Zelle, Margaretha (1876–1917)

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Zelle, Margaretha (1876–1917)

Courtesan and erotic dancer who was accused of espionage by French authorities and executed in October 1917. Name variations: Margarida Zelle; Mata Hari; Baroness von der Linden; Clara Benedix or Benedict; Red Dancer. Born Margaretha Gertrud Zelle on August 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Holland; died on October 15, 1917, by execution, at Château de Vincennes, France; daughter of Adam Zelle and Antje (van der Meulen) Zelle; married Captain John MacLeod, in Amsterdam, on July 11, 1895 (separated 1902); children: Norman (b. 1897); Juana-Luisa MacLeod (1898–1919).

Sailed for Dutch East Indies (1897); returned to Holland (1902); arrived in Paris (1904); made dancing debut in Paris (March 13, 1905); performed in Madrid (January 1906); appeared in Monte Carlo (February 1906 and 1910); danced two ballets in Milan (1911); fled Germany at outbreak of World War I; performed in Holland (1914–16); received 20,000 francs to spy for Germany; recruited by French Intelligence (1916); detained by British authorities (1916); deported to Spain (1916); arrested for espionage (February 12, 1917); tried by Military Tribunal (July 27–28, 1917).

On the evening of March 13, 1905, a select audience assembled at the Musse Guimet in Paris, not, as one might suppose, to view its collection of Eastern art, but to watch a display of oriental dancing by the woman known as Lady MacLeod, making her debut under the exotic name of Mata Hari, meaning "Eye of the Morning."

Amber skinned and tall, with dark hair and strong features, Mata Hari wore a Javanese dance costume, including a finely jewelled brassiere, bracelets, and a few strategically placed scarfs, knotted at the waist, that were removed by the end of the performance so that she was dancing in the nude. From that evening forward, Mata Hari was to garner a large and appreciative following in the French capital among the fashionable and famous, graduating from the drawing rooms of Paris to the stage, until she was packing in audiences at theaters across the city.

Born Margaretha Gertrud Zelle on August 7, 1876, in the small Dutch town of Leeuwarden, she was the daughter of Adam and Antje Zelle . Shortly after the death of her mother in 1890, her father's hat business began to falter, and as the family's fortunes declined, the blackhaired Margaretha was sent to live with an uncle in The Hague, where she trained as a kindergarten teacher.

At 17, Zelle was a pretty young woman, and seems to have understood her power over men. In March 1895, while glancing through a newspaper, she came upon a classified advertisement from a Dutch colonial officer seeking a suitable wife, and decided to answer the ad.

John MacLeod was a 38-year-old officer of Scottish ancestry, taken with the future Mata Hari at first sight. She was impressed by his selfassurance, his military bearing, and his exotic stories of the Dutch East Indies, and they were engaged by the end of the month. The marriage took place on July 11, 1895, at the Amsterdam City Hall.

After 18 months a son, christened Norman, was born, and they sailed three months later for the Dutch East Indies. Within the next year, a daughter, Juana-Luisa MacLeod , was born, but the marriage was by then showing signs of strain. John Macleod was often drunk and abusive, and Zelle seems to have grown bored with life in the tropics. In 1899, the death of their son served to drive the couple further apart. In 1902, John resigned his commission in the colonial army. The couple sailed for Holland and separated upon their arrival, but John MacLeod did not actually divorce his wife until a few months before her death, in 1917.

Zelle arrived in Paris in 1904, penniless and unemployed, and found a job at the Cirque Molière, as an acrobatic rider. Then her employer persuaded her that her future lay in the world of dance. Zelle, who had limited experience in the field, had witnessed several temple dances while in Java, and she soon decided that what she needed to succeed in the world of popular dance was a sense of rhythm, a convincingly exotic life story, and an exotic new name. With her debut at the Musse Guimet as Mata Hari, she became a sensation and offers to perform were soon pouring in from London, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Berlin.

In 1906, Zelle danced in Madrid in January and in Monte Carlo the following month. Later that year, she performed in Berlin, where she become the darling of high society and involved in a romance with an officer of the 11th Regiment of Hussars, Lieutenant Alfred Kiepert. By the end of 1907 that affair seems to have waned, and on December 12 the New York Herald reported that Mata Hari was back in Paris, staying at the elegant Hotel Meurice. Her career was flourishing, both as a dancer and as a courtesan.

