1st, 1916 and November 18th, 1916 with tanks making their first appearance on September 15th, 1916.

Anyway, unfortunately we don’t have a lot of the details about exactly the type of deals Mata Hari did—or even if she did them at all. A lot of that seems to have been lost to history. Or, at least, I was unable to track any of that down, so if you have more details about it then I’d love to hear!

What we do know about the true story is that as the war raged on, Mata Hari didn’t stay in Paris all the time. She traveled around the regions owned by the Allies.

There’s been a lot of speculation about exactly what she did on those trips or even moreso, why she took the trips.

On one hand, it could make perfect sense. When the war broke out, men in the military helped provide financial support for Mata’s otherwise declining career. So maybe she was just trying to go to the troops…spread the love, so to speak.

In exchange for money, of course.

Or maybe it was something else.

The French thought it was something else.

In an age when everyone was suspicious of everyone, Mata Hari didn’t have much going for her. She was an exotic dancer. We don’t really know if the French authorities knew where she was really from, but even if they did it wouldn’t help.

In fact, it probably would’ve made it worse.

You see, when the rest of the world erupted into war in 1914, the Netherlands officially declared themselves neutral. Technically, they stayed neutral throughout the war, but is it really possible to stay neutral when just about every country around you is at war?

Well, they might not’ve gone into battle officially, but history now tells us that during World War I, the Netherlands were tied up in espionage like you wouldn’t believe.

Of course that’s looking at things through the lens of history. We don’t really know if the French knew about all of this at the time, but they were suspicious.

And they thought Mata Hari was in the middle of it all—spreading information to the Germans.

As the movie comes to a close, Mata Hari gets arrested and put on trial. And in the trial, there’s not a lot of great evidence against her. But, according to the film, they don’t need a lot of great evidence. They’re able to convict Greta Garbo’s version of Mata Hari in a trial that’s mostly smoke.

As a result, Mata Hari has a date set with a firing squad. It’s an ending that’s…well, really sad.

But as we learned earlier, the whole premise behind how Mata Hari was charged with the storyline of Rosanoff is fictional. The truth is, well, even more sad.

Do you remember the name Georges Ladoux? He’s the French intelligence guy that the character of Dubois in the movie is probably closest to—well, the real Ladoux, who was the head of French Intelligence, actually hired Mata Hari to share any information she gathered from the military men she was always around.

In particular, one of the stories actually is somewhat similar to what happens in the movie. Well, not really.

But according to that story, which has been debated by historians, basically says that Mata Hari fell in love with a young Russian Captain named Vadime—sort of like the Russian Rosanoff in the movie.

But that’s where the similarities end.

According to this version of history, Vadime was only 18 years old and was assigned to a small town by the name of Vittel, which is south of Nancy, France.

To be able to visit Vittel, though, she had to get permission. Remember, this was war-time.

To get permission, she had to get it from the head of French intelligence, Georges Ladoux. He agreed to give her a pass to go to Vittel if Mata Hari would agree to become a French spy and pass off any information she got to him.

And it’s true that many of the men who enjoyed Mata’s company over the years were, in fact, German soldiers. It wasn’t only German soldiers, of course, but there were plenty in there.

So basically, Ladoux used Mata Hari as a spy for France with her cooperation starting in 1916.

We don’t really know why, but at some point Ladoux became convinced that Mata Hari was, in fact, actually a German spy. Was that the real reason he hired her? To try to convert her into some sort of a double-agent? We don’t really know the real reasons behind these sort of questions.

Although it’s worth pointing out that some historians have wondered why Ladoux would try to hire Mata Hari as a spy at all. At the time, she was a popular figure in France. She wasn’t exactly undercover, and everyone always knew where she was—after all, she enjoyed being the center of attention.

Anyway, after agreeing to be a spy for Ladoux and getting her pass to visit her lover in Vittel, that’s exactly what Mata Hari did. When she got back to Paris, Ladoux didn’t waste any time in using his new asset.

Mata Hari’s first mission was to travel to Belgium, which was occupied by the enemy—Germany—and Ladoux wanted Mata Hari to use a connection of an ex-lover to get her close to a high-ranking German officer.

She did. And it worked.

This officer, someone named Kalle, spilled the beans to Mata Hari and told her a lot about the German’s military movements in North Africa.

