It sounds like the plot of a heart-rending movie:
The son of a wealthy French family travels the world as a soldier, fighting and whoring valiantly. Then he falls in love with a fascinating, if shop-worn courtesan and his heart is no longer his own. But she is condemned to death. He tries to save her, but fails! She dies before his eyes. He swoons.
The projectionist changes the reel.
When next we meet our hero, he is clothed in the rough garments of a monk, doing penance for his sins, trying to Forget.
I won’t give away the ending…
The fascinating Mata Hari has been in the news recently in an article claiming that she was nonchalant to the end, blowing kisses to the firing squad. She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle [1876-1917] into a comfortably affluent Dutch family, which fell apart after her father went bankrupt, and, after a divorce, her father remarried and her mother died. She answered a matrimonial advertisement at age 18, marrying an upper-class army captain after minimal acquaintance, and sailing immediately for the Dutch East Indies. Her husband, the syphilitic Captain MacLeod proved to be a violent drunkard; the marriage was a disaster. The rest of her story: her affairs, her move to Paris, her career as an exotic dancer, and her career as a “spy” for the Germans during the Great War, is too well-known to repeat here.
Mata Hari seems to be a sort of “choose your own adventure” character, with feminists claiming her as their own free-spirited sex worker, or spy aficionados examining the evidence for her innocence, her guilt, and her nudity at her execution. She herself chose her own adventure, making up an exotic biography of a Javanese mother, a childhood as a temple dancer and telling of exotic Eastern rituals and dances to spice up her stage act. She unquestionably had nerve. But did she truly have the kind of nerve that refuses a blindfold and blows kisses in the face of the firing squad?
At the time it was hinted that she was unafraid because she believed that her latest lover had bribed the soldiers on the firing squad to use blanks. She would use her acting talents to fake death and then be carried to freedom.
Alas, for both of them, it was not to be.
Of Mata Hari Is Found
Heart-Broken French Monk, Who Sought To Save Famous Beauty from Execution, Is in Spain.
Paris, July 17. Father Mortilliac, [also reported as Moissac or Morissac] French monk, reputed to have been the last lover of Mati Hari, celebrated Dutch dancer, who was executed by the French near the end of the war, as a German spy, has been located in the Carthusian Monastery at Cartua de Miraflores, Spain.
Mortillac, who was prominent in French social circles, disappeared after a vain effort to save the woman about whom Vincente Blasco Ibanez wove his war romance, “Mare Nostrum.”
While leading Carthusians deny that the monk has entered the order, it is affirmed in authoritative quarters that he is in the Spanish Monastery attempting to bury his sorry for his lost love.
Mortillac is said to have been heart-broken when he learned that Mati Hari, who was famous for her beauty, was a German spy. Afterward he learned that she had a husband, a Scottish officer, who married her in Java, taking her from a Buddhist temple, where she was a dancer, and that he died of grief in Scotland, after he had found her in Paris, but was unable to persuade her to leave a German to whom she had become attached. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 18 July 1922: p. 4
The author of the piece above also seems to have chosen his own multi-national adventure–we know the Buddhist temple was Mata Hari’s own invention; in 1922 her husband was still alive and he did not die of grief over her.
The romantic Pierre, son of a wealthy family, had been a decorated soldier and cut quite a figure among the society ladies of France. I have read (but cannot find the reference) that the lesbian Princesse de Polignac declared that, if she were interested in men, he would be on her “to-do” list. Then de Morissac fell in love with Mata Hari. He supposedly plotted the fake execution and it is said that he was present when his lover was shot, suggesting that he had planned some kind of last-minute rescue. The unfortunate de Morissac never got over the death of the woman he had dreamed of marrying. The Carthusians are a very strict, enclosed and eremitical order—the monks live separately in little hut-like cells, eating and working alone, observing silence, and coming together only for the Divine Office. It would have been a perfect choice for someone wishing to withdraw from the world and do penance.
Here are two English-language versions of de Morissac’s fate.
Monk Once Called Mata Hari’s Lover Slain By Loyalists.
Paris, Oct. 13. Another tragic death in the Spanish revolt, linked with the romantic legend of Mata Hari, the exotically beautiful German spy who perished before a French firing squad during the World war, was recorded today.
The newspaper Journal des Debats [see below] said Pierre de Morissac, one-time sweetheart of the famous woman spy who became a monk in grief over her execution, died in a burst of gunfire—as his glamorous “red dancer” idol had done nearly 20 years ago. He fell in a heroic single-handed stand with a machine gun, the newspaper said, when defending the Aula Dei monastery at Penaflor against Madrid government troops.
De Morissac was a witness at the trial of Mata Hari, who was convicted of espionage against the Allies in August, 1917 and shot at dawn on October 15, 1917. She was charged with transmitting to the Germans the secret of the construction of the Allies’ tanks—a betrayal that resulted in the enemy rushing work on a special gas to combat the operations of the tanks. Portsmouth [OH] Daily Times 13 October 1936: p. 5
Monk, Only Suitor Mata Hari Adored, Dies Hero’s Death.