MacLeod, Juana-Luisa (1898–1919)

Daughter of Mata Hari. Name variations: Jeanne-Louise; called "Non" or Banda or Bandda MacLeod or Macleod. Born Juana-Luisa MacLeod in Toempoeng, the Dutch East Indies, in 1898; died on August 9, 1919; daughter of Captain John MacLeod and Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari).

Born in 1898, in Toempoeng, the Dutch East Indies, Juana-Luisa Macleod was the daughter of Margaretha Zelle , also known by her stage name, Mata Hari. While in the Dutch East Indies, Juana-Luisa also acquired the Javanese nickname of "Banda" or "precious one." After the separation of her parents in 1902, she lived briefly with her mother until abducted by her father in 1903.

Throughout her life, Margaretha Zelle never ceased trying to reestablish contact with her daughter, although such efforts were thwarted by her husband John MacLeod. On the morning of her execution, Zelle wrote a final letter to Banda, but French military censors never released it. Trained, as her mother was, as a kindergarten teacher, Banda MacLeod died mysteriously and unexpectedly on the eve of her departure for her first teaching assignment in the Dutch East Indies, at age 21. She was described as closely resembling her famous mother, with long black hair, brown eyes, and a striking figure.

In January 1910, Zelle was back in Monte Carlo, performing the role of Cleopatra VII to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. After this engagement, she did not appear in public for two years, but retired to the splendid luxury of a château near Tours, paid for by a Parisian stockbroker who was one of her admirers. At the end of 1911, she emerged from seclusion to dance two ballets in Milan. In the meantime, her rich admirer had run out of money, so she again set up residence in Paris, where she was riding one day in the Bois de Boulogne, when she was introduced to General Adolph Messimy, the French minister of war. Many years later, he described the encounter:

She was a splendid looking, mysterious creature. She used to smile at me in the most engaging manner…. But I didn't set much store by this, knowing perfectly well that it was my job rather than me personally that she was interested in. My friends tried to warn me against her, saying that she was not

only a terrible man-eater, but a terrible money-eater as well.

By this time, Zelle's stories of her origins were becoming more outlandish as the years progressed. In September 1913, the London Tatler devoted an article to Zelle, in which it was explained that Lady MacLeod "had been brought up in India, which inspires many of her dances…. The dances which she performed were most suggestive of religious rites and love and passion." Three months later, the new American magazine, Vogue, published a feature article that described the celebrated dancer's upbringing, not in India, but on the Isle of Marouda, where her grandfather had allegedly been regent. At 17, she had met Lord MacLeod and they had wed, eventually moving to his estate in the Highlands of Scotland.

While performing in Berlin in 1914, Zelle struck up another romantic liaison, with a senior police official named Griebel. While driving through the streets of the capital, the couple heard a distant roar from the direction of the imperial palace and came upon the sight of a frenzied crowd cheering the kaiser. In the cheering crowd, Zelle did not notice the French Intelligence agents who noticed her; a few hours later, Germany was officially at war.

[T]oday, few French lawyers would attempt to justify Mata Hari's trial, in which rumor was often substituted for evidence…. Mata Hari was judicially murdered.

—Bernard Newman

A few days later, she arrived in neutral Holland, with little money and the few belongings that had not been confiscated by the German authorities. Soon she was dancing at the Theater Royal in The Hague and had acquired a new lover, Colonel Baron van der Capallen, although life in the Dutch capital paled in comparison with that of Paris. Among the few interesting people she met during her stay was the German consul, Herr Kramer.

By mid-June 1916, Zelle, now approaching 40, was back in Paris. Among her many admirers, she included the Marquis de Beaufort, Jean Hallaure, a French calvary officer, and Captain Vadim Maslov of the Russian imperial army. In the summer of 1916, Captain Maslov was wounded and convalescing at Vittel, located inside a restricted military zone. According to one story, in order to obtain permission to visit Maslov, she consulted Hallaure, who told her to see someone at 282 Boulevard St. Germain; another version suggests that she was lured to this address by French agents. What happened next is not entirely clear, but upon entering the office of number 282, she found herself in an office of the French Intelligence Service.

According to Captain Georges Ladoux, the officer in charge, he had received several warnings from British authorities, who suspected Zelle of being a German spy. Without Ladoux saying anything, she took the offensive, accusing Ladoux of having her followed, and of having her hotel room searched, then asked if she was suspected of being a spy? "We don't share the suspicions of our English friends," Ladoux is supposed to have replied, "and that is why we are going to allow you to go to Vittel." During that conversation the captain also apparently attempted to recruit Zelle as a double agent for the French Intelligence.

