It is a 100 years since Margaretha Zelle, alias Mata Hari, was executed by the French for being a German spy. There was never any conclusive proof she was seducing high ranking officers into divulging military secrets but the Dutch beauty moved in military circles as the Great War was in progress and during that uncertain time rumours flew.
According to Friesland Museum curator Hans Groeneweg the French arrested Mata Hari on a trumped-up charge. ‘Things were dire at the front in 1917, with one mutiny after another. Generals came and went in quick succession, France was on the verge of collapse. Mata Hari was famous, and was made an example of. The French thought: if we shoot her, the world will tremble. Point made.’
But before fate gave her a role in history, the young Margaretha Zelle was an ordinary girl growing up in a moderately well to do family. The exhibition has one of her school report cards on which a teacher has disapprovingly noted that ‘obedience’ is not her strong suit but that she is doing better in German and French.
By the time she was 18 both her parents were dead and Zelle had to fend for herself. Perhaps her bolshie side made her answer the ad from John MacLeod, an officer serving in the Dutch East Indies and twenty years her senior .
They married six months after they met but the marriage was not a happy one as MacLeod accused his wife of flirting with his fellow officers while Zelle retaliated by blaming him for giving her syphilis.
During their time in the Dutch colony she spent time studying the local East Indian dance tradition, something that was to stand her in good stead when she had to make her own living.
A letter written during a difficult divorce and custody battle for their daughter Nonnie reads: ‘I am tired of fighting and I only want one of two things: either to have Nonnie by my side and be a decent mother, or live the splendid life that is being offered me. I know life will end in misery- but I have accepted that.’
She was never going to be the dedicated mother. A short note to her daughter, whom she last saw in 1905, reads: ‘Dearest Nonnie, I long to see you once more. I have always tried but it never worked out.’ They were never to meet again.
It was to be the splendid life, in Paris, and that is where the (in)famous Mata Hari was born, a persona she always kept separate from her true self. ‘What happens to Mata Hari does not concern Madame Zelle,’ she was to write in prison.
Her exotic dancing, her numerous affairs with officers, her fantastic stories about her past, and the final burst of gun fire in the Bois de Vincennes have become the stuff of legend, embroidered and glamorised in numerous films.
Although the Fries Museum claims this is the most comprehensive exhibition on Mata Hari to date, very few of her belongings remain apart from her children’s baby books – her eldest child, a boy, died in the East Indies under mysterious circumstances – scrap books and letters have survived.
But much has been done to evoke the atmosphere of the time, with life size photos of Mata Hari in her different guises and a portrait of her by Isaac Israëls painted in 1916. There’s the music she danced to in one of her ‘temple dances’ and the organisers are even contemplating piping some of the perfume popular at the time into the rooms in an effort to copy the sensual spell Mata Hari held over her audiences 100 years ago.
The exhibition Mata Hari, the myth and the maiden is on at the Fries Museum until April 2, 2018.