French Arrest Mata Hari

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 267th installment in the series. 

February 13, 1917: French Arrest Mata Hari 

It’s strangely fitting that the most notorious spy of the First World War was probably guilty of nothing more than self-aggrandizement and bad judgment. 

The exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida in 1876, to a middle-class Dutch family with aspirations to social refinement; her father was a struggling hat-maker and her mother a low-ranking aristocrat with expensive tastes. Although citizens of the Netherlands their ancestry traced back to northern Germany, giving “Margreet” a cosmopolitan air, which was only reinforced by her dark features and “ethnic” appearance, fueling racist rumors of ancestors from India or Indonesia (echoing a scandalous allegation leveled at Britain’s former First Sea Lord and the inventor of the dreadnought, Jackie Fisher). 

Two years after her father declared bankruptcy, when Margreet was 15 her mother died and she was sent to live with her godfather. Noticing the effect her “exotic” appearance seemed to have on men, when she was 19 years old she responded to a newspaper personals ad placed by a Dutch colonial officer, Rudolf MacLeod, serving in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), seeking a wife. She moved to the Indies to be with MacLeod, married, and had two children by him, but tragically her older son was fatally poisoned, apparently by an angry servant.  

This tragedy spelled the end of their brief, tumultuous marriage, and following their return to Europe in 1901 Margreet left for Paris, where she parlayed her (mostly fictional) exotic background and appearance into a career as a dancer, supposedly performing the ritual dances of the libidinous Far East – naturally involving a good deal of nudity – under the name “Mata Hari,” translating as “Eye of the Day” in Malay. As expected of someone with such a scandalous occupation, she also worked as a high-class prostitute as she toured the capitals of Europe’s cosmopolitan pre-war social scene, notching up countless lovers, including assignations with many of the continent’s most famous and powerful men. 

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As it happened, May 1914 found Mata Hari in Berlin, where she had a brief affair with a German officer in the “morals” (vice) division. On the outbreak of war she tried to return to Paris, hoping to reconnect with old patrons there, arousing the suspicions of German officials who confiscated all her property, leaving her destitute. Undaunted as always, she managed to reestablish herself in the Netherlands as the mistress of a Dutch baron, and by December 1915 she was back in Paris, visiting all her old haunts and patrons. There she met and fell in love with a much younger Russian officer, the 21-year-old Vladimir de Masloff, who seemed to be equally infatuated with the aging dancer.

Fake Spy, Real Spy 

However Mata Hari was also already falling under suspicion from Allied intelligence agencies. The chief French counterintelligence officer, George Ladoux, believed (with no evidence beyond her amorous encounter with the German police officer) that she had accepted an offer from German intelligence to become a paid operative, using her liaisons with powerful men to gain access to key secrets, which she would pass back via unidentified handlers.

In fact, Mata Hari had been approached by a German agent in May 1916 in the Netherlands, and accepted an offer of 20,000 francs to work for Germany, along with a codename, “H21” – but all in bad faith, she would later insist, claiming she went along chiefly out of a desire to recoup the earlier loss of her property at the hands of German officials. Unfortunately for her, this misstep would come to light when France’s fortunes were at a particularly low ebb. 

The suspicion of Mata Hari was part of a new wave of spy mania that swept France in 1917, as politicians, the press, and government propaganda sought answers (or excuses) for the nation’s continuing inability to expel foreign invaders, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them – literally, in the case of the German Army’s impending strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Amid growing social unrest at home and mutinous rumblings at the front, the logical scapegoat was internal betrayal by people of dubious background, reviving the xenophobic and anti-Semitic themes of the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906.