She spent the next few weeks visiting Maslov, then paid another visit to Captain Ladoux, agreeing to work as a spy for the French. Her reason, she explained, was that she intended to marry Maslov, whom she described as "possibly the only love of my life," and in order to live in comfort, she would need a great deal of money. She also told Ladoux that her services would be well worth the investment, because she had many useful contacts, including the German crown prince. Ladoux reported that Zelle claimed she might easily become the prince's mistress.

Early in November 1916, Ladoux sent Zelle on a mission to Holland, via Spain. As he still suspected her of working for the Germans, he also had her followed by French agents, who claimed that while in Madrid she made telephone calls to both the Deutsche Bank and the German consulate. From Madrid, Zelle embarked upon the S.S. Hollandia, bound for Rotterdam via the English port of Falmouth. At Falmouth, the ship was boarded by officers from Scotland Yard, who pronounced Zelle a German spy named Clara Benedict; she was arrested and imprisoned.

Interviewed by Basil Thomson, the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, Zelle is said to have remarked, "I see how it is. You suspect me…. Very well then. I am going to make a confession to you. I am a spy, but not as you think for the Germans, but one of your allies—the French." Commissioner Thomson remained unpersuaded and wrote after the war:

We were convinced that she was acting for the Germans and that she was on her way to Germany with information…. On the other hand, she had no intention of landing on British soil or of committing any acts of espionage in British jurisdiction and, with nothing to support our view, we could not very well detain her in England.

Zelle was duly released, but instead of being allowed to proceed to neutral Holland, she was deported to Spain. Settling into her new job, she rapidly become the mistress of both the German military attaché, Major von Kalle, and the French military attaché, Colonel Denvignes. According to the dancer-turned-spy, her reason for becoming Kalle's mistress was to learn about clandestine German operations in French Morocco. At the same time, she was supposedly passing her findings on to Colonel Denvignes.

In 1917, she returned to Paris, where suspicions of the French authorities were renewed, and on February 12 Zelle was arrested on the charge of espionage, and of having dealings with the enemy. According to Captain Ladoux, French Intelligence had intercepted a message between Madrid and Berlin suggesting that Zelle was the German agent H21. According to Ladoux, the first message ran roughly as follows: "Agent H21 just arrived in Madrid; has managed to get recruited by the French, but was turned back by the British and is now requesting instructions and money."

Held in custody for the next four months, Zelle consistently refused the suggestion that she was a German spy, and instead affirmed her loyalty to France. The case against her progressed slowly, until the Ministry of War provided a complete set of intercepted messages to investigators. These suggested that she had received 5,000 francs on November 4, 1916, from Germany. In December, Major Kalle was supposed to have paid her 3,500 pesetas in Madrid, and upon her return to Paris, with the help of her maid, Anna Lintjens , she apparently received an additional 5,000 francs, on Kalle's instructions. Throughout the interrogation Zelle claimed that she had received the money from rich admirers, but the French considered they had enough evidence to proceed to trial.

At this point during the investigation Zelle decided to make a confession:

Today I have decided to tell you the truth. My reason for not speaking sooner was that I was rather ashamed of myself. In May 1916 I was in my house at the Hague…. There was a ring at the door. I opened it myself and recognized Herr Kramer, the German Consul at Amsterdam, who had in fact written to tell me that he was coming to see me but without giving any reason…. He now put a question to me. "Will you do something for us?" he asked. "What we would like you to do is to collect information while you are there (in France) that is of interest to us. If you agree, I have 20,000 francs for you."

Zelle explained that at the outbreak of the war she had lost many valuable possessions, including furs, while fleeing Germany, and that she considered the 20,000 francs a reimbursement. Kramer had also given her the code name H21, invisible ink, and instructions on how to contact the Germans.

"Having pocketed the 20,000 francs," she told French authorities, "I paid my respects to the Consul who, I assure you, had a long wait for any letters from me. As for the three bottles (of invisible ink), I threw then into the canal."

This explanation did little to allay French suspicions. For one thing, although the various young officers she entertained did not have the money to support her lavish lifestyle, they were intimately acquainted with the situation at the front. The French investigators' report, written by Captain Pierre Bouchardon, surmised that "speaking five languages, with lovers in every capital of Europe, moving in any number of different worlds…. Mata Hari could justly claim to be an international woman … [and] a born spy."

