It is the death-anniversary of the endlessly fascinating Mata Hari. Was she really a highly effective German spy or merely a fantasist who spun tales of espionage along with her exotic origin story?
Today we hear from that popular society palm-reader and seer “Cheiro” about his observations of that lady and the prediction of her death he claimed to have made when she first moved to Paris in the early 1900s.
MATA HARI, THE FAMOUS WOMAN SPY
I met this extraordinary woman several times. I knew her under her many names of Madame Zelle, Mata Hari, Baroness von Mingen, and in the latter stage of her life when during the War she posed as a neutral under the name of Madame van Hontin.
Of all the remarkable women my profession caused me to meet, I must give an unique place to Mata Hari, and I think if I cannot class her as the most beautiful, I can claim that she was the most bewitching, the most fascinating, and the most dangerous.
The only reason I escaped falling a victim to her toils, as far better and cleverer men had done, was simply and solely because as a beautiful woman—she had no heart.
In my unusual career I met many so-called “bad women,” but although it may sound an extraordinary thing to say, I believe I can truthfully state that I never met a “bad woman” who had not some redeeming feature of self-sacrifice, love, or affection that ran like a golden cord through her life.
Mata Hari was the one exception; she was handsome as a queen, fascinating, intelligent, beautiful. My curiously constructed nature, however, called for sentiment. To that call there was no answer—that was the only reason I escaped. Perhaps at the time I first met her, her heart was already dead.
Cheiro seems to have bought the exotic fantasy she had woven about her origins as a temple dancer in Burma. She also told Cheiro that her husband was a “distinguished British officer” and later a peer, although he was actually Dutch military officer who beat her and gave her syphilis.
Two children were born, a boy and a girl, but the marriage proved to be anything but happy ; her explanation was that her husband became cold and indifferent to her, she grew to hate him, and from that to hate the country he belonged to and everything English.
Her first tragedy was the death of her little boy. She had reason to suppose that he had been poisoned by a gardener who disliked her. She could not have the man arrested as he had employed a plant poison that had left no trace in the body, but in a moment of folly he had boasted to her maid that he had had his revenge. As her husband would take no action, she took his revolver, which was always loaded, seized an opportunity of meeting the gardener alone, told him what she intended to do, and shot him through the head as he threw himself on his knees to beg for mercy. Her husband’s high position saved her from being arrested; but she was compelled to leave Burma. Her husband refused to accompany her; taking her little daughter with her she bid him good-bye and never heard from him again. The little girl died in a convent in Amsterdam a few months later. [Mata Hari’s son did die, possibly of syphilis, although the family spread the disgruntled gardener story–in which there was no mention of revolvers or revenge; her daughter died at age 21, having gone to live with her father as a child.]
Mata Hari struggled when she first came to Paris.
It was about this time I met her. I was walking home one night from a meeting organized by an English woman for the aid of the badly treated cats and dogs of Paris, when I noticed a few paces ahead an extremely graceful figure of a woman that I could not help but admire. It was a bitterly cold night, the woman before me had no coat: vanity, I thought—women will do anything for vanity, just because she has such a graceful figure she will risk pneumonia to show it off.
Cheiro watched as she warmed her hands at a workman’s brazier.
I turned and went back towards the brazier; she was still standing there with her hands stretched towards the fire. I suppose I said the wrong thing. Men always do when they try to be kind.
Like a flash she turned on me. “How dare you speak to me,” she snapped. “Do you take me for a woman of the streets?”
I was too confused to know what I said. I apologized most humbly. Then under those glorious eyes that blazed with scorn, I found myself begging for forgiveness and blurting out something about my sympathy for lost dogs, cats, and the meeting I had attended.
This touched her sense of humour. “So I’m a lost cat, am I? Oh well, you English are always gauche, what can one expect from them?”
“You can expect sympathy from me,” I said rapidly. “I can’t leave you here trying to warm yourself at a brazier on such a night as this. Have you no home?”
“No!” she said and turned rapidly away.
Yes, I admit I followed her. I talked rapidly as I walked by her side. I did not like to offer her money, yet I did not like to leave her shivering in the streets. My house was no distance away. Would she come there and warm herself?
An hour later, after some supper and a good many cigarettes, she curled up on the hearthrug and slept till morning. It was in this way I made the acquaintance of Mata Hari.
A few weeks later she called on Cheiro and told him that she had been invited by a German Baron and his wife to dance in Berlin.
“Does my Horoscope say that Berlin will be lucky for me?”
