Mata Hari

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Mata Hari

Mata Hari on a 1906 postcard
BornMargaretha Geertruida Zelle
(1876-08-07)7 August 1876
Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Died15 October 1917(1917-10-15) (aged 41)
Vincennes, Paris, France
Cause of deathExecution by firing squad
Known forConvicted as a spy in World War I
Spouse(s)Rudolf John MacLeod (1856–1928)
ChildrenNorman-John MacLeod
Jeanne-Louise MacLeod
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Mata Hari

Mata Hari on a 1906 postcard
BornMargaretha Geertruida Zelle
(1876-08-07)7 August 1876
Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Died15 October 1917(1917-10-15) (aged 41)
Vincennes, Paris, France
Cause of deathExecution by firing squad
Known forConvicted as a spy in World War I
Spouse(s)Rudolf John MacLeod (1856–1928)
ChildrenNorman-John MacLeod
Jeanne-Louise MacLeod

Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" Zelle (7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), better known by the stage name Mata Hari, was a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and accused spy[1] who was executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.[2]


Early life

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland, Netherlands, the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle (2 October 1840 – 13 March 1910) and his first wife Antje van der Meulen (21 April 1842 – 9 May 1891).[3] She had three brothers. Her father owned a hat store, made successful investments in the oil industry, and became affluent enough to give Margaretha a lavish early childhood[4] that included exclusive schools until the age of 13.[5]

However, Margaretha's father went bankrupt in 1889, her parents divorced soon thereafter, and her mother died in 1891.[4][5] Her father remarried in Amsterdam on 9 February 1893 to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (11 March 1844 – 1 December 1913), with whom he had no children. The family had fallen apart and Margaretha moved to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser, in Sneek. In Leiden, she studied to be a kindergarten teacher, but when the headmaster began to flirt with her conspicuously, she was removed from the institution by her offended godfather.[4][5][6] After only a few months, she fled to her uncle's home in The Hague.[6]

Dutch East Indies

At 18, Margaretha answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1 March 1856 – 9 January 1928) who was living in the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and was looking for a wife. Margaretha married Rudolf in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895. He was the son of Captain John Brienen MacLeod (a descendant of the Gesto branch of the MacLeods of Skye) and Dina Louisa, Baroness Sweerts de Landas. This was significant as the marriage enabled her to move into the Dutch upper class and her finances were placed on a sound footing. They moved to Malang on the East side of the island of Java and had two children, Norman-John MacLeod (30 January 1897 – 27 June 1899) and Louise Jeanne MacLeod (2 May 1898 – 10 August 1919).

Her children Louise Jeanne and Norman-John, with his father

The marriage was an overall disappointment.[7] MacLeod appears to have been an alcoholic who would take out his frustrations on his wife, who was twenty years younger, and whom he blamed for his lack of promotion. He also openly kept a concubine, a socially accepted practice in the Dutch East Indies at that time. The disenchanted Margaretha abandoned him temporarily, moving in with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. For months, she studied the Indonesian traditions intensively, joining a local dance company. In 1897, she revealed her artistic name: Mata Hari, Indonesian for "sun" (literally, "eye of the day"), via correspondence to her relatives in Holland.[5]

At MacLeod's urging, Margaretha returned to him, although his aggressive demeanour did not change. She escaped her circumstances by studying the local culture.[5] In 1899, their children fell violently ill from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis contracted from their parents, though the family claimed they were poisoned by an irate servant. Jeanne survived, but Norman died. Some sources[5] maintain that one of Rudolf's enemies may have poisoned a supper to kill both of their children. After moving back to the Netherlands, the couple separated in 1902 and divorced in 1907. Margaretha initially retained custody of Jeanne, but after Rudolf deliberately reneged on a support payment, Margaretha was forced to give Jeanne back to him. Jeanne later died at the age of 21, also possibly from complications relating to syphilis.[6][8]


Mata Hari performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider, using the name Lady MacLeod, much to the disapproval of the Dutch MacLeods. Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as an artist's model.

By 1905, Mata Hari began to win fame as an exotic dancer. She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement, which around the turn of the 19th to 20th century looked to Asia and Egypt for artistic inspiration. Critics would later write about this and other such movements within the context of Orientalism. Gabriel Astruc became her personal booking agent.[5]

Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, Mata Hari captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on 13 March 1905.[9] She became the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who had founded the Musée. She posed as a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter.

