Tea with Mata Hari
Femme fatale, exotic dancer, courtesan and controversial World War I spy, Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, led multiple lives. After taking Paris by storm with her saucy (and faux) Oriental-ness and general allure, the Dutch woman who claimed to be from Java was accused of being a German spy — a charge which she flatly denied — and condemned to die at the hands of a firing squad. We had the extreme good fortune of catching up with the olive-complexioned seductress for tea and chit-chat. Spy or victim? Ace manipulator or early feminist? We tried to pierce the fog of mystery that surrounds her.
It’s 7pm on a dusky, windblown evening in Bali. It may just as well have been another ordinary night in July, but the stage is set for a most irregular encounter. I wait impatiently to meet the Queen of Spies herself, Margaretha Zelle aka Mata Hari, at the La Parisienne, a trendy, hipster café in Kuta. At half past, just as a great gust of wind blows by, a petite figure swathed in a sarong-like garment, bursts into the café. Looking like a 19th century anachronism, a time-travelling oddity from a vintage French cabaret poster, Mata Hari (for it is undoubtedly she) arrives in a swirl of perfume, jade and fluttering fabric. Last seen in a filthy prison cell in Paris, the fugitive who lives in uncharacteristic anonymity in a secret Balinese hideaway, looks eerily well-preserved, thanks to her militaristic regime of Yoga, herbs and miscellaneous Eastern practices. How did I manage to snag this astonishing interview? By baiting Mata Hari with a batch of our best Masala Indian Chai, which the lady claims is her one, big Oriental weakness. (Well, right after turbaned Maharajas and snake dances.) That, and the chance to finally set the record straight on her scandalous life.
“Call me Greta”, she announces in a put-on husky voice, as I pass on the tea hamper I’ve carried with me. “I don’t care what the New-Agers say. Chamomile tea is not real tea. Every woman needs her cup of full-bodied, spicy chai,” she says, swooning breathlessly for no one’s benefit.
Seemingly bored with her too-healthy life, Greta orders a plateful of dainty iced buns and tea with apple schnapps, and proceeds to regale me with glib tales of her escape. “It took two nuns, a lovesick soldier, an escapologist, a fake royal title and a wretched sea voyage. And here I am,” she declares, as we settle into a tea-fuelled conversation that promises to get the facts right on the most infamous spy in history.
Which is harder work — being a femme fatale or a spy?
Oh, a femme fatale is not really something you work at. It’s who you are — a demi-mondaine at heart. However, it requires cunning, a flagrant disregard for social convention, and a vast talent to live beyond your means. Of course, it was hard work back then. It is so simple in these modern times to log onto Tinder to look for a certain gentleman you want to say… pursue. But in those days you had to work hard to make the right connections — attend balls, dance half-naked in salons, gossip in cafes, stuff yourself into bone-crunching corsets, pretend to be from the Orient and whatnot.
What advice would you give contemporary femme fatales?
Always be the flame, never the moth. Although, it can be confusing to figure out which is which. Do not give your heart to men in uniforms. The krauts sold me out in a flash and then felt all self-righteous about it. Do not, under any circumstances, send sensitive messages of a secret nature by cable. Or email, in these times. It’s a daft beginner’s mistake I made that got me caught. Get a damn pigeon, if you have to. Completely untraceable.
And stop taking those bloody selfies already. It’s obnoxious.
What are the top three attributes of a successful spy?
It takes moxie to be a spy, not Google or Facebook-stalking abilities. Although these could be handy for basic, garden-variety research. You’ve got to get in there and get dirty, show up and seduce. Your ability to spy is directly related to your gift for pillow-talk. You’ve got to pillow-talk your little arse off, from dusk to dawn.
Second, a weakness for men in uniforms helps considerably.
Finally, international espionage, especially during wartime, takes wit, charm, beauty and abilities to wander and gad about at night, when the rest of the respectable world is safely tucked in bed.
Were you ever in a sticky situation, a metaphorical jam or pickle?
It’s not all fun and glamor, you know. Once, I had to practically thwack a large walrus-like general unconscious with a wine bottle to fish around for keys in his pocket to a high-security safe. It was a beastly affair. My nerves were shot for weeks after, and I needed copious amounts of Java tea and a psychoanalytic session on the couch with the Viennese doctor himself, to soothe them.
Are you referring to Sigmund Freud?
Oh yes, the sweet rode kool… (The knowledgeable reader may know that’s Dutch for red cabbage).
But…doesn’t spying require being discrete, excellent code breaking skills, pattern recognition… that sort of thing?
Oh no, I was not that kind of common, vanilla spy. I’ve never owned a trench coat. I was a demimondaine-spy. With style and swagger. The CIA would be too hardcore for me. I wouldn’t fit into their spy personality type. And I could never possibly work for the MI5 — too plain Jane or Mary Jane or whatever.
What did living through World War I teach you?
Being a double agent is treacherous business. If you are going to do it, make sure you don’t mess with the Germans. Or the French. They’re heartless cads. Try double-crossing Hawaii instead.
So you are finally admitting to the world that you were a spy?
Yes, no. Maybe, maybe not. Truth, fiction, fact, fantasy — take your pick. I was just a woman who wanted to live grandly and on her own terms — stay at the Savoy, eat plum jam for breakfast and caviar for dinner, wear fur and diamonds, love and be loved. Was that asking for too much? Just because I did not want to be So&So’s wife and live in bourgeois boredom.
It was the Belle Époque for crying out loud. Of course, I loved decadence and was a mad, bad, dangerous girl to know.
Your worst crime…
I may or may not have been H21, but I most certainly wasn’t responsible for the death of thousands of French soldiers. When I was put on trial for it, they couldn’t find enough evidence to flog a cat. I mean, I flubbed most of my assignments anyway, although I showed great courage and uhh… moxie. The men who sentenced me to death were just being post-war prissies. What I was, was as a scapegoat. A victim of the times. I mean I can’t even pronounce Bundesnachrichtendienst, let alone work for them. (Dear reader, the BND is the German intelligence agency, if you didn’t already know.)
Book you are reading right now.
The Art of War by Machiavelli
Your Twitter handle?
Too many fakes. Look for #Mata Harried/ Stirred but Not Shaken
If a cat has nine lives, how many does Mata Hari have?
Cherie, I am immortal. I’ve had the last laugh, you know. No one remembers any of those stuffy men who condemned me to die, whereas I am a legend. Who else would have Greta Garbo and Jeanne Moreau play them and have a shelf full of books written about them? I am right up there with Princess Di and the undead couple from Twilight.
If you lived in the present age, who would you be — a Kim Kardashian?
Who?! No, I would be a female Bond.
At this point, Mata Hari’s phone hisses loudly. A text from her psychic telling her not to talk to strangers after Venus has set, she informs me. She whirls around the café and looks for menacing European men who may be tailing her. Pulling her robes together, she gets up abruptly, and for someone so flamboyant, magically disappears into the moonless night, as if she had been no more than a wraith.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions and embellishments offered herein are solely and willfully those of Mata Hari, secret agent, fine Dutch woman, Masala Chai addict and brazen lover of the Belle Epoque.
Designed by Ritika Jobanputra