Among my many and varied ambitions, I always thought it would be exciting and fulfilling to serve my country as a spy. That’s right. A spy. The plethora of spy shows on television during my formative years had an enormous influence on me; and what more exhilarating career could a young girl from a dusty, sleepy, not much going on farm town choose? Being an international spy would take me away from peaches, almonds, and alfalfa into a world of intrigue and adventure.
I remember faithfully watching the likes of I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Wild Wild West, and Man From UNCLE. I loved the characters and their brilliance in combatting evil worldwide forces who were bent on destroying all we common folk held near and dear. Intelligence, sophistication, costumes, weapons, physical strength and martial arts skills catapulted those secret warriors into the ranks of super heroes without super hero powers.
All those shows were captivating, and I felt the sense of purpose in their lives, as they put everything on the line each week to save us from impending doom. I even overlooked the fact that all the spies in these shows were men. Being a daughter raised in the 1950’s and coming of age in the 1960’s, I was well indoctrinated into the expectations and roles for females on TV and in real life.
Then, to my ever lasting joy and profound appreciation, I discovered The Avengers. And Mrs. Peel. We will never forget the voiceover that explained to us, the eager audience: “Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers.” As this announcement was being made, a waiter carrying a bottle of champagne fell dead onto a human-sized chessboard, with a knife sticking out of a target on his back. As we listened, awe-struck, to the introduction, Steed poured two glasses of champagne, he and Mrs. Peel clinked their glasses, and then walked away. I was hooked.
Emma Peel was the second assistant John Steed had, and although she was an amateur, she was spectacular. Beautiful, witty, fashionable, intelligent, and possessing superior fighting skills, she could handle the spy business as well as any man, real or imagined. I had a new role model, and being a true believer my whole life, I knew if she could do it, I could do it. That’s right. If Emma Peel could carry a gun in her boot, and take on the most seriously malevolent characters of the day, so could I.
But, as one would have it, the years flew by, and during that time, I realized my country did not need, nor want me as a spy. I never stopped being fascinated with those who did heed the call to super secret service, especially the women who took on the task. Then, two days ago, I ran across a brief statement about August 7th being the birthday of Mata Hari. Reviewing articles and biographic information on her certainly painted a different spy picture from that of my old hero, Emma Peel.
Born August 7, 1876 in the Netherlands, her name was Margaretha Zell, called M’greet by her family. Her father’s business went bankrupt when she was thirteen. Her mother died when she was fifteen. Her father did not feel the need to parent alone, so he distributed his children to whomever would take them. Margaretha was placed in her godfather’s home. From there she went to teacher’s school, and after an unsuccessful entanglement with the proprietor, fled from there in disgrace to her uncle’s home. While there, she came across an advertisement for a wife from an officer who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies. She replied, and despite a twenty-one year difference in their ages, they married. He turned out to be a violent, abusive, alcoholic husband whose infidelities were legion.
While her husband was stationed in Java, she taught herself what was billed as a temple dance, based on cultural and religious symbolism from the Indies. She reinvented herself as a Hindu artist, and gave herself a new name, Mata Hari, meaning Eye of the Day in the Indonesian dialect. After nine brutal years of marriage, she left her husband and child, embarking on a career as an exotic strip tease dancer, and courtesan.
As time passed, and younger dancers replaced her on the strip tease stage, she used sex to support her lifestyle, seducing military and government men to pay her way. The story is complicated, and not completely agreed upon by biographers and historians, but as World War I swept the continent, it is believed Mata Hari became a double agent spying for France and Germany. There were some coded messages that may have been used to set her up. There were French and German lovers, surveillance by the British and French, and finally an arrest by the French on February 13, 1917. She was thrown into the Prison Saint-Lazare, interrogated, tried for espionage, and found guilty. She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.
What a tragic life, cut short by indiscretions, defending herself during the trial by stating, “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy never! I have always lived for love and pleasure.” Not the strongest defense in 1917, during a World War, while being tried by men who saw her as a convenient scapegoat to help explain their military losses.
All these years later, I still like to entertain the idea of being a spy. However, I most definitely am of the Emma Peel school of spying, rather than Mata Hari’s. And truth be told, even though I like to fantasize about the sophisticated, glamorous life of the Emma Peel spy, I know there probably is not too great a need for my particular skill set. Unless the ability to make a really good Swiss cheese, onion, and bacon Quiche, or crochet snowflakes for the Christmas tree could trip up, foil, or otherwise defeat our enemies, I can see why my spy resume remains in the abeyance file. No matter. I found the Avengers TV show on Netflix, so I can watch, and spy vicariously from the comfort of my home. The best of all worlds.