At 5 a.m. Paris time, on this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known to the world as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.
Prior to becoming an espionage legend, Mata Hari presented herself as a Hindu dancer. The truth is she was just a needy adventurer, a pretender with enough intuition and sensitivity to take advantage of the Parisian orientalist fantasies at the beginning of the XX Century.
There, her scanty, exotic costumes were enough; she never was genuine oriental dancer but, avant la lettre, an exotic dancer. Shot by firing squadron on a muddy drill field outside Paris, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle died, but the romantic myth of Mata Hari the femme fatal was born and lives amongst us to this day.
She died as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, facing the firing squad eyes open - she refused a blindfold.
She was already pushing 30 when she got into dancing, with a failed marriage behind her and two children. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier; Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.
Her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood - combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.
Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two. Nowadays they'd call her a MILF.
Sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product.
14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:
I've always had a hard time figuring out my sympathies here; Mata Hari was a whore who spied on the French . . . for the Germans . . .
. . . yet whether or not she was really a German spy has never been determined — she seems to have been approached, or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence . . .
. . . sort of an anti-hero, I suppose . . . kind of hard to be against her . . .
So the French shot a whore - bravo les grenouilles! If it had been the British who had caught her, they'd have turned her against the Germans.
As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last:
The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.
Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping - a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.
The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.
"May I write two letters?" was all she asked.
Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.
She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.
Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.
She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.
Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:
"I am ready."
The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.
The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.
Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.
The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.
The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.
As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.
"The blindfold," he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.
"Must I wear that?" asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.
"If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference," replied the officer, hurriedly turning away.
Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.*
The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.
A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.
Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it - she did not. She did not move a muscle.
The non-commissioned officer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.
It dropped. The sun - by this time up - flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.
At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.
Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.
A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of his revolver almost - but not quite - against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was surely dead . . .
. . . and the Legend of Mata Hari was born.