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Mata Hari
  Intro | Maugham | Hari | Smedley | Berg | Hiss | Bentley | Fleming | Philby | Ames | Pollard

Margarete Gertrud Zelle, known to posterity by her alias, Mata Hari, is one of the most infamous spies of the 20th century. By all accounts, the Dutch-born Zelle was not a particularly successful spy, yet her story embodies all the elements—daring, exoticism, and a chameleonic persona—that make the best espionage cases so alluring to the human imagination.

At 17, Zelle married John Macleod, a Dutch East Indies officer 21 years her senior, and moved with him to Java. She bore him two children, one of whom died in infancy, and endured nearly nine brutal years of his abuse, drunkenness, and adulterous behavior until he eventually abandoned her and took their daughter with him. Though Zelle later regained custody of her daughter, in 1905 she left her with family in Holland and vanished.

Sometime later, Zelle was reincarnated in Paris as Mata Hari, a high-class exotic dancer purportedly of Hindu birth. She dressed in ornately jeweled tunics and signature midriff-bearing bustiers. She gathered a loyal group of patrons from all over Europe and took many wealthy and socially elite lovers. Before long, Mata Hari had amassed a small fortune in exchange for her nude performances.

At the start of World War I Mata Hari joined the German Secret Service, after having been recruited by one of her lovers, Berlin's Chief of Police. She continued giving risqué dance performances on stages in London, Paris, Antwerp, and Brussels as the war raged on, all the while secretly transmitting intelligence reports to Germany that she culled from various diplomat customers.

On a tip from Italian intelligence, French authorities learned of Mata Hari's espionage activities and began watching her movements carefully. Without enough evidence to convict her of espionage but wanting her out of the country, French authorities began deportation proceedings. Always clever and coy, Mata Hari convinced her would-be deporters that she was not an agent for Germany and that she wanted, instead, to spy for the Allies and prove her loyalty to their cause.

To test her alleged allegiance to the Allies, French authorities agreed to send her on a secret mission to occupied Brussels. Even as Mata Hari began participating in low-grade espionage activities for the Allies, however, she continued to take orders from Germany. She demanded large sums of money for her services from both the Germans and the French as she zigzagged the continent.

Mata Hari eventually made her way to Spain, where she met with German attachés and agreed to transmit a series of cables back to Berlin. She dutifully sent the cables, though she used a code that the Germans knew the French had already cracked. Her actions seemed to be a deliberate attempt to remove herself from service to the Germans, who could no longer afford to pay her extravagant fees.

The Germans dismissed her from service after this calculated blunder, paid her a final sum, and ordered her to return to France. In Paris, she was arrested with the check from the Germans in hand. At the end of her two-day trial she was sentenced to death for espionage and treason. Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, all of the many motions for clemency submitted by various lovers having been denied.

Intro | Maugham | Hari | Smedley | Berg | Hiss | Bentley | Fleming | Philby | Ames | Pollard

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