The demonization also reflected a number of overlapping fears and insecurities resulting from social and cultural trends, which had gripped France and the rest of Europe by the third year of the war. These included widespread distrust of foreigners, including not just the enemy but also unreliable Allies and potentially treacherous neutrals, as well as unease over women’s growing economic power, and moral panic over the changing sexual mores of the younger generations (typified by parental concern about young women volunteering at hospitals where they could mix with men, and over young men at the front visiting prostitutes and contracting venereal disease). Deviant sex, espionage and blackmail were closely entwined in the popular imagination, thanks in part to the pre-war Redl affair and Caillaux affair

Although surveillance turned up nothing incriminating, Ladoux was so convinced that Mata Hari was a spy that he offered to make her a double agent in return for large sums of money, with a new mission of infiltrating Germany’s web of spies in France and abroad. Already under suspicion of being a German spy, in constant need of money, and with her lucrative dancing career mostly behind her, Mata Hari happily accepted the offer to become a real spy for France. 

Unfortunately for her this glamorous new career proved brief and fatal. On her first and only “mission” she traveled to Belgium and then Spain, and in November 1916 she continued her journey via Britain. When the ship put in at Cornwall, however, British agents arrested her on suspicion of being a spy and took her back to London. Here she told interrogators that she was indeed a spy – but one working for French counterintelligence. 

For some reason (perhaps excessive secrecy, or just fear of looking amateurish to his British colleagues) Ladoux now denied any connection with Mata Hari. Nevertheless the Brits, probably concluding that a washed-up exotic dancer was too implausible to be a real spy, released her and shipped her back to Spain. In December 1916, still hoping to prove her worth to Ladoux, she seduced the German military attaché in Madrid, Major Arnold Kalle, stringing him along with worthless gossip and made-up secrets about French politics, and eliciting what she believed were important military secrets in return. 

This piece of extracurricular espionage proved her undoing. The amateur spy failed to deduce that Kalle had realized exactly what she was up to, and was feeding her out-of-date and made-up information, deceiving her just as she believed she was deceiving him. When she passed these bogus “secrets” on to Ladoux, it only seemed to confirm that she was in fact a German double agent, as he’d originally suspected. Worse still, on December 13, 1916 French spies monitoring German radio traffic detected a secret transmission from Kalle to Berlin, in which he passed along secrets he attributed to her, using her codename “H21” – even though she claimed that she only received this codename recently. For this codename to already be known to Berlin, Ladoux concluded, she must have been in communication with German intelligence long before, and had therefore been hoodwinking the French all along.

However Ladoux failed to see that this was was all in fact an elaborate counterintelligence gambit perpetrated by Germany’s spymasters. The Germans were aware that the Allies had cracked this particular cipher, and were using it with the knowledge any messages they sent would be decoded, all in an attempt to sow confusion and hopefully trick the French into revealing some of their intelligence assets. Caught in the middle of this war of deceit was Mata Hari, a cheerful opportunist who now found herself far out of her depth.

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After she returned to France, on February 13, 1917, at Ladoux’s order French counterintelligence agents arrested Mata Hari as a German agent. Taken to military prison, she immediately denied the charges, writing, “I am innocent. Someone is fooling with me,” and blaming “French counterespionage, since I am in its service, and I have only acted on its instructions.” Nonetheless her notorious reputation, and her habit of embellishing or fictionalizing parts of her own past, effectively signed her death warrant: the French press and public were all too ready to believe that a foreign woman, famed for her loose morals and ability to seduce powerful men, had sold out the Republic, leading to the deaths of thousands of brave young Frenchmen. 

Mata Hari’s trial began on July 24, 1917, but with cards stacked against the 41-year old former exotic dancer, its outcome was never really in doubt. The prosecutors never presented any proof that she had actually been working for German intelligence, except for a mysterious receipt showing a payment of 5,000 francs, which it turned out was actually a gift from her old lover the baron (sent anonymously, of course, to protect his reputation). The court also prevented her defense lawyers from calling the baron or Mata Hari’s maid in the Netherlands to testify to clear up this apparently incriminating detail. 