Some time previously she had given me the date of her birth. She was born in Java on March 31st, 1879. I took it out of my desk and showed it to her.
“Curiously enough,” I said, “from your Horoscope, Berlin and Germany, as a nation, will have a great attraction for you and should be fated to play an important role in your life. Under the rules laid down by what is called Mundane Astrology, Germany is governed by Aries, the House of the Planet Mars, and so are you. At the date of your birth you had what is known as the Sun in Aries, which will influence you all through your life.
“At the same time, owing to some of the aspects in your Horoscope, your life will be a remarkable one, but full of tragedy. “The cycle you are commencing now will reach its climax about October 1917. There it will end in some violent death for you.”
She left for Berlin the following day.
Much later Cheiro met her in St. Peterburg where she was living as “Baroness von Mingen,” and she had yet another extraordinary tale to tell him.
Rather than putting her on the stage, the Baron had installed her in the private hotel run by the International Spy Department of the German Secret Service. It was gradually instilled into her mind that her beauty, her talents, her knowledge of languages would be lost in an ordinary stage career as a dancer, but that as “a diplomatic investigator” she would have a wonderful career.
For three months she went through every day a systematic training in the general political aims of the leading countries of the world. Naval and military plans were given to her to copy, she was also instructed in deciphering secret codes, also how to make them, and how to send and receive messages by Morse signals. She was invited by high officials to witness field days, army displays, and many of the important Court ceremonies. The Kaiser himself had been specially gracious to her on many occasions, the result being that she conceived an admiration for Germany and everything German that became as fanatical as the devotion of any convert to a new religion.
“How did you obtain your title?” I asked.
“I am supposed to be the widow of a rich German Baron,” she laughed. “If you should be tempted to make inquiries at the German Legation here, or in any other country, you will find my papers are quite in order; further, you will get the information that my late husband and myself are only interested in charitable work and in the promotion of International Peace.”
“And the end of it all will be,” I said sadly, “that if war ever does come, you will be shot somewhere ‘At Dawn’ as a German spy.”
“Yes,” she nodded, “I have never forgotten your prediction for October 1917, but believe me or not, as you wish, the life I have chosen is well worth the risk.
“’Espionage ‘ is the greatest game of all,” she went on; “it is the battle of brains on the chess-board of life, a game in which even the humblest spy plays a hand in the destiny of Empires… [she goes on to describe the life of a spy contrasted with that of the “hum-drum little people.”
“The picture you paint is terrible,” I said. “For God’s sake give the whole thing up.”
“Spies never give up,” she retorted. “No gambling fever, no drug that was ever invented has such a hold. ”No,” she interrupted savagely, “don’t tell me I can marry and settle down. I tried it once—what did it give me ? A husband who used me as a plaything, who gave me two children, and then did not care if we starved or went to hell…
“The one career that women can excel in—is that of the professional spy. In this all her natural qualities can find full scope. Her powers as an actress, her love of intrigue, her desire for wealth, dissimulation, her intuition, her inherent gift of lying, her art of thieving, her innate curiosity, her snake-like body, her beauty, and lastly—her sex.
“One of the maxims of the German Secret Service is ‘The only perfect spy is a perfect woman provided she has no heart.’ ”
“You must be perfection,” I could not help saying under my breath.
She had either heard or read my thoughts. “I am,” she frankly admitted, “and yet with the weakness of the woman in me I wanted to unburden my thoughts to someone—to someone I could trust—that is why I have come to you tonight.” God only knows when we may meet again. I am leaving Russia in the morning, but my good friend, if our paths should cross in the future, I will always come and tell you if I am still successful as a woman spy.”
Our paths did not again cross until a few months before the outbreak of the Great War.
Mata Hari called Cheiro and invited him to dine with her and a “friend” at the Savoy. Cheiro recognized the man as a distinguished French politician.
“Just to think of meeting you here,” he said, as he cordially shook my hand. “But of course it is natural that you know our charming hostess on account of her wonderful work for international goodwill among nations.
“What a wonderful woman, is she not?” he rattled on. “Just to think of the good feeling that has sprung up between France and England and also with Germany since that night you and I met at the banquet given to the late King Edward on his visit to Paris in 1903. It is women like our hostess who have done so much to bring all this about. Baroness von Mingen may, it is true, be a German by marriage, but she is an Angel of Peace by birth.”
I had no time to answer, I could only look at this remarkable man and wonder—wonder at the metamorphosis that love can make when it touches the heart and brain of men who are supposed to be as hard as stone.
