Even though she is one of the best-known spies in history, Mata Hari (1876-1917) was far from being successful. She ironically found the fame she had longed for in her death and continued legend. Her life and adventures still fascinate people, who regard her as the twentieth century's first and foremost femme fatale.
Ababy girl was born in Leeuwarden, located in the Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, and christened Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She came from a proper bourgeois, Calvinist family, and her father was a well-to-do hatter. But when he abandoned his family for another woman, and Margaretha's mother died soon after, the teenage girl found herself in dreadful circumstances.
It wasn't until March 1895 that the 18-year-old's destiny began to take shape. It happened while reading the advertisements in the Het Nieuwes van den Dag. There, she came across an advertisement by an army captain, stationed in the Dutch East Indies, who was seeking a wife. The officer was Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutchman of Scottish ancestry who had been stationed in the Indies for almost 20 years. At the time of the advertisement, he was recuperating from malaria in Amsterdam.
The advertisement was actually placed in the Het Nieuwes van den Dag as a practical joke by one of the newspaper's reporters who was a friend of MacLeod. It received 16 responses, with Margaretha's the last to arrive. However, hers contained a photograph that obviously intrigued the army captain. They went on their first date, and their romance, such as it was, quickly took off despite a 21-year age difference. They exchanged numerous letters (which MacLeod later sold to Dutch reporters), and these revealed the passionate nature of the young woman. They were married in the town hall that July of 1895, honeymooned at the spa in Wiesbaden, Germany, and returned to Amsterdam where they settled into an uneasy life together.
By September of 1896, MacLeod was deemed healthy enough to return to the East Indies, but they were unable to return because Margaretha was pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Norman John MacLeod, on January 30, 1897. The family eventually sailed for the Dutch East Indies aboard the Prinses Amalia on May 1, 1897.
Dutch East Indies
For the next few years, the Dutch East Indies, located in southeast Asia, was home. MacLeod's first two postings on his return were to Ambarawa, located in central Java, and then Toempoeng, where the couple's second child, a daughter, was born. In December of 1898, MacLeod was promoted to major and given a new post as a garrison commander. It was months before Margaretha and the children were able to join him, and tragedy and scandal quickly struck the family.
Soon after their arrival, the children became violently ill and were hospitalized. It was determined that they had been poisoned. Within two days, young Norman was dead. Margaretha blamed the children's nurse who, according to gossip, had been having an affair with MacLeod. Others believed MacLeod had raped the woman's daughter, and she was getting her revenge.
MacLeod took a new post in the jungle, where Margaretha became ill with typhoid fever. MacLeod himself became ill once again, and on October 2, 1900 he retired from the army. The family remained in the Dutch East Indies, but Margaretha longed to return to Europe, specifically Paris. Her infatuation with the older man had long since worn off, especially since he no longer had a position of prestige.
The family returned to Amsterdam in 1902, but MacLeod too had become tired of the arrangement and he deserted the family. In the website article, "Child of the Dawn," it was noted that "MacLeod descended into alcoholism and flagrant womanizing." Margaretha was granted a divorce and custody of their daughter. She left her daughter with relatives, headed to Paris, and never looked back.
Life in Paris
She arrived in Paris with her beauty as her only asset, and soon took a job as an artist's model. But that didn't pay well enough for her to live and she returned to the Netherlands. She grew tired of life in The Hague and Amsterdam, and once again went to Paris. However, this time she had considerable assistance. In The Hague, she had met Baron Henry de Marguerie, a wealthy bachelor and man about town, who was attached to the French ministry at The Hague. He set her up at the Grand Hotel in Paris, bought her a new wardrobe, and gave her spending money. Yet she was determined to make it on her own.
At first, she took a job as a riding instructor, and joined a exhibition riding team that was to perform in circuses. When the team got no bookings, she took the advice of a friend, Ernest Molier, who had formed the riding team, and decided to give dancing a try. She also changed her name to Marguerite.
The culture of the Orient was sweeping Paris at the time of these changes in her life. This allowed her to draw on her five years in the Dutch East Indies, and to craft a legend for herself that marked her exotic beauty. The only problem was that she had never studied dance, though she possessed a natural grace. She decided to create something entirely new, at least to Europeans, based on the style of dancing she had seen in the Indies. She also began to rewrite her personal history.
Dancer and Courtesan
In the beginning, she told people that she was the daughter of a Javanese Buddhist priest and a Dutch woman. Her parentage then changed to an important Dutch colonial official and a local woman. But when it came time for her initial performance she billed herself as "Lady MacLeod," whose father was British aristocracy and her mother an Indian who had had her trained as a Hindu temple dancer. As Russell Warren Howe described it in Mata Hari: The True Story, Margaretha had no trouble redefining her experience, as some Europeans confused the Dutch East Indies with India.