Mata Hari had to have been thrilled! Not only did she do well on her first assignment as a spy, but Ladoux had promised he’d pay a million francs for the information she got.

It’s a little tough to convert that into U.S. dollars today, but it’d probably be in the ballpark of around $25 million.

It was a lot of money. Surely enough for Mata Hari to retire in luxury.

But she never got that money.

Instead, Ladoux, who was already convinced Mata Hari was actually a German spy, used the assignment he set up as the evidence he’d need to convince everyone that she actually was a spy.

On February 13th, 1917, the police arrived at Mata Hari’s hotel room and found her calmly eating breakfast. They arrested her for espionage with the power of a warrant for her arrest.

It’s hard to say what Mata Hari’s fortune might’ve been if so many didn’t already have it in their heads that she was a spy. Ladoux apparently set her up and used that as evidence. When she went into the courtroom, the judge was already biased.

We know this from something he’d say later when he’d say that from the first time he spoke to Mata Hari, he knew she was being paid by the Germans. His purpose wasn’t to find her guilty or innocent, but rather to uncover the proof of what he already knew.

Despite Ladoux’s assignment, there really wasn’t enough evidence to convict her. There wasn’t any proof of documents being passed to the Germans. Not one.
But that didn’t matter.

According the movie, the trial and conviction seem to happen really quickly. Then Mata Hari seemingly does herself in when she bursts out in an attempt to avoid having the Rosanoff called to the stand. If you remember, in the film, Rosanoff’s plane crashed on his way to deliver a dispatch back to the Russians and he lost his eyesight.

Well, that probably came from another of Mata Hari’s lovers, who apparently lost his eyesight in a battle somewhere, and refused to testify on Mata’s behalf.

While the trial didn’t happen like the movie shows, the prosecutors finally got what they wanted when Mata Hari eventually admitted under heavy interrogation to accepting money from the Germans as a spy.

Today, many historians believe that the truth was probably closer to Mata Hari simply accepting money from Germans—the same way she did from French, Russians, or anyone who’d be willing to pay for her company. It was how she made a living. Being interrogated probably didn’t help.

But still other historians say that Mata Hari certainly spied for the Germans, but she just wasn’t the master-spy that the French thought she was at the time.

None of that mattered for Mata Hari.

The French had the confession they needed.

Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that the movie really speeds up the timeline here. Greta Garbo’s version of Mata Hari was only in her cell for a brief time before soldiers came and took her away.

In truth, Mata Hari spent about nine months in prison before she was finally convicted. During that time, she wrote letters to anyone she could in an attempt to explain her innocence. It didn’t work.

The movie ends before it shows Mata Hari’s final demise, but the implication is clear as she’s being led to face the firing squad.

Sadly, that’s true.

The French soldiers arrived at Mata Hari’s prison cell in Paris and transported her to a rifle range in Vincennes, just a few kilometers outside the center of Paris. There, she faced a firing squad.

She was 41 years old.

Actually, if you want to hear more about what really happened in Mata Hari’s final moments, I’ve got a bonus episode that is a newspaper article from 1917 explaining her final goodbye.

The Dutch dancer who had lived through so much tragedy only to meet a tragic ending still managed to die with some form of dignity. She refused to be tied to the stake. She refused to wear a blindfold, instead looking her fate in the eye.

Moments before she was shot, she blew a kiss to the men in the firing squad that faced her.

Thirty years after that, one of the men involved in prosecuting her case was quoted as saying about Mata Hari that, “there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat.”

Mata Hari’s case has been something that historians have debated for decades. One of the big reasons why there’s been so much debate about her case is because we still don’t have all of the documents.

In 2001, a group of Dutch historians and enthusiasts formed the Mata Hari Foundation and tried to get the French government to re-open her case. You can’t change the past, but they tried to change how the world thinks of Mata Hari in the future.

And thanks in part to their work, they’ll be celebrating a major victory this year.

You see, it’s only this year that the French Army has agreed to declassify Mata Hari’s trial and case documents that have been sealed for decades.

Well, I guess I could say even longer than that.

While I haven’t really mentioned it up to this point, there’s a reason why this episode is being released when it is.

This week, we can say a century instead of decades because the last day of Mata Hari’s life was exactly 100 years ago this Sunday, on October 15th, 1917.

Two years after her mother’s death, Mata—Margaretha Zelle’s daughter, Jeanne, passed away. She was 21.

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