When I had first met this man, he was so French that the very mention of Germany was enough to give him a fit of apoplexy. As for England, she had always been “la perfide Albion” in his eyes, so much so that persons of all shades of politics had asked how much he was bribed to attend the banquet to King Edward.
Just then” the Angel” entered.
If I had thought her handsome that last time I saw her in St. Petersburg, how could I describe her now. I can only say that if ever an angel had come down to earth and got dressed by Parisian masters of art—it was the woman who entered the room at that moment.
Being nearer to her she greeted me almost affectionately as an old friend, but I was merely a foil, a prelude, a symphony in B Flat for the greeting she gave the French politician.
She did not walk—she glided across the carpet to him. Her glorious eyes—made no doubt more brilliant by an extra drop of belladonna shone with a radiance almost divine. She stretched out both hands. He stooped and kissed them as devotedly as he would have done the hands of a saint.
“Mon cher ami,” was all she said, but those three words vibrated with such apparent emotion and meaning, that the poor Frenchman looked for a moment quite weak about the knees…
If the Frenchman’s face looked benign before dinner, it now wore a expression of satisfied beatitude, something like what one sees on a fat priest’s face when he breaks his fast after the midday Mass.
“Yes,” Mata went on,” I know my dreams of Universal Peace will be realized before long. I know it is coming. As you are such good friends of mine, I will trust you with a secret. Only last week when interviewing the Kaiser for his subscription to the International Red Cross, I found him in his study taking down the picture of Germany’s earliest battleship and hanging in its place an illuminated text. What do you imagine were the words?”
We leaned forward breathlessly.
“They were: ‘I will turn their swords into ploughshares and their battleships into Noah’s Arks.’”
“Mon Dieu! how wonderful,” the Frenchman said.
Then in his turn he confided that the Minister of War had such a deficit in his Budget that certain stores had run out, that the Army had not enough boots to last three months, that the new rifle had not been supplied, and that famous gas which had been tried on a flock of sheep and killed them in a moment could not be manufactured in any quantity, as it was too dangerous to handle.
“As I said,” Mata whispered, “all is making for international peace. What a glorious place this world will be to live in in the next few years.”
“It is due to noble women like you, Madame, that all this has come about,” the Frenchman said. “The English have a true proverb: ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ ”
As the conversation had now turned to cradles and from that might turn to babies, I thought it was time for me to leave.
She stepped out on the landing to bid me good-bye.
“My Frenchman is very much in love, don’t you think so?” she laughed.
“Yes,” I replied. “But why did you have me at the dinner?”
“Because,” she laughed,” I am an actress at heart and must have an audience. Good-bye—don’t forget me in October 1917.”
Cheiro finishes his chapter with a dramatic account of meeting a “decrepit Irish peasant woman” in a Dublin restaurant who asked him for a lift.
She had a return third class ticket, I put her in a compartment. As I said good-bye and turned away, the woman leaned out of the window, and in a very soft voice called me back. With a sweet smile she said: “‘Cheiro,’ my dear, I am so glad you did not recognize me. It gives me implicit confidence in my disguise.” For a moment I was dumbfounded.
It was none other than Mata Hari….
One dismal morning in October 1917 she met her fate to the year and the month of my tragic prediction. Actress and soldier of fortune to the last, she refused to be blindfolded, kissed her hands to the soldiers, and met her fate with a smile on her lips.
Confessions: Memoirs of a Modern Seer, Cheiro, 1932: pp 248-257
There is, of course, controversy over whether Mata Hari was a spy of any real significance or was merely a scapegoat for the French. If the scene with the French politician was at all accurate, her fascinations were obviously such that she could “sell” a ludicrous image of the Kaiser hanging a pacifist Biblical misquote on the wall of his study.
It is difficult to know whether Cheiro was taken in by Mata Hari (he did, after all, relate in all seriousness her story of being a “half-caste temple dancer.”) or whether he did a little fantasizing of his own. She was a woman about whom it was easy to weave legends, living or dead, as in this post, The Spy Who Loved Me: Mata Hari’s Last Lover.
Cheiro’s clients were said to be stunned by his accuracy. Whether the stories in his Memoirs achieve the same reported level of exactitude, well… many of the clients he wrote about in his memoirs were dead and could not contradict him.
Insider knowledge about the accuracy of Cheiro’s recollections? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com I’ll be hanging a print of the SMS Brandenburg in my study.
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.