Mata Hari, Anna Chapman, and Booty Spies

Mata Hari, Anna Chapman, and Booty Spies

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes*

It’s a common saying that prostitution is the oldest profession. I wasn’t there so I can’t be sure, but if prostitution was the first paid profession, then spying is a close second, and depending on how it was done, it might also rate a “first profession” claim.

While we often think of clandestine activities as being carried out by agile young warriors possessing remarkable minds and near magical martial skills, “spies” and their multiple related “clandestine cousins” have always come in a broad variety of shapes, sizes, and types.

As a result, spies who become known to the public are often disappointingly boring in their visible persona. They prefer it that way for obvious reasons. Individuals like Anna Chapman capture attention because they are colorful enough to stir a media consumer’s imagination. I am sure that many male observer’s first impressions of the Anna Chapman “Maxim” magazine appearance included a notion along the lines of, “Yea, I would have done her.”

Intelligence community members see her differently, but we have egos, as well. Male “spooks” might have thought something like, “Hmm, she is a spy, but she never would have fooled me. Politicians are such idiots.”

Female spooks might have thought “Ugh! Another one. Those damned guys are too easy.”

Centuries before Anna Chapman provided the world with a little spy genre entertainment, female spooks were plying the “booty spy” trade. That’s not to say that your average female spook employs sex in her trade craft. The vast majority have no contact with target subjects, and of those who do, very few would resort to sex. If the need arose, they would employ a “specialist” of sorts, and that specialist would not be on anyone’s list of candidates for promotion.

While most of us like to think of booty spies as all being female, there are, in fact, plenty of male equivalents. Some targets are female, and some targets are homosexual males or females, so suitable specialists are available for every imaginable target. If they aren’t, we’ll make one.

Like their female counterparts, “boy toys” generally don’t rise to a position of responsibility in spook world, except, perhaps, as congressional aides acting as liaisons to the intelligence community. But that would be up to the congressmen in question. It’s not that people with non-standard sexual preferences or people with overactive hormones are excluded from leadership in Spookville, it’s just that sex can’t be their only real talent.

The most famous female spy seductress, a Dutch woman named Margaretha Geertrudia Zelle, was executed 95 years ago today. How could anyone with such an ugly name take up a career as a seductress? She must have been talented. She was also smart enough to find a better stage name. Mata Hari.

Margaretha Geertrudia Zelle, aka Mata Hari, image from freeinfosociety.com

Margaretha was born in The Netherlands on August 7, 1876. Her father was a hatter. He did well as a hatter and invested his money in oil at the right time. He was able to indulge his daughter materially, and Margaretha developed a reputation for being as spoiled as a European royal. Unfortunately for Margaretha, her father went bankrupt in 1889 when she was 13 years old. Two years later, her mother died. At age 15 she was parceled out to her Godfather. He decided to send her to a school where she would be trained as a teacher so that she would be able to have a career and be independent. It was a reasonable plan, but life happened while her Godfather made plans.

The Headmaster of the school was infatuated with Margaretha, and they apparently had sexual relations. At the time, 15-year-old girls were considered eligible for marriage, but even back then, headmasters of schools in the Netherlands were expected to not include hands-on sex education in the curriculum offered to students in their care.

A scandal broke out, and naturally, rather than delivering a sound beating to the headmaster and sending him for a prolonged swimming lesson in a handy Dutch canal, the school board booted Margaretha out of the school. It must have been quite an education for a teenager far from home, but not the education that her Godfather had anticipated.

Margaretha went to The Hague to live with an uncle. A few years later, she answered a classified ad that sought a suitable female for marriage. The ad turned out to be a hoax. A friend of a 38-year-old Dutch Army officer had placed the ad as a joke, but the joke went further than the friend had perhaps intended. Eighteen-year-old Margaretha became engaged to Rudolph McLeod and they were married on July 11, 1895.

Margaretha and Rudolph McLeod, image from mata-hari.com

The couple traveled to the Dutch East Indies and had two children. While in Indonesia Margaretha studied Malaysian culture and trained as a dancer. Rudolph was an alcoholic and a spouse abuser. Not content with his pretty young wife, he kept a concubine. His and Margaretha’s son died of poisoning when he was two years old. In 1902, they returned to The Netherlands and separated soon after.

Margaretha decided to start a new life and took a train to Paris. She used her knowledge of Malaysia to create a new entertainment genre based on her version of Malaysian dance style. The dancing involved little clothing, lots of jewelry, and a few supposedly Malaysian phrases. There weren’t many Malaysian speakers in Paris at the time and serious dance critics were not her intended audience.