The government did present evidence of her numerous encounters with French officers and officials – suggesting (but hardly proving) that she had extracted secrets from them; unsurprisingly, virtually none of her old lovers came forward to testify on her behalf, as this would have tarnished their reputation as well. Then the court heard of the ill-fated trip to Spain, the arrest by British intelligence in Cornwall, and the intercepted radio messages in a cracked cipher, which nobody knew had been sent on purpose to seal her doom. Most damning, Mata Hari herself admitted to receiving the codename “H21” earlier than she had previously stated, at the May 1916 meeting.

Duly convicted on eight charges of espionage, on October 15, 1917, “the greatest woman spy of the century,” who was in reality no such thing, was shot at 5 a.m. by a firing squad of twelve men at a barracks in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. Her final words: “It is unbelievable.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Jon Snow's Game of Thrones Fate Could Have Spelled Divorce for Showrunner David Benioff

Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Turner
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Turner

The emotional toll that Game of Thrones's twists and turns takes on its fans has been well-documented. Between the TV show's massive body count and its never-ending series of other shocking moments, the show has left viewers shaken to theirs core for the past eight years (which is part of its massive appeal). But one of Game of Thrones's most heartbreaking moments—the death of Jon Snow at the hands of Alliser Thorne and other members of the Night's Watch in the fifth season—didn't leave just fans crushed. It nearly cost showrunner David Benioff his marriage.

While being interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2015, The Romanoffs star Amanda Peet, who has been married to Benioff since 2006, told Kimmel that she was close to divorcing Benioff for killing off Jon Snow.

"I made him promise me, I begged him … I said, 'I've heard all this stuff … [Kit Harington] got a haircut, I don't want to divorce you, what's happening?'" Peet recalled. Benioff assured his wife that Jon wasn't going to die, but obviously that wasn't true—or at least not at the time. "I don't love you anymore," Peet (jokingly) told her husband. "I said, 'If you kill him, that's it.'"

As we all know, the sixth season saw Jon brought back to life, but Peet likely had no idea it was going to happen due to the intense secrecy of the show. "It's a little like being married to someone in the CIA or something," the actress stated. "He's in bed and he has his earphones and we angle the computer so that I can't see the dailies."

Though Jon's resurrection may have saved their marriage, who knows how Peet will feel about how it all ends when Game of Thrones's eighth and final season premieres on April 14, 2019.

20 Surprising Facts About Benedict Cumberbatch

Larry Busacca, Getty Images
Larry Busacca, Getty Images

If Benedict Cumberbatch isn't careful, he might just run out of dream roles to play. Since the earliest days of his career, the 42-year-old actor has made no secret that there were two roles at the top of his character bucket list: Hamlet and Patrick Melrose, the protagonist at the center of Edward St Aubyn's critically acclaimed series of novels.

In 2015, Cumberbatch took the stage in London to do the whole "to be or not to be" thing. (More on that later.) In 2018, he starred in Patrick Melrose, Showtime's television adaptation of the book series, and earned both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for the role. Now, Cumberbatch is back on the small screen—and bald—for the HBO movie Brexit, which premieres on January 19th.

1. He made his stage debut playing a "very bossy" Joseph in a Nativity play.

In a 2010 interview with London Theatre, Cumberbatch shared that his first stage performance found him playing “a very bossy Joseph in the Nativity play at primary school. Apparently I pushed Mary offstage because she was taking too long. Actresses eh!”

2. He thinks his name sounds like "a fart in a bath."

There’s something very regal-sounding about a name like Benedict Cumberbatch, but it’s not one that necessarily rolls right off the tongue. The Washington Post once identified the actor as “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” (though later clarified that it was a joke). But there have been plenty of other mix-ups—like the time a television show ID'ed him as “Benedict Cumberpatch” (which sort of has a nice ring to it).

Cumberbatch had a feeling that his name might cause problems in his career, which is why he began his career as Benedict Carlton (which is his middle name). Ultimately, it was his agent who convinced him to use Cumberbatch, even though the actor said the surname sounds like “a fart in a bath.”