Her first performance was in the salon in the home of one Mme. Kireyevsky (also transliterated Kireevsky), a former singer. It was a successful debut, but more important it brought her to the attention of M. Emile Guimet, the proprietor of the Musee Guimet, an oriental art museum. Guimet was the final step in Margaretha's transformation into Mata Hari. He invited her to dance at the museum while shrewdly observing that neither her original name nor her newly acquired "aristocratic" stage name were authentic enough for a Hindu temple dancer. After some discussion she came up with the name Mata Hari. The name translates to "light of the day" or "eye of the day," meaning the sun or dawn.
On March 13, 1905, the date of her performance at Musee Guimet, Mata Hari came to be. The impresario Guimet decorated the museum's stage with a statue of Siva (the Hindu God of destruction and reproduction), before which was a bowl of burning oil, employed four other dancers, and lit the whole scene in candlelight.
Mata Hari herself was dressed in clothing from the museum's collection, mostly gauzy and transparent shawls that she stripped away as her dance became more erotic. The culmination of her performance was a simulated sex act with Siva. The audience, on the peak of modernism, and never having seen anything like it before, adored her. A few days later she would dance again at Mme. Kireyevsky's salon (for the benefit of the Russian Red Cross) and between the two shows she suddenly had a name and a following in Paris-among her devoted fans were ambassadors and members of the Russian and French aristocracy.
For the next nine years, she reigned over a Europe that moved ever closer to her sensibilities-that is, the freedom of modernism-even as it trudged closer and closer to destruction. There were comparisons to Isadora Duncan, but in truth Mata Hari was more of a stripper than a dancer. And thanks to the entree into certain areas of society that her dancing had brought her she was also Europe's best known courtesan (defined as a lover or mistress of a nobleman). As the "Child of the Dawn" website article noted, "During the early years before World War I, Mata danced her way into the hearts and wallets of soldiers and statesman on all sides of the political map and all over the globe."
Her numerous lovers during this period included War Minister Adolphe-Pierre Messimy; Alfred Kiepert, a wealthy German landowner and military officer; composer Giacomo Puccini; Baron Henri de Rothschild; and possibly Jules Massenet, for whom she danced in his opera Le Roi de Lahore in 1906. Mata Hari managed to scandalize the audience, the theater management, or both wherever she performed-most notably Milan's La Scala. She maintained residences in Paris and the Hague, and her star burned brightly across Europe, until the eve of World War I.
Her only problem was her age. She had begun her career late in life and by 1914 she was 38-years-old. Although a 1915 report from the The Daily Telegraph (London) describes her as "mahogany in colour, rather tall, aged between 35 and 40, a very pretty woman," she was clearly past her prime. Younger women were now doing what she had done-and if not doing it better, they were certainly more risque. With fewer performances came fewer opportunities to meet new lovers. Both meant less money.
Became a Spy
She originally began spying for the Germans during the war, but the intelligence she gathered never amounted to much. By 1916, she had fallen in love with a young Russian officer, Vadim de Masloff, and as a consequence switched her allegiance, and offered to work for the French. She even made a proposal in which she would enter Germany and seduce the Crown Prince.
This proved to be her undoing. Her contact was none other than the head of French intelligence, Captain Ladoux, who had set out to entrap her. After a liaison with a German officer, Mata Hari then traveled from the Netherlands to Spain, and then to England. She hoped to eventually travel to Belgium and then Germany.
However, she was arrested in England. Since her Dutch passport bore her original full name, the British were confused, which led to them to confuse her with another German spy. After numerous cables back and forth between London and Paris, she was sent back to Spain. There, Ladoux's organization managed to get their hands on secret cables she had sent to the Germans, who no longer trusted her anyway. She returned to Paris, and was later arrested on February 13, 1917, at the Elysees Palace Hotel.
The French were determined to use her capture as a propaganda boost. They claimed she had cost the lives of 50,000 French soldiers. There were eight charges against her for espionage activities dating back to December 1915. It is believed that circumstantial as well as manufactured evidence, led to her being found guilty on all the charges. She was sentenced to death.
Subsequently, the French ignored an appeal from the Queen of the Netherlands to free Mata Hari. A French offer to the Germans for a prisoner exchange was also ignored. In the days before her execution, she exhibited a great deal of dignity, and converted to Catholicism. On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad.
On the website Famous Females: Women in Espionage, it was noted that "Most historians do not believe that she [Mata Hari] realized the seriousness of the game she was trying to play." An article in the Sunday Times debated whether she was a "cunning and manipulative double agent" or "a convenient scapegoat" for the French. The article added that her myth "has refused to die, despite historical evidence that she was not an alluring nymphette, but a prostitute in her 40s."