The trial of Margaretha Zelle opened in Paris on July 27, 1917, before a military tribunal of seven officers. Mutinies in the army, defeats at the front, pacifist propaganda and rampant spyfever at home had meanwhile combined to sour the public mood. Brought into the courtroom wearing an elegant blue dress and a smart three-cornered hat, Zelle was charged with having been a German spy since 1915. The prosecution's case centered not on hard evidence, but upon a series of propositions relating to her intent and to her relationship with various German officials, in particular that she had returned to France in order to obtain secret information for the enemy, and that her relationships with the German military attaché in Madrid and the German Consul in Amsterdam had been for the purpose of espionage. No evidence was presented that Zelle had ever actually provided the Germans with any information, however, and many witnesses, including the former minister of war, General Messimy, declined to appear, fearing public embarrassment.

The trial was brief in the extreme. Zelle maintained her innocence, reminding the tribunal that she was the subject of a neutral country: "Please note that I am not French, and that I reserve the right to cultivate any relations that please me. The war is not sufficient reason to stop me from being cosmopolitan. I am a neutral, but my sympathies are with France."

Late on the afternoon of the second day, the tribunal withdrew to deliberate. Upon their return, Zelle was condemned to death for espionage. Taken aback by the swift verdict, she was heard to mutter, "this is impossible … this is impossible." On the basis of the tribunal's evidence, she was at worst guilty of associating with the enemies of France. As Bernard Newman noted: "Today, few French lawyers would attempt to justify Mata Hari's trial, in which rumor was often substituted for evidence…. Mata Hari was judicially murdered."

With her appeals to the court of appeal and the French president exhausted, Zelle was prepared for execution early on the morning of October 15, 1917. Attended by a Protestant minister, she was allowed to write a few last letters. Handing them over to a French military policeman, she said with a smile, "Whatever you do, don't get the addresses mixed up, that could lead to all sorts of trouble."

Driven beyond Château Vincennes, Zelle was brought onto the Polygon, a large field used for cavalry exercises. Wearing her blue dress, a veil, and gloves, refusing to be blindfolded, she faced a squad of 12 French soldiers. An officer read the sentence aloud: "By order of the Third Council of War the woman Zelle has been condemned to death for espionage." One version of the execution contends that Zelle waved to a group of onlookers with her gloves. According to another version, she bared her breasts to the firing squad, hoping to distract their aim. Yet another relates she had been promised that the soldiers would use blank cartridges, and that she would later be smuggled out of the country. Of one detail there remains no contention: after the firing squad had discharged their weapons, the medical officer present discharged his service revolver into the back of Zelle's head, a standard procedure to insure that the victim was dead.

The question remains whether Margaretha Zelle actually ever did any serious spying. In 1929, Major-General Grempp, an officer of the German secret service during World War I, stated that "Mata Hari did not achieve anything for the German intelligence service. Her case was enormously exploited." Three years later, the head of the Conseil de Guerre, Colonel Lacroix, bolstered Grempp's contention, declaring that Zelle's file contained "no tangible, palpable, absolute, irrefutable evidence."

Over the intervening decades, Margaretha Zelle has become the epitome of the glamorous spy—a beauty who spies for excitement and money, extracting information from her victims with extraordinary sexual powers. Such a characterization bears little relation to reality, although one could speculate that, given Zelle's love of a good yarn, it would not have displeased her. In the final analysis, however, it would seem more probable that Zelle was a victim, rather than a culprit. A high-profile personality of infamous repute, she became the scapegoat of a disillusioned nation, during the last year of one of the most savage conflicts humanity has ever seen.


Coulson, Thomas. Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy. NY: Blue Ribbon, 1930.

Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession. NY: W.W. Norton, 1986.

Newman, Bernard. Inquest of Mata Hari. London: Robert Hale, 1956.

Thomas, Sir Basil. My Experiences at Scotland Yard. NY: A.L. Burt, 1922.

suggested reading:

Howe, Russell. Mata Hari: The True Story. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1986.

Ostrovsky, Erika. Eye of Dawn: The Rise & Fall of Mata Hari. Dorset, 1978.

related media:

Mata Hari (90 min. film), starring Greta Garbo , Ramon Navarro, and Lionel Barrymore, directed by George Fitzmaurice, U.S., 1932.

Mata Hari, Agent H.21 (99 min. film), starring Jeanne Moreau , Jean-Louis Trintignant and Claude Rich, directed by Jean-Louis Richard, Fr.-It., 1964.

Mata Hari (108 min. film), starring Sylvia Kristel , Christopher Cazenove, and Oliver Tobias, directed by Curtis Harrington, England, 1984.

Hugh Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada