Gretha, now reborn as Mata Hari, soon had the whole of Europe at her feet. She was a popular exotic dancer who presented herself as someone thoroughly acquainted with the dancing of the East. And she did not confine herself to Paris. Men in Milan, Vienna, Berlin, and Madrid flocked to her shows.

 

Mata Hari presented herself to the press as an Indian woman. She had invented a suitably interesting back-story that began with “I was born in the south of India near Jaffna Patnam on the Malabar coast.” She found ways to darken her naturally fair skin to achieve a more Indian appearance.

The French novelist Colette, who also adopted an Eastern style (albeit less successfully), accused Mata Hari of being a fraud and wrote uncharitably that her skin might look amber at night, but in the daylight it was “mauve and patchy” from artificial dye.

Men were undeterred by the patchiness of Mata Hari’s skin hue. She was a sought-after courtesan who attracted many rich, powerful, and aristocratic clients. After the Great War began in 1914, her clientele inevitably included a number of military men. These were not poor soldiers, but high-ranking officers who gave her expensive jewelry and long, elegant furs.

Colette, Mata Hari critic

 

When, how, and how deeply Mata Hari’s foray into espionage goes is not known. There are theories but the facts are obscure and contradictory. The only definitive facts are that Mata Hari had German and French lovers, many of them were officers, and occasionally, she repeated information one had told her with an enemy on the other side.

Her career as a spy began in the spring of 1916, when Mata Hari was living in The Hague. Karl Kroemer, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam, sought her out. He came to her home– everyone knew where she lived– and presented her with a supply of secret ink and 20,000 francs (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $80,000). In exchange, the officer wanted to know any secrets Mata Hari picked up during her liaisons with the French officers. That was how it began.

 

 

Mata Hari seemed to have come to the attention of intelligence officers across Europe all at once. Later that year, she was traveling between France and the Netherlands, and questioned at a British port. MI5 files have survived that included a British officer’s assessment of her. “[She] Speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German. Handsome, bold type of woman. Well and fashionably dressed.” Though nothing incriminating was found in a search of her person and luggage, the officer wrote:  “Not above suspicion . . . most unsatisfactory . . . should be refused permission to return to the U.K.”

In Paris, Mata Hari had French clients who were able to facilitate a connection for her. Shortly after her arrival, she discussed spying on the Germans for the French. At last the dancer offered the French a deal. She wanted a million francs to spy on Germans in her unique capacity (about 4 million dollars in today’s currency).

The French took her up on it. Mata Hari was packed off to Madrid where she would meet Major Arnold Kalle, a well-connected German officer. It all worked according to plan. Mata Hari arrived in Madrid, Kalle was properly enchanted, and told her of a plan the Germans were sketching out to move rifles through Morocco. The information was then given to the French.

 

Place de l’Opera, Paris, 1916

But the Germans had been crafty – or Mata Hari had been sloppy. Either way, they fed her false information, and allowed it to slip to the French through other channels that Mata Hari was acting as a German spy.

Now, neither the French nor the Germans trusted Mata Hari, and viewed her as a traitor and worse. If she noticed, Mata Hari was undeterred from returning to Paris in January 1917.

Next, the finale: With her head held high

The very first Tour de France took place in July 1903.

The bicycle race is world-famous today but in 1903, it initially did not excite much interest. The six-stage race was scheduled to occur in June, but the registration was far below expectations. Disappointed organizers decided to make a few changes. They delayed the race for a month, cut the entry fee by half to 10 francs (about $90 in 2018), and increased the prize money to 20,000 francs. A publicity blitz was launched by the race’s sponsor, the newspaper L’Auto.

L’Auto announces le Tour de France

With these adjustments, registration swelled. On July 1, 1903, 60 contestants gathered just southeast of Paris, in Montgeron, to officially start the race. For 19 days, a mass of determined cyclists rode over 1,500 miles through France, captivating the press and thrilling the people who followed the race in the papers and ran to the road to cheer the cyclists as they rode by.

On July 19, Maurice Garin won the race in Paris, finishing with a time of 94 hours, 33 minutes, and 14 seconds. Garin was a 32-year-old chimney sweep who had won his first race in 1893. He had beaten the runner-up by a margin of over three hours.

Maurice Garin, first winner of the Tour de France

L’Auto was well-repaid for its sponsorship; its circulation was boosted by 160%. In fact, the Tour de France was such an unexpected success that the race became an annual July tradition.

Today, the race is a French institution. Yet it has not been without change or controversy. In 1904, Maurice Garin, dubbed petit ramoneur (“little chimney-sweep”) by an infatuated French press, won the race again. However, the disgraced cyclist was later disqualified when it was discovered he had taken a train in the Alps to ensure his victory.

2008 Tour de France cyclists (Source: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe)

Contestants today race in teams, not as individuals, as the 1903 contestants had. Cyclists’ top average speed today is 27.5 mph, nearly double the average speed when first tracked in 1919. And contestants no longer drink alcohol while racing, since the practice was banned in the 1960s.

But the Tour de France has proven it can continue to adapt without diminishing what made it wonderful. Today, La Grande Boucle (“The Big Loop”) is witnessed by over 12 million spectators who line the route every year, and delights over 3.5 billion people who tune in to watch from afar!