Although history and popular culture have long reinforced the romantic, infamous version of the Mata Hari story, by the end of the twentieth century, many historians had come to believe that she was at worst an inept spy, possibly not a spy at all, but also a victim of her own fame.
Howe, Russell Warren, Mata Hari: The True Story, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1986.
Waagenaar, Sam, Mata Hari, Appleton-Century, 1965.
Daily Telegraph (London), January 27, 1999.
"Child of the Dawn: Mata Hari," About French Culture website,http://frenchculture.about.com/culture/frenchculture/library/weekly/aa080700a.htm (December 11, 2000).
"Mata Hari," Famous Females-Women in Espoinage,http://famousfemales.tripod.com/6or.htm (March 11, 2001).
"MI5 lifts veil on Mata Hari's luckless lovers," The Sunday Times, January 24, 1999, http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/99/01/24/stinwenws01004.html?1056493 (December 11, 2000).
"One possibility of Mata Hari's trial," Famous Females-Women in Espoinage,http://famousfemales.tripod.com/6tri.htm (March 11, 2001). □
August 7, 1876
October 15, 1917
Exotic dancer and courtesan
Mata Hari has gone down in history as one of the most notorious and exotic spies involved in World War I. Yet there is some evidence that her celebrated conviction for spying for the German army may have been based on false evidence. In fact, Mata Hari may not have been a spy at all. Rather, it is possible that she was a victim of a frantically suspicious world at war; unable to see the danger around her, she may have trapped herself in an attempt to make quick money. The whole truth about Mata Hari may never be known, but she was a flamboyant woman with a flair for the dramatic, so perhaps she would be pleased to know that her legend and her mystery live on.
A Childhood in the Netherlands
Mata Hari's original name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She was the only girl of four children. Born in the ancient town of Leeuwarden, in the northern part of the Netherlands, Margaretha had striking looks and a dramatic nature even as a child. The only one in her family with dark hair and dark eyes, she took to telling people that she was half Indian or Indonesian. Adam Zelle, Margaretha's father, was a hatmaker. The family was only middle class, but Zelle was a pompous man who liked to dress and act like a fine gentleman. Though the neighbors often laughed at her father's bright clothes and fancy airs, Margaretha adored him. She was his special favorite, and as his hat shop prospered, he showered his little girl with gifts and affection.
However, Margaretha's happy childhood was cut short. When she was only thirteen, her father's business failed. The public shame of having no money when they had always put on a show of wealth was bad enough; it was worse, however, when her father abandoned the family. Within a year, her mother died, physically and emotionally broken by their troubles. The children were scattered among relatives; Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in the tiny town of Sneek, not far from Leeuwarden. From there she was sent to school in nearby Leyde to learn to be a teacher.
Loss of Innocence and Escape through the Personal Ads
Margaretha did not learn to be a teacher, however. She had not been in school long when the headmaster noticed that his new student was strikingly beautiful. Though Margaretha was only fifteen, the headmaster began to pay her special attention, looking at her and touching her in ways that were appropriate for a lover, not a teacher. After a while, the other teachers and students noticed how the headmaster pursued Margaretha, and she was sent away from the school to stay with another relative.
Margaretha began to long for a family of her own and started reading the marriage ads in the local newspaper. One day she ran across a promising advertisement that had been placed by a captain on leave from service in the Dutch army. She answered the ad, and soon the eighteen-year-old Margaretha met the thirty-eight-year-old Captain Campbell MacLeod. Four months later, on July 11, 1895, they were married and traveled to Java, which was part of the Dutch East Indies (Dutch-controlled islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans). Though Margaretha had wanted to travel and have adventures, her marriage was not a happy one. By 1902, she
and MacLeod had separated bitterly. Of their four children, one had died of disease, and two had been poisoned by a ser vant; her husband, who had turned out to be a brutal man, took the only surviving child from her.
The Birth of Mata Hari
Heartsick and penniless after her failed marriage, Mar garetha was still resourceful and hopeful. She went to Paris to seek work as an artist's model. She was unsuccessful at that, but she found another career that suited her much better. While living in Java with her husband, Margaretha had learned some of the sensual, snake dances that were sacred to the native people there. It was there, too, that she had first been given the name Mata Hari, which is a Malay expression meaning "eye of dawn" or "morning sun." In glittering Paris at the turn of the century, she found new uses for what she had learned during her unhappy marriage. Taking advantage of her exotic good looks, in 1905 Margaretha Geertruida Zelle became known as Mata Hari, the famous dancer.