3. He toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer.

Though he grew up in a family of actors, Cumberbatch wasn’t always planning to live his life out in front of a camera. In fact, it was because of his parents’ chosen profession that they encouraged him to pursue a more stable calling, which led him to want to become a criminal lawyer.

“[Acting is] a very odd, peripatetic, crazed, out of your control work and social schedule,” Cumberbatch told The Mirror in 2015. “It's very hard to plan a family life, let alone know where the next paycheck is coming from so they worked very, very hard as my parents, and actors, to afford me an education whereby I had the opportunity and the privilege to try and channel myself towards other goals.

“For a while, I wanted to be a barrister because there's definitely a crossover with criminal law—with trying to persuade an audience and a jury and a judge of the case and your client's story so I did go down that route for a little bit. I think they would have been very happy if I ended up there."

He spoke with Vulture about his legal leanings, too, and noted that, “I would've loved the performance of court, the idea of persuading people, storytelling and all that. It parallels beautifully with acting, lots of frustrated, amateur dramatics going on in court all the time. I think lots of barristers literally perform in amateur dramatic societies and are very good actors. It's a massive crossover."

4. His parents on Sherlock are also his parents in real life.

Speaking of Cumberbatch’s parents: While both Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham are familiar faces as actors in their own right, fans of Sherlock might also be quick to recognize them as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’s parents.

In 2014, Cumberbatch told the Press Association that he was a little nervous about working with his parents, as “They’re Equity card carrying members but you know it was nerve-wracking because they are actors as well and yet they were brilliant and they were fantastic.”

5. He spent a year teaching in India.

During a gap year, Cumberbatch decided to volunteer his time and teach English at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. “I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant,” he told Lion’s Roar. “In India, I went on a retreat with a lama—several days of incantation to clear and purify the mind—along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks."

Though teaching and acting may seem unrelated, many of the skills and practices Cumberbatch learned during that time eventually helped him in his acting career. “Stillness is an essential part of acting,” he said, “so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand. A still point is a very, very hard place to find, especially among the usual kind of pulped sheep pushed around by the blinking flashing world of modern technology.”

6. He was kidnapped in South Africa.

While filming the 2005 miniseries To the Ends of the Earth, Cumberbatch experienced another kind of epiphany when he nearly lost his life. The actor and two of his co-stars took a day off to learn how to scuba dive near Mozambique. On their way back from the outing, the actor explained, “The three of us were trying to change the tire. These six men appeared suddenly from the eucalyptus. They said: 'Put your hands on your head, don't look at us,' and were frisking us for drugs, money, weapons. Then they bundled us into the car. They dragged me up and put me in the boot of the car.”

Like so many of the quick-thinking characters he has played, Cumberbatch realized his only option was to try and argue his way out of the situation:

“I said: ‘If you leave me in here, it’s not the lack of air, it’s the small space. There’s a problem with my heart and my brain.’

“I just tried to explain to them: ‘I will die, possibly have a fit, and it will be a problem for you. I will be a dead Englishman in your car. Not good.’

“They shut the boot and had an argument, and then pulled me out. So I kind of thank God I had the presence of mind to give them the idea that it would be better to keep me alive. And the other two hadn’t been harmed.”

In a way, the incident became the impetus for Cumberbatch to pursue his dreams even more aggressively. “It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own,” he said. “It’s made me want to live a life slightly less ordinary.”

7. Julian Assange tried to talk him out of starring in The Fifth Estate.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in 'The Fifth Estate' (2013)
DreamWorks

In 2013, a very white-haired Cumberbatch played the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. In preparing for the role, Cumberbatch—ever the dutiful actor—reached out to Assange about arranging a meeting. Assange’s response, which went viral, was rather epic. Though he assured Cumberbatch that he would very much enjoy meeting him, and that he believed they would get along, he spent the bulk of his word count telling the actor why making the film was a terrible idea:

“You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.