It worked. She was a huge sensation. Margaretha abandoned her burdensome name and became “Mata Hari” which means “sun” or “eye of the day” in Malaysia. She claimed to be the daughter of a Malaysian princess and a Dutch baron.

Wealthy and influential European men couldn’t get enough of her. She was kept by multiple lovers, usually senior military officers and politicians, and she traveled extensively. One of her lovers was the half-wit German Crown Prince Frederick Augustus. What Freddy lacked in military acumen and political skill, he made up for in cash. He shared lots of it with Mata Hari. She had a good cover if spying was her goal.

Frederick Augustus, image from diadumenian.com

The Netherlands was neutral during World War One so with her Dutch citizenship, Mata Hari was able to travel freely through warring countries. Her contact with senior military officers in France, Germany, and Belgium raised the suspicion of the British Secret Service, and during a trip to England she was arrested and questioned. They released her, and after a vacation in England, she returned to France. I assume that she was under surveillance by MI-5 in England.

Cultural critics in Europe claimed she lacked dancing ability and was nothing more than an exhibitionist. When the Crown Prince of Germany opens his bank accounts to you, who care what the critics say? She had entrée to Europe’s top social circles. She didn’t need the critics. If anything, their scorn might have added to her appeal by making her something of a prized forbidden fruit. She was the sort of woman who wealthy sons might trip over when they are allowed out to play without adequate supervision.

On February 13, 1917, the French arrested Mata Hari and accused her of spying. Unfortunately for Mata Hari and for historians, the investigation and the trial were conducted in secrecy. The French claimed she was responsible for the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers by revealing French plans to the Germans. Weather or not she actually spied for anyone has never been determined with anything approaching reasonable certainty. The lack of certainty didn’t stop the French from convicting her. On October 15, 1917, she was executed by a firing squad.

Mata Hari’s execution, image from mata-hari.com

This we do know:

1) Germany operated a very successful intelligence service during the First World War. They often anticipated allied offensives and were able to move troops, artillery, and supplies to the right place at the right time. Eventually, they and their poorly led Austrian pals ran out of troops and supplies and lost the war.

2) Offensives on the Western Front were difficult to keep secret. Those fascinating new devices called “airplanes” and “airplanes with big cameras” made it difficult to hide tons of ammunition and supplies being amassed for offensives.

3) No general can easily live with the blame for a failed offensive. Try to imagine being responsible for the deaths of thousands of young men and nearby civilians. It must be someone’s fault. France had to accept the deaths of 1,400,000 soldiers and watch 4,000,000 maimed French veterans try to survive with their wounds. Americans can remember the shock, horror, and disbelief at the loss of 2,977 people on 9-11. Try to imagine how 1,400,000 dead soldiers might weigh on the minds of French generals. Finding scapegoats would be a tempting option.

4) The head of French Counter-Intelligence, Georges Ledoux, was later arrested for being a double agent in the employ of the Germans. He was cleared of all charges. Was he working for the Germans? Would he have given up Mata Hari if she were a valuable spy for Germany? If it was his only viable option for keeping his own skin intact, he might have been willing to give her up. If she were not spying for the Germans, he certainly would have been willing to toss her to the wolves.

5) While in British custody, Mata Hari confessed to Scotland Yard interrogators that she was a French Spy working against the Germans.

6) During her interrogation in France, Mata Hari claimed that she was a double agent working for France against the Germans.

It is possible that Mata Hari was simply whatever she needed to be in the moment to survive. When she confessed to Scotland Yard investigators, she may have been doing what had become a long habit. Given what we know of her life, she probably spent a great deal of time telling people what she thought they wanted to hear.

Mata Hari, image from heniford.net

Who knows how many times she told some depressed French or German Officer that she didn’t know men were “so large,” or that she had never had a climax before that night? She was likely well-practiced at the art of sweet-talk and was obviously adroit at soothing male egos. The collective weight of her lies might have created a false but believable image of a sophisticated spy. It is also possible that she was a spy without any strong loyalty who responded to whatever opportunity presented itself.

The French sealed the files of the Mata Hari case for 100 years. In 1985, they opened the files early, and the information in them left journalists convinced that she was innocent of espionage. Drawing conclusions from the French files is tricky at best. The French files could not possibly contain transcripts of everything that Mata Hari said to German officials during her visits to Germany.

We will never know for certain how much effective spying Mata Hari did. Regardless of her actual career or lack of career in espionage, she left us with an enduring archetype of the female spook.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.

Bayard & Holmes blog at Bayard & Holmes. You may contact them in blog comments, on Twitter at@piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or by email at piperbayard@yahoo.com

© 2012 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.



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