The name Mata Hari is almost synonymous with femme fatale, or any wicked temptress who uses her sexual charms to seduce the hero of the day. In reality, Mata Hari was a professional exotic dancer and mistress, who ultimately became a spy for France during World War I. Suspected of being a double agent, she was executed by firing squad in 1917. While that might sound like the stuff of Hollywood movies, it was all true. But how did she get from exotic dancer to wartime spy?
Mata Hari was actually born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in 1876. Her father was a haberdasher, or hat maker, who went bankrupt, and her mother died when Margaretha was 15. She and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives. At 18, desperate for a better life, she answered a newspaper ad for a wife. Knowing she was attractive, she sent a striking photo of herself. It worked. She married the much older (by 21 years) Dutch army Captain Rudolf MacLeod. His military career took the newlyweds to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
There they had two children, but their unhappy marriage was plagued by frequent infidelity on her part and violent alcoholism on his. Following the death of their son, they moved back to Europe and divorced after 9 rocky years. She lost custody of her daughter and the 27-year-old Margaretha suddenly found herself impoverished. In 1903, she moved to Paris and looked to completely start her life over. “I wanted to live like a colorful butterfly in the sun,” she once said.
It was in the City of Lights that Margaretha Zelle reinvented herself as ‘an artist.’
She knew that, though Dutch, she possessed features granting her an exotic allure towards males. She became the mistress of a French diplomat who helped support her for a time. Drawing on her experiences in Indonesia, Margaretha created a dance routine and began performing under the name “Lady Gresha.” As part of each dance, she would cast off a series of colorful veils and silk robes until she was almost nude, a daring act for the time!
“I could never dance well,” she admitted. “People came to see me because I dared to strip naked.”
To add an aura of mystique, Margaretha changed her stage name to “Mata Hari,” or “Eye of the Dawn” in Malay, and claimed be actually from India. Paris in 1905 tuned out to be the perfect time for her exotic looks and “temple dance” as the Far East was all the rage. She claimed that her provocative, undulating movements were part of an ancient Hindu temple rite. Her shows quickly became a sensation. Declared a “Star of Dance” by the press, Mata Hari spent the next several years traveling the European capitals, performing before sold out crowds.
Along the way, she helped turn the striptease into an art form and captivated even her staunched critics. A reporter in Vienna described Mata Hari with “the flexible grace of a wild animal.” Another enamored reviewer called her “so feline, feminine, and majestic. The hundred curves and movements of her body trembling in a hundred rhythms.” Ooh-la-la!
She also began affairs with a long list of wealthy aristocrats & military officers, many of whom showered her gifts.
“Tonight, I dine with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B,” she once quipped. After nine years on the road, however, Mata Hari’s looks and prestige began to fade. Younger copycat dancers took the stage and her bookings became fewer.
By 1914, her liaisons had become her primary source of income. Mata Hari was now 38, and her dancing career was stagnant. She was still charming, alluring and fluent in French, Dutch, English and German. She still was able to seduce the wealthy and powerful men of multiple nations.
At the outbreak of World War I, she had the freedom of move about as a neutral Dutch citizen, and took full advantage of it. In wartime however, Mata Hari’s cavalier travels and liaisons began to attract the attention of British and French intelligence. She rather foolishly knew no borders with her lovers, who included several German officers. Her suspicious behavior began to elicit suspicions of espionage.
Mata Hari’s true spy career began in 1915.
She was approached by Karl Kroemer, the German consul in Amsterdam. He offered her 20,000 francs to become a spy for Kaiser Wilhelm. The cash-strapped dancer accepted the money, seeing it as payback for when her German accounts were seized in Berlin at the start of the war. She was assigned the German codename: “H21.”
She sank deeper into wartime intrigue in 1916. French intelligence agent Georges Ladoux approached her in Paris with yet another offer—this time to spy for France. Mata Hari had fallen in love with an injured 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff. Anxious to make enough money to start a new life with him, she accepted Ladoux’s deal. She agreed to seduce military secrets out of high-ranking Germans.
She had an affair with German attache Major Arnold Kalle and made an attempt to gain information from him. By the time she returned to Paris, a French wireless station had intercepted a coded message from Major Kalle to Berlin. The communiqués referred to agent “H21. Kalle suspected Mata Hari was a French spy. In order to expose her, he purposely he sent the telegram in an old code that the Germans knew the Allies had already cracked!
This was all the evidence the already suspicious Georges Ladoux needed to have her placed under arrest as a double agent. French authorities arrested the unsuspecting Mata Hari in a Paris hotel in 1917. “This is impossible! This is impossible!” she protested. They threw her in a cell at Paris’ infamous Prison Saint-Lazare. The neutral Dutch government did little to intervene on her behalf.
The once famous temple dancer spent the next several months in a rat & lice infested cell.
During the lengthy interrogation, Mata Hari, who’d long lived a career based on her own lies, could not convincingly defend her activities. She swore to investigators that she never actually fulfilled the bargain with the Germans, always remained faithful to France.
“A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!” she defiantly told her interrogators.
While she freely acknowledging to her promiscuous lifestyle, she was adamant that she’d never spied for any country other than France. While she admitted accepting money from the Germans, she denied passing them any secrets. Mata Hari’s low morals conspired against her though. The interrogators concluded, “Without scruples, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”
At Mata Hari’s espionage trial, no evidence was produced that she provided useful information to any party.
Despite this, the prosecution pointed to her numerous German affairs as proof that she had been gathering intelligence for the enemy. “The evil that this immoral, shameless woman has done is incredible. This is perhaps the greatest woman spy of the century.” It took the military tribunal less than an hour to find her guilty and sentenced her to death. Some think France was simply looking for a scapegoat to blame after years of defeats on the battlefield.
At dawn on November 17, 1917, Mata Hari now 41, was driven to a field on the outskirts of Paris with two nuns. She refused a blindfold and was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. Ever the performer, she smiled and blew a kiss to the men moments before the shots rang out. Her remains were donated to the University of Paris Medical School for dissection. The true extent of her espionage, whether for France or Germany ,may never be known.
Mata Hari’s glamorous life and alleged time as a double agent, became the stuff of legend. Her amazing life and career has produced numerous biographies, movies, even a musical and ballet. The most famous film being the 1931 Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo. Her legacy became that of the quintessential female spy. To this day, her very name evokes mystery, deception and seduction.