“Not because you want to, of course you don't, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.

“Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.

“I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.”

The film went forward as planned, with Cumberbatch in the lead (though it was a critical and box office failure, which likely pleased Assange).

8. He is easily starstruck.

When asked during a Reddit AMA whether he’s ever been starstruck while meeting or working with a fellow actor, Cumberbatch admitted that it happens all the time: “Uhhhhhhhh. Every time I've met someone famous who I've been in the audience of,” he said. “I have the same butterflies and inability to be cool. I approach them as a fellow member of the human race as the next person in their audience does. I've been doing this for 10 odd years, and so to meet people who thrilled me with their work for my entire life in such a concentrated manner as has happened over the last few years has been mind-blowing.”

9. Ted Danson was really, really excited to meet him.

While Cumberbatch may get nervous every time he meets an acting hero, one well-known actor who was pretty excited to meet Cumberbatch was Cheers star Ted Danson. When asked during a Reddit AMA to share the “weirdest encounter you've had with a fan,” Cumberbatch answered: “Ted Danson at a pre-Oscar party screaming across a floor of people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ray Liotta, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, et al while pushing past them and knocking their drinks. ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! IT'S F***ING SHERLOCK HOLMES!’”

10. He wasn't immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes.

Though playing the titular “consulting detective” in Sherlock is the role that brought Cumberbatch global recognition, saying yes to the part wasn’t exactly a no-brainer for the actor. While speaking at a BAFTA event in 2014, Cumberbatch admitted that he was actually a little hesitant to sign on for the project. “I heard about it and thought that sounds like an idea to [re-franchise] something to make money,” he said. “It could be a bit cheap and cheesy. Then I found out who was involved and realized it wouldn’t be cheap and cheesy.

“My mum had done a few episodes of Coupling with Steven [Moffat] and Mark Gatiss was a huge hero of mine when I was a student in League Of Gentleman,” Cumberbatch continued, “so I knew the stable was good. I thought I would read it and then I fell in love with it.”

11. The BBC wasn't sure Cumberbatch was "sexy" enough to pull off Sherlock.


BBC

It’s funny to think about now, considering Cumberatch’s massive worldwide fanbase, but just as the actor wasn’t immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes, the BBC wasn’t sure the actor was a great match for the role—because they wanted someone with sex appeal. While speaking at the Hay Festival in 2014, Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat talked about the BBC’s track record in determining which actors might connect with audiences—Cumberbatch being one of them.

“They said of casting David Tennant as Casanova, ‘Damn, you should have cast someone sexier,’” Moffat said. “With Benedict Cumberbatch, we were told the same thing. ‘You promised us a sexy Sherlock, not him.’”

Sue Vertue, a fellow producer on Sherlock (and Moffat's wife), relayed a similar tale to Entertainment Weekly just a few months prior to Moffat’s comments, telling the magazine: “When we first cast [Cumberbatch], people were saying, ‘You promised us a sexy one!’ People weren’t thinking of Benedict in that light at all.” His name, apparently, posed another problem: “When people said, ‘Who’s playing Sherlock Holmes?’ and we’d say, ‘Benedict Cumberbatch,’ everyone looked very vague,” Vertue said. “Then we’d always have to spell his name.”

12. He is (distantly) related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It turns out that Sherlock Holmes may have been the role Cumberbatch was born to play. In 2017, researchers at Ancestry.com made the rather fascinating discovery that Cumberbatch and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are sixteenth cousins, twice removed. The ancestral link between the two is former Duke of Lancaster John of Gaunt, who was Doyle’s 15th great-grandfather and Cumberbatch’s 17th great-grandfather.

13. He also has a family link to Alan Turing.

Amazingly, the Conan Doyle connection wasn’t the first time Cumberbatch’s ancestry was linked to one of his characters. In 2014, the same team of researchers determined that Cumberbatch was the 17th cousin of Alan Turing, the computer scientist/codebreaker he played in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014)—a role that earned Cumberbatch an Oscar nomination in 2015.

