Whether, for instance, you think of her as a strong, determined woman who did what she could to survive as long as she could in a world which was in every way allied against her or whether you think of her as a mercenary slut with no sense of right or wrong you'd be partly right and partly wrong in either case, for she was undoubtedly both of these and yet neither, since neither opinion quite grasps either the subtleties or the complexities of the way she chose to move through the world.
Born Margaretha Zelle in Holland in August 1876, at the age of 18 she married a Dutch naval officer named Rudolf MacLeod and soon enough found herself in Java, then a Dutch possession. Following the death of their son in 1899 the couple moved back to Amsterdam, and divorced in 1903. Alone in the world and still a young woman, she removed herself to Paris, adopted a Malay stage name (Mata Hari means 'Eye of the Day') and on this day in 1905 took to the stage with an act that was remarkable for its exoticism - along the way concocting an equally outrageous offstage identity to match.
From dancing nude or semi-nude in front of a statue of Shiva it's not a very great leap to doing other stuff nude or semi-nude in front of a flesh-and-blood industrialist - in her case Emile Etienne Guimet; from there it was a saucy game of leapfrog over generals and politicians to the Crown Prince of Germany, a man denied the chance to be Wilhelm III by a little matter called World War I - the same war that would also provide her own downfall.
Less than a dozen years after she elevated exotic dance to an art form - one for which Paris would thereafter become renowned - she was under lock and key in one of that city's jails, accused of being a double agent. Whether she was or not (there remains some doubt) she made an excellent scapegoat; in October 1917 she faced a French firing squad and blew them a kiss before they blew her away. By then, of course, her infamy had become fame; they could take her life, only by then her life had taken on a life of its own. The French government is set to open its file on her in 2017, after which we may learn more; in the meantime we may luxuriate in her myth for another few years.
So strong was that myth that the best-known movie made about her life could only have starred a woman equally exotic, equally mysterious: Greta Garbo. In many ways, while the film fails to grasp the facts of her life, it conjures the spirit of it perfectly, so even though film Mata Hari (1931) is a hot mess, it's also a hot mess, y'know?
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