Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876-1917) was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan best known as Mata Hari. She once half jokingly said to friends, "I will be celebrated or notorious." She also thought she would eventually die on the scaffold. It all came to pass except that she was shot not hung, accused as a spy during the First World War.

Mata Hari, 1906

Her early and happy childhood did not in any way predict how her life would unfold. Her father, Adam Zelle, was a well- to –do businessman so he could afford to indulge and spoil his eldest and only daughter. Margaretha adored her father who treated her like a little princess.  Her life long need for male attention and to be constantly admired took root then.

That idyllic life came to an abrupt end when Zelle’s haberdashery business went bankrupt around the time Margaretha became a teenager. He abandoned his family when he could no longer afford to care for them. It was a bitter blow for Margaretha.

Her mother struggled to raise Margaretha and her 3 brothers until she died a couple of years later. Margaretha was sent to live with relatives. Her future prospects were dim. She was a tall (5’ 9”) headstrong girl with no marketable skills. So she was sent to a boarding school which trained young women to become kindergarten teachers.There is no certainty but the then 16-year-old Margaretha very likely had an affair with the married and much older headmaster. She was sent home in shame and shuffled off to yet another set of relatives. 

At 17, she made a fateful decision which changed her life forever. She answered an ad in the paper placed by a soldier in the Dutch colonial army, Captain Rudolf MacLeod (his Scottish forebears settled in The Netherlands generations ago) who was home on convalescent leave. He was an ambitious officer who needed a wife to help him advance his career.

MacLeod was not only 20 years older than her but utterly the wrong man for her. The whirlwind romance was based solely on lust. Margaretha certainly found men in uniform, especially officers, attractive and continued to do so for the rest of her life.

Wedding Day
Within a couple of weeks of marriage, this rough, hard-drinking spendthrift and womanizer went back to seeing other women. Not only that, he passed on syphilis to Margaretha. Still, she had high hopes things would change when they eventually went back to Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. But the marriage went downhill after that.

En route to the Dutch Indies (Margaretha at front, far left)
Macleod was intensely jealous of the attention his pretty wife drew in the Dutch colony where white men greatly outnumbered white women. He was also constantly in debt. He began to blame her for his lack of promotion.

She bore 2 children, Norman and Jeanne Louise (nicknamed Non). They became ill and suffered from sores because they both acquired congenital syphilis through their mother. Macleod blamed Margaretha for their illness as he was convinced she must have picked up the disease from someone else.

Then disaster struck when both children became gravely ill. They were in pain and were vomiting. Both parents thought that a servant must have poisoned the children but it was far more likely due to the treatment the children were receiving for syphilis. This was before antibiotics so the only treatment then was with toxic mercury chloride which was even more dangerous for small children.

Norman and his father
The little boy died devastating both parents. The marriage deteriorated after that. Macleod became extremely abusive both physically and verbally.  She desperately sought a way to escape her intolerable marriage. She studied the local culture and traditions  as a distraction and even joined a dance company. Her interest in Javanese performance arts were to be the foundation of who she was to become.

The family returned to The Netherlands but the couple separated after arrival. Margaretha filed for divorce. Rudolf deliberately withheld money in the hopes she would go back to him. She was in dire straits and resorted to prostitution to feed herself and Non. They did get back together briefly but soon parted permanently.  This time Rudolf kept his daughter who never again saw her mother.  (Non later died at age 21 probably of a cerebral aneurysm, a known complication of congenital syphilis.)

Nearly destitute, Margaretha then went to Paris. A journalist once asked her why she chose that city.  She replied, " I don't know. I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris."

She tried modelling for artists and acting without much success. Then after she managed to get a job with an equestrian and riding school to do trick riding, the owner kindly suggested she might do better as a dancer and offered to introduce her to society contacts.

She began her new career with a few private but highly successful performances.  She developed her own version of Eastern “sacred dances” which combined dance with “worship” - a brilliant move because it gave her a great deal more respectability than the dancing girls at the Moulin Rouge. She once confessed to a friend, “I never could dance well. People came to see me because I was the first who dared to show myself naked to the public.”

Debut performance at the Musée Guimet (Musuem of Asian Art in Paris)
Her skill lay in persuading her audiences her erotic dances were art and not at all titillating. Her performance was all about creating a mood and her dark looks fitted her role. The costumes she wore were inspired by Javanese classical dancers.

Javanese dancers (Picture source)
Her signature look included an elaborate golden and bejeweled headdress which sort of resembled Javanese ones, a beaded metallic bra and several long see through veils.  She also wore large earrings, necklaces, bracelets and armlets to complete the look.

Mata Hari's bejeweled headdress
Although she performed what was essentially a strip tease, she was not truly naked.  She never ever took off her bra and she wore a flesh colored body stocking.  Still she was shockingly bold for her time.

According to one spectator, she moved "with slow, undulating, tiger-like movements" as she advanced towards Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and transformation. She then moved onto feverish movements removing veil after veil as she tried to win Shiva's favor.  She "finally worked to a state of frenzy, unclasped her belt and fell in a swoon at Siva's feet."

Mata Hari, 1906 postcard
She chose a stage name, Mata Hari, the Malay phrase for sunrise or translated literally as the eye of the day.   Her huge popularity led her to create an improbable public persona.  She told various enchanting but untrue stories about herself. She claimed, among other things, to be the daughter of a temple dancer in India or that of a English lord and an Indian princess. It was easy to believe her because of her olive complexion.

Signed picture of Mata Hari, 1905
The public adored her. Her wild success soon allowed her to live the high life and to travel all over Europe, leaving a trail of smitten male admirers.  Dance and her various affairs with wealthy and influential men supported her well.  She was not careful with her money though. As time went on, younger rivals appeared, and Margaretha began to struggle to stay in the limelight and in the black.