14. He has been rendered in chocolate on more than one occasion.


UKTV/FLICKR

In a somewhat bizarre promotional campaign by Britain’s UKTV in 2015, Cumberbatch narrowly beat out David Tennant by a margin of just one percent to be named “TV Dishiest Drama Actor.” The prize? Having a life-sized statue, made entirely of Belgian chocolate, created in the actor’s likeness.

It took a team of eight people more than 250 man-hours to construct the delicious doppelgänger, dubbed “Benedict Chocobatch." In 2016, he was recreated in the sweet stuff again, though this time as an edible chocolate bunny/Benedict hybrid that fans could actually purchase … and eat.

15. He turned Hamlet into "the most in-demand show of all time."

In 2015, Cumberbatch achieved one of his lifetime dreams when it was announced that he would play Hamlet in a 12-week run at London’s Barbican theater. Tickets ended up selling out almost as fast as one could say “To be or not to be.” As The Telegraph reported in 2014:

"The curtain does not go up on the production for another year, but Cumberbatch's Hamlet is nevertheless outselling the next most popular show, the current run of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, by four to one. The show has even registered 214 per cent more ticket searches in the hours after tickets were released than Beyoncé and Jay Z’s global On the Run tour.

Hamlet tickets went on sale at 10am on August 11 and within minutes fans were expressing frustration at finding themselves more than 20,000 places back in the queue."

16. He's the leading man in a lot of fan fiction.

In addition to being a leading man on the stage and both the small and big screens, Cumberbatch plays a starring role in a lot of fan fiction. A lot of fan fiction! In 2013, The Mirror estimated that approximately 100 million words of fan fiction had been written about the Sherlock star. Considering that was six years ago, the word count has certainly only grown.

17. Simon Pegg convinced him that he might have radiation poisoning.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in 'Star Trek Into Darkness' (2013)
Paramount Pictures

While filming Star Trek: Into Darkness, Simon Pegg decided to have a little fun with Cumberbatch by convincing him that he was at risk for radiation exposure. According to Pegg, it worked. He recounted the story to The Sun in 2013:

"I don't like seeing people get embarrassed. But we were filming in a nuclear facility and one day I said that Chris [Pine] needed neutron cream—otherwise he'd get sunburn. He said, 'What?' And I said, 'Yeah, you'll get a rash from ambient radiation in the air.' From there the trick spread to other cast members. Finally, we got Benedict. He had this speech and he kept f***ing it up. Afterwards he said, 'Guys, I'm ever so sorry —I've got a real headache. I think the ions were getting to me.' He was so convinced."

18. He has a rare genetic mutation.

If Cumberbatch’s eyes seem to regularly change color, you’re not imagining things: The actor was born with both central heterochromia and sectoral heterochromia—two rare-but-harmless genetic mutations that affect his eyes. Each of his eyes has multiple colors (a mix of blue, green, and gold) because of the central heterochromia, and the sectoral heterochromia is the reason why he has a brown “freckle” on his right eye.

But ask the actor what his favorite part of his body is, and the eyes have got it. “I guess as an actor your eyes are vital in conveying any internal thought process or feeling, and for that I have my mum to thank,” he said.

19. He's not cool with "Cumberbitches."

When Cumberbatch’s massive contingency of female fans dubbed themselves “Cumberbitches,” the actor took issue with the pejorative moniker. “It’s not even politeness,” he said of his distaste for the term. “I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are ... Cumberpeople."

20. He has been a vocal proponent of closing the gender pay gap.

Equal pay in Hollywood is a hot-button topic, and Cumberbatch has made his stance on the issue very clear by stating that he won’t work on a project if his female co-stars aren’t being paid the same. "Equal pay and a place at the table are the central tenets of feminism," Cumberbatch told Radio Times. "Look at your quotas. Ask what women are being paid, and say: 'If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it.'"

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