Mata Hari gained wide fame as a dancer, combining the movements she had seen in Java with moves that she simply made up. Though she pretended to be a priestess from India dancing sacred religious rituals, her dances were very sexual. As she danced, she removed her clothes, becoming one of the first striptease dancers. Audiences loved her. After wild success in France, she performed her "sacred temple dances" in glamorous theaters from Spain to Egypt and became one of the most famous celebrities of her day. Although dance critics called her a fraud, many people were captivated by Mata Hari's mystery and sexuality.
It was not easy for a woman to earn a living on her own, but along with dancing, Mata Hari always had lovers to support her. She became the mistress to many men of high position during her dancing career, and when one relationship broke up, she would search for another. As she grew older and her fame as a dancer began to fade, she depended more and more on her affairs with men. A woman who receives money for having sexual affairs with wealthy men is called a courtesan, which is really the same as a prostitute.
Surviving in a World at War
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Mata Hari's constant travels around Europe, and her affairs with men on both sides of the war, brought her to the attention of the Allied authorities. They became convinced that she was a German spy. A French officer, Georges Ladoux, decided to try to get Mata Hari to become a double agent; in other words, he wanted her to pretend to continue to work for the Germans while actually spying for the Allies. There is little evidence that Mata Hari ever worked as a spy for the Germans, but she did accept Ladoux's proposal, agreeing to spy on the Germans for the French in exchange for good pay. There is also little evidence that she had strong political loyalty to either side. In fact, Mata Hari was a woman who had learned to do what she had to do to survive.
Though it is hard to know exactly what happened, it seems likely that Mata Hari did offer to spy for the Germans so that she could spy on them for the French. The German officers she was involved with seemed to consider her something of a joke, though they did pay her for sex and gave her some unimportant information to pass along. They even gave her a code name—H21. The money and code name would be used against her during her trial for spying. It was the Germans who actually caused Mata Hari's arrest, by sending a message about her using her code name. Some historians suspect that the Germans did this on purpose, sending a message about Mata Hari in a code they knew the British had broken in order to distract the Allies from finding real German spies.
The French were fighting a hard and bloody war, however, and they took the German message very seriously. On February 13, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested by the French and spent five months in a grim prison in Paris. Her trial for espionage (spying) on July 24 and 25 was short and merciless. Mata Hari was accused of causing the deaths of more than fifty thousand Allied soldiers by passing vital secrets to the Germans. She was convicted unanimously and sentenced to death. She spent almost three more months in prison before she was taken out of her cell and shot by a firing squad. It is said that she smiled and blew a kiss to the men in the firing squad just before her death. Shortly after Mata Hari's execution, Ladoux, who had been largely responsible for her arrest and conviction, was arrested himself and imprisoned for espionage.
For More Information
Howe, Russell Warren. Mata Hari, The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.
Keay, Julia. The Spy Who Never Was: The Life and Loves of Mata Hari. Santa Barbara, California, and Oxford, England: Clio Press, 1989.
Ostrovsky, Erika. Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari. New York: Macmillan, 1978.
Howe, Russell Warren. "The Mournful Fate of Mata Hari, the Spy Who Wasn't Guilty." Smithsonian, May 1986, 132–49.
Mata Hari: Seductive Spy. New York: Greystone Communications, for A&E Network, 1996.
"Mata Hari." The History of Espionage. [Online] http://members.nbci.com/1spy/Mata_Hari.html (accessed February 2001).
"Mata Hari: Double Agent? One Truth." Radio Netherlands Wereldomroep. [Online] http://www.rnw.nl/holland/html/matahari_eng990228.html (accessed February 2001).
The Legend Lives On
The records of Mata Hari's trial were sealed by the French government for one hundred years, so the whole truth of her guilt or innocence will remain a mystery at least until the year 2017. However, the image of the glamorous, exotic spy captured the public imagination, and the name Mata Hari has remained famous for decades. Filmmakers began making movies of her life only two years after her death, and since then, artists in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the United States, and other countries have created dozens of films, novels, and plays based on the dramatic life of Mata Hari. She has been portrayed by well-known actresses from many different countries, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Jeanne Moreau. Even a cartoon show and an Internet search engine have been named for the famous spy.
Most of these fictional works take great liberties with the real life of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, and most do not question whether she was, indeed, an effective spy for the Germans. However, many historians do question Mata Hari's guilt, and they have worked to clear her name. Her hometown in the Netherlands also hopes to prove Mata Hari's innocence. On the hundredth anniversary of her birth, the city of Leeuwarden opened a museum dedicated to Mata Hari and placed a statue of her nearby.