Defends His Monastery With Machine Gun; Firing Squad Executes Him
Paris, Oct. 12 Pierre de Moissac, the sweetheart of beautiful Mata Hari, who became a monk when she was executed as a German spy in the World War, met an identical fate in the Spanish Civil War, the newspaper Midi said Monday in a copy-right story.
The drama of his passing equaled the death before a French firing squad of the exotic Dutch dancer who seduced high allied officials. He was executed by a firing squad for defending his monastery with a machine gun.
Mata Hari’s real name was Margaret Zelle. Of all the men with whom she had violent affairs, she was believed to have loved only De Moissac. They had planned to be married.
When Mata Hari was executed he left France and went to Spain where he entered holy orders. He spent the last nineteen years as a monk at Penaflor, convinced Mata Hari had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
One day the monastery was the objective of a Government detachment. An ultimatum was issued ordering the monks to retire. All left except De Moissac, who manned an abandoned rebel machine gun and fired until his ammunition was exhausted. Then he was captured. Dallas [TX] Morning News 13 October 1936: p. 1
And the Journal des débats version:
Un ancien ami de Mata Hari est fusillé en Espagne
Depuis dix-neuf ans vivait, au monastère de Aula Dei, à Penanor..(Espagne), un moine qu’on avait pris l’habitude d’appeler “El Misterioso.”
Il se nommait exactement Pierre de Morissac et a’ait été l’ami, et même le .fiancé, de la trop célèbre espionne Mata-Hari. Il était venu la défendre, lors de son retentissant procès, avec une sincérité passionnée, car il la’ croyait innocent:
Après la mort de celle dont il voulait faire sa femme, il se retira dans un couvent qui devait, ces dernières semaines, constituer un objectif des troupes gouvernementales. Il y demeura seul, tirant à la mitrailleuse sur les soldats qui s’approchaient.
C-~rné et pris, il fut, quelques instants après, fusrié.
Il meurt comme celle qu’il avait aime. dix-nëuf ans après elle.
Journal des débats politiques et littéraires 13 October, 1936
I have to say that if the monks were ordered to evacuate by the Prior, it’s rather unlikely that a Carthusian would disobey his superior and stay behind. Given Pierre de Morissac’s previous dashing history, did his military training take over after 19 years of monastic life? Or was he merely buying time for his brother monks to escape?
That said, there are some fundamental problems with this romantic story. The most significant is that I can find no mention of de Morissac in Mata Hari’s standard biographies. Most of her biographers say that her last lover was a Russian officer several years her junior, Captain Vadim Maslov. Outside of a flurry of virtually identical newspaper articles, and that dubious reference to the Princesse de Polignac, I’m not finding any other information.
The English newspaper articles appeared throughout the month of October, 1936, many of them on the 13th or within a few days of that date. 13 [or 15, depending on the source] October, 1936 was the premiere date of the film The Garden of Allah, staring Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer. A Trappist monk, secret pasts, a doomed love…. The agonizing emotional tone, rather than the exact plot lines, made me think of this movie in connection with the tale of the martyred monk. Did some inventive PR man come up with the tragically symmetrical tale of Pierre de Morissac to stir up interest in the movie? [“Oh, look, Gladys, Charles Boyer is starring in a new picture about a monk and his lover. I read about that in the papers this morning! So sad about that pretty Mata Hari woman and to think her lover died the same way!”]
So, for me, the silver screen has gone dark. Does anyone know if Pierre de Morissac actually existed and if he plotted to rescue Mata Hari? Answers in invisible ink and cipher, please, to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
UPDATE: A reader has written in with an independent mention of Pierre de Morissac and his fate.
I received three pages scanned from Cinquante Ans de Panache [Fifty Years of Panache] by Andre de Fouquieres, 1951. de Fouquieres knew anybody who was anybody, high or low, in French society and he would have been in a position to know Mata Hari as well as Pierre de Moissac–which seems to be the correct spelling. He tells the heart-rending story of de Moissac’s heroism with a machine gun hidden at the monastery by local villagers and his execution. It is a story well-told, with, well, panache. The book was published in 1951, long after the newspaper accounts above. We know that de Fouquieres perpetuated at least one other dubious story–that of a duel between Napoleon’s aide Count Fleury and the equestrian painter Alfred de Dreux in which de Dreux was killed. Recent information has shown this to be false–that de Dreux died of liver disease. de Fouqueires was de Dreux’s grandnephew, so perhaps he can be excused for telling an old family story without fact-checking, but did he make up the dramatic story of de Moissac? Or did he perhaps give the original story to Journal des débats whence it made its way into the US press?
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.