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Famous Double (and Triple) Agents: Mata Hari and Mathilde Carré

These spies had murky allegiances. 

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  • Mathilde Carré, left, and Mata Hari.Photo Credit: Alchetron / Wikipedia

Who can you trust in the scheming enterprise of war? It’s near impossible to suspect who has a vocation for spying when they’re so adept at hiding it. A colleague can be your enemy, or an enemy your ally. And when they’re a double agent, reaping the benefits of spying for one country while secretly remaining loyal to another, they can earn the unexpected reward of making history—but only after their ruse has been blown, during their lifetime or years later.

The Hollywood image of a spy, whether they be the hero or the villain of their story, is typically that of a sleekly dressed, smooth-talking, martini-sipping, and seemingly invincible operative; while in real life spying could be gritty, treacherous work, not for the faint-hearted or for those easily pricked by their conscience. It can be an especially precarious profession for women, but spying has never been exclusively a man’s domain. 

Here are the stories of Mata Hari and Mathilde Carré, two of history’s most notorious female spy agents, one from each World War, and centered in Paris. The first was a double agent, the second a triple, but each was a dangerous one-woman act in her lifetime. 

Mata Hari

1876 - 1917

double agents
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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Speaking of one-woman acts, Mata Hari was already a theatrical sensation when she was drawn into the shadowy underworld of spying during the First World War. Born in 1876 in the Netherlands as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, Hari emerged from the wreckage of an abusive marriage to an army captain to reinvent herself as a glamorous Parisian "it girl". In the City of Lights at the turn of the century, she dazzled and sometimes outraged audiences as a circus act and racy exotic dancer who performed under the stage name “Mata Hari,” which in the Malay language—she was a lifelong enthusiast of Indonesian culture—means “eye of the day.”

Hari also supplemented her income with work as an artist’s model, and seduced generous men with deep pockets. Determined to be independent, she capitalized on her greatest assets: her beauty and sex appeal. It wasn’t long before she was one of Paris’s most in-demand “courtesans,” which at the time were a division of cultured and well-educated sex workers who catered only to upper-class patrons, gaining influential connections. 

It was these very connections that instigated the start of Hari’s spying career after World War I broke out in 1914. Hari was in a romantic relationship with Captain Vadim Maslov, a Russian pilot serving in the French army, who was wounded in a confrontation with German officers. Hari was still a Netherlands citizen and, as the rules went, citizens of neutral countries could not visit injured officers in French hospitals at the front. However, the military organization Deuxième Bureau was prepared to allow the famous Hari special visiting privileges on the condition that she spied for France, her adopted country. What they specifically wanted was for her to milk information out of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Hari’s casual acquaintance. This she did so with her usual tactic: by going to bed with him. 

On February 13th, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested by the French on suspicion of acting as a double agent and spying for the Germans. She had been regarded with suspicion even before her recruitment by Deuxième. It was known that she’d been in contact with German spymaster Karl Kroemer, who’d once attempted to recruit her himself. 

During her trial Hari was charged with and found guilty of passing on information to Germany under the codename “H-21,” the same codename offered to her by Kroemer during their first meeting. On October 15th, 1917, Hari was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. They were her last-ever audience, and she treated them to the full Mata Hari experience by blowing them a flirtatious kiss before they were obliged to gun her down. She was 41 years old when she died.  

Hari’s life story has been the subject of countless films, stage musicals, and biographies. What all the adaptations cannot seem to agree on is her level of complicity. Was she a pawn or a full participator in the intricate game of war? One prominent biographer even believes she may have been innocent of spying for Germany, and a scapegoat for France's military failures. It can at least be said with conviction that when she blew the firing squad that provocative final kiss, she exited the world as she lived: as a saucy superstar.

Mathilde Carré

1908 - 2007

“A cat is mercurial: she plays to her own rules, no one else’s. She is independent and does what she pleases, when she wants to, not when others think she should,” writes author David Tremain in his revealing biography Double Agent Victoire. His subject was one of France’s most intriguing traitors. Operating under the codename “La Chatte,” French-born triple agent Mathilde Carré—born Mathilde Lucie Bélard—was as sly, cunning, and self-serving as her fitting alias. 

Born in the industrial town of Le Creusot, Saône-et-Loire to a working class family, Carré seemed destined for a straightforward, conventional, and honest life. She even attended the Sorbonne during the 1930s to receive her teaching degree in order to support herself before her first marriage to Maurice Carré. However, circumstances would present to her alternative ways of making a living. Through the war, she could move out of the typically female job options of teacher or nurse—a role she also fulfilled for a while during World War II—and into something more lucrative. 

After the 1940 fall of France to the Germans, “Victoire,” or “La Chatte” as she was more commonly known, was recruited by the underground Interallié intelligence gathering network in Paris and earned a reputation as a femme fatale. On November 18th, 1941, the German military-intelligence organization Abwehr arrested Carré and several of her Franco-Polish Resistance comrades. Threatened with execution, and successfully bribed with a monetary reward by the Germans, “La Chatte” chose self-preservation over martyrdom. She not only switched sides, becoming a spy for Nazi Germany and feeding them information about the Resistance forces—with whom she still pretended to be allied—but she also became the mistress of the man who’d captured and interrogated her in the first place, German senior officer Hugo Bleicher.

But Bleicher was not her only lover, and Germany was not the only country that bankrolled her. Another paramour, United Kingdom agent Pierre de Vomécourt, caught her in the act and convinced her to “redeem” herself and spy for the Allies instead. Carré, recognizing the pros of switching sides a second time, agreed. The political tide was beginning to turn in the Allies’ favour, and it suited “La Chatte” to turn her fur coat once again. She was sent on assignment to London by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), with Bleicher under the impression that Carré was going to infiltrate the organization for Germany. 

Once on English soil, she passed on invaluable information about the Abwehr to the security service MI5 and served stints in British prisons when her trustworthiness was (rightfully) under scrutiny. After being deported back to France, she was charged with committing treason against her country, but her death warrant by firing squad was never carried out. It seemed that “La Chatte” had nine lives to spare after all. Her prosecution was commutated, and she was sentenced instead to 20 years in jail. 

In 1959, five years after her early release on the grounds of good behavior, Carré published the memoir J'ai été "La Chatte (I Was Called the Cat), in which she attempted to deny many of the accusations made against her in her lifetime. 

Carré died in Paris, the city where her shady career as a spy had first flourished, on May 30th, 2007. She managed to live to the ripe old age of 98.