The Belle Époque - a scientific and cultural era marked with luxury and lavish living came to a close at with the start of the First World War.  Margaretha was now 38. She was still beautiful even though she was no longer in the first flush of youth. The war brought on a grim austerity with shortages and no amusement of any kind.  She was back in her native country and utterly bored as a mistress of wealthy Dutch colonel who was often away.

So when the German counsul, Karl Kroemer,  approached her to spy for Germany, she took the money he offered - 20,000 francs - with no intention of doing any espionage.  Margaretha was accustomed to taking money from men. In any case, she considered it payment for the expensive furs the Germans had unfairly seized from her when she was forced to leave Berlin when the war began.

She sailed to Paris hoping to collect her valuables and other belongings via Folkestone, England. She was able to travel freely during war time because she was a Dutch national (The Netherlands was a neutral country.) Still a lone, apparently well dressed and confident woman who could speak several languages fluently was suspicious and duly noted by the British counterespionage unit (MI5).

She resumed her glamorous life as best she could in Paris. Uniformed officers were plentiful in Paris and that was just perfect for Margaretha.  The men were only too glad to spend some time in the company of a beautiful woman and briefly forget the horrors of war. She simply avoided the topic.

She continued to see many men even after falling deeply in love with a young Russian officer, Vladimir "Vadime" de Massloff, some 18 years her junior, in 1916. She tried to get a permit to travel to what was a war zone just because she wanted to be nearer Vadime but was refused.  She made the mistake of letting another of her lovers know of her travel plans. He sent her to see Captain Georges Ladoux, head of the French intelligence (Deuxieme Bureau) and her fate was sealed.

Ladoux recruited her to spy for France.  Why he should do so with a suspected German spy, as Mata Hari's biographer, Pat Shipman, suggests could indicate he had other motives.  Mata Hari, a loose woman, was to him, an easy scapegoat for France's appalling losses at the front and may well have hid his own activities as a possible double agent for Germany.  She was also a poor choice for a spy because she was too well known.

Margaretha agreed to pass along any military or diplomatic information she could get. In reality, she was desperately in need of funds to pay her debts so she continued to hound Ladoux for advances. She wasn't much of a spy either. She wrote Ladoux uncoded letters and telegrams and called personally at his office!

 Ladoux played her along while having her tailed hoping to garner anything that he could use against her but it yielded nothing more than the activities of a busy courtesan.

Ladoux sent her to Madrid via England again.  There she was arrested, mistaken for another spy.  The British had to let her go because they found no evidence of espionage on her. While in Madrid, she struck up a relationship with a German officer, Major Arnold Kalle and tried to pry information from him as she was told to do.

While she was in Madrid, a series of telegrams between Berlin and Kalle were  intercepted by the French about payments to a spy called H21. The spy was not identified but the name of Margaretha's servant and the Dutch consul in Paris were oddly mentioned. Kalle supposedly sent a message confirming H21 had returned to Paris but earlier than Mata Hari actually did.

The telegrams strangely used an already a broken code which  the Germans had had to know could be read by the British, France's ally.  Either Ladoux did not wish to acknowledge the messages were deliberate misinformation by the Germans or was actually the planter himself.

On the day of her arrest (February 13, 1917)
In any case, Margaretha was arrested as a spy. If Margaretha had such bad luck to cross paths with a man like Ladoux, she was even unluckier with the prosecutor assigned to her case. Pierre "the Grand Inquisitor" Bouchardon was determined to break her mentally and physically to get her confession even without any hard evidence.  In his eyes, she was already guilty because she was an immoral woman.

He had her imprisoned in one of Paris' worst prisons and questioned her periodically and mercilessly.  For a woman accustomed to luxury, the filthy, rat infested, cold prison was hell on earth. She endured the conditions in isolation from February 13 to July 24, 1917.  Her health deteriorated rapidly and she was on the verge of a breakdown. Letters from her lawyer, a former lover,  failed to change even her basic conditions.

In April, Ladoux finally provided Bouchardon with the incriminating telegrams never telling him they were in the broken code.  Margaretha herself also confessed she had actually accepted money from the Germans.  Most of her lovers, even her beloved Vadime, sought to distance themselves from her after her arrest.  With the exception of her lawyer, she was well and truly abandoned.

The war had gotten so bad for the Allied forces in 1917, Margaretha was the perfect scapegoat when her trial began on July 24. She became the reviled woman everyone wanted to hate. One journalist described her as "a sinister Salome who played with the heads of our soldiers in front of the German Herod." There was even an unproven claim she caused the death of 50,000 children! She was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.

In the early hours of October 15, 1917, Mata Hari gave her final performance with courage.  She walked and stood tall.  She refused to be tied to a stake and turned down the offer of a blindfold. She waved to the weeping nuns who accompanied her and blew kisses at the priest and her lawyer.  The sergeant major of the dragoons said in admiration "By God, this lady knows how to die." He then lifted and dropped his saber and the men fired. Mata Hari was dead at 41.

No one claimed her body so it was sent to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris for medical study. 

Ladoux, one of her nemeses, was later arrested, not once but twice, accused of being a double agent.  He was eventually acquitted but he spent a miserable time in a terrible military prison, suffering much as Margaretha had.  His name was never fully cleared.

When her ex-husband heard of her execution, he remarked, "Whatever she's done in life, she did not deserve that."  Whether she really did or not will be revealed in French documents scheduled for declassification in 2017, 100 years after World War I's infamous femme fatale was put to death.

Pat Shipman (2007) Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

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