men, men and still more men

Say the word lover. Slowly, let it linger on your lips. Close your eyes and savour the word, letter by letter. I bet you felt a tingle of desire.

Mata Hari used the word lover, or amant as they usually say in French, as a matter of course. Not so much because of their obsession with her, but because her lovers were a source of income and reinforced the image of Mata Hari, of the seductive woman who few men could resist.

The French called her nothing more than a cheap whore when she was accused of espionage. But in her heyday, from 1905, lovers and courtesans were an accepted social phenomenon. Women like Mata Hari felt independent, and their liberal attitudes towards sexual mores were nothing to be ashamed of. Their relationships with men were not secret trysts; they weren’t furtive fumblings in broom closets.

Most men’s affairs with their mistresses weren’t hidden, even if they were high maintenance. ‘The knife cut both ways’, writes Julie Wheelwright in her book The Fatal Lover (1992). 'The men enjoyed a satisfying sex life independent of their marital obligations, while the courtesan had financial independence, social standing and sometimes a degree of political power as well.'

I tried to make a list of her lovers but lost count after twenty. But not Mata Hari, who often had several lovers at the same time, and was frank about this with her interrogators: ‘At the end of July 1914, I had a private dinner with one of my lovers, police chief Griebel.’ That was in Berlin.

Who were these men, with wealth, important functions, and who sometimes wore military uniforms? Here’s a random selection...

Alfred Kiepert, German officer. ‘In February 1910 I went to the Opéra de Monte-Carlo,’ she told her French interrogators during her imprisonment. ‘I became the mistress of Lieutenant Alfred Kiepert. I stayed with him for 3 years. He installed me in Berlin, he was very wealthy and he kept me very well. He gave me 300,000 marks.’

Felix Xavier Rousseau, a French banker. .... ‘Then I returned to Paris where the banker Rousseau took me as his mistress. With him I had a luxurious life. I had a villa in Neuilly.’ Pauline Bessy, the housemaid, later said that the gifts he gave her included four thoroughbred horses in a red velvet-lined stable. His extravagance towards Mata Hari contributed to his financial downfall.

Arnold von Kalle, German military attaché in Madrid. ‘I did what a woman does when she wants to conquer a gentleman, and it wasn’t long before Von Kalle was mine.’

Marquis Fernand de Beauffort, Commander of the Belgian Lancers: ‘I stayed in Paris for three months and became the mistress of Marquis De Beauffort. He was a cure for my boredom.’

Eduard Baron Van der Capellen, Colonel of the Huzars. ‘The baron is still my lover, he installed me in The Hague, on the Nieuwe Uitleg canal.’

She also had admirers who fantasised about a relationship with her. Apie Prins, a Dutch bohemian, claimed that he had ‘something’ with her during the First World War. And a certain Dr. Joaquin Matres from Tangier called her the love of his life. He wrote to Mata Hari biographer Sam Waagenaar that he visited her in her cell shortly before her execution.

And now we hear the word love: the only man she did not refer to as a lover was Vadim de Massloff, with whom she began a relationship in 1916. He was her fiancé until just before her death.

During the trial in Paris, almost all her men abandoned her. A relationship with a dancer is one thing, but with a refined, decadent and erotic spy? Denial was the best option. Furthermore, the First World War had completely overturned social values. Women with loose sexual morals were stigmatised and shunned. But Mata Hari didn’t realise this.

And mistresses? They still exist. Just think of the photo that went all over the world of French President Hollande, on his way to his mistress on a scooter. Or the one taken at the funeral of one of his predecessors, François Mitterand, with his wife Danielle and his mistress Anne Pigeot both present at the graveside.

I do my best to say the word amant, just like she did. It feels old-fashioned. Time has left the courtesans of then behind…