Mata Hari in 1906, wearing only a bra and jewellery

Mata Hari brought this carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head.[5] She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. She wore a bodystocking for her performances that was similar in color to her own skin.[6]

Although Mata Hari's claims about her origins were fictitious, this was common practice for entertainers of that era. Her act was spectacularly successful because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status, and so broke new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous. Her style and her free-willed attitude made her a very popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles. At the time, as most Europeans were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies and thus thought of Mata Hari as exotic, it was assumed her claims were genuine.

Mata Hari in 1910, wearing head jewellery

By about 1910, myriad imitators had arisen. Critics began to opine that the success and dazzling features of the popular Mata Hari were due to cheap exhibitionism and lacked artistic merit. Although she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions as a dancer who did not know how to dance.[5]

Mata Hari was also a successful courtesan, though she was known more for her sensuality and eroticism rather than for striking classical beauty. She had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries. Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.

Double agent

Mata Hari, ca. 1909

During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Margaretha Zelle was thus able to cross national borders freely. To avoid the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, and her movements inevitably attracted attention. In 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the English port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. He gave an account of this in his 1922 book Queer People, saying that she eventually admitted to working for French Intelligence. Initially detained in Cannon Street police station, she was then released and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. A full transcript of the interview is in Britain's National Archives and was broadcast with Mata Hari played by Eleanor Bron on the independent station London Broadcasting in 1980.

It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way, but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.

In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information it contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Unusually, the messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leaving some historians to suspect that the messages were contrived.[10]

Trial and execution

Execution of Mata Hari (1920 movie)

On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Elysee Palace, on the Champs Elysee (now the HSBC French headquarters), in Paris. She was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her make-up.[11] She wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris, claiming her innocence. "My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else [...]. Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself."[12] She was found guilty and was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.

German documents unsealed in the 1970s prove that Mata Hari was truly a German agent. In the autumn of 1915, she entered German service, and on orders of section III B-Chief Walter Nicolai, she was instructed about her duties by Major Roepell during a stay in Cologne. Her reports were to be sent to the Kriegsnachrichtenstelle West (War News Post West) in Düsseldorf under Roepell as well as to the Agent mission in the German embassy in Madrid under Major Arnold Kalle, with her direct handler being Captain Hoffmann, who also gave her the code name H21.[13]

In December 1916, the French Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents: five of whom were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected to be a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.[14]

According to Pat Shipman's biography Femme Fatale Mata Hari never was a double agent, but was used as a scapegoat by the French military authority to obscure the failing of the French military operations at the front. This information was obtained by Shipman when she was allowed to study newly opened files in Paris.

The court file concerning the alleged double agent will not be opened before the 15 October 2017, exactly one hundred years after her execution. This might shed new light on what really happened.

Disappearance and rumours

Mata Hari's body was not claimed by any family members and was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but in 2000, archivists discovered that the head had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, when the museum had been relocated. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body, but none of the remains could later be accounted for.

A 1934 New Yorker article reported that at her execution she actually wore "a neat Amazonian tailored suit, specially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves"[15] though another account indicates she wore the same suit, low-cut blouse and tricorn hat ensemble which had been picked out by her accusers for her to wear at trial, and which was still the only full, clean outfit which she had along in prison.[8] Neither description matches photographic evidence. According to an eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales, she was not bound and refused a blindfold. Wales records her death, saying that after the volley of shots rang out "...Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her..." A non-commissioned officer then walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead.[16]


Scrapbook of Mata Hari in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

The Frisian Museum at Leeuwarden, Netherlands exhibits a "Mata Hari Room". Included in the exhibit are two of her personal scrapbooks and an oriental rug embroidered with the footsteps of her fan dance.[11] Located in Mata Hari's native town, the museum is well known for research into the life and career of Leeuwarden's world-famous citizen.

Legend and popular culture

The fact that almost immediately after her death questions arose about the justification of her execution, on top of rumours about the way she acted during her execution, set the story. The idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent, using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers fired the popular imagination, set the legend and made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale.[17]

Much of her popularity is owed to the film titled Mata Hari (1931) starring Greta Garbo in the leading role. While based on real events in the life of Margaretha Zelle, the plot was largely fictional, appealing to the public appetite for fantasy at the expense of historical fact. Immensely successful as a form of entertainment, the exciting and romantic character in this film inspired subsequent generations of storytellers. Eventually, Mata Hari featured in more films, television series, and in video games, but increasingly, it is only the use of Margaretha Zelle's famous stage name that bears any resemblance to the real person. Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night is dedicated to her. Many books have been written about Mata Hari, some of them serious historical and biographical accounts, but many of them highly speculative. Mata Hari was also the basis for a Broadway musical of the same name, which was a notorious financial flop when it was premiered in 1967. Late Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza recorded an entire song about Mata Hari, which has an abstract music video that follows the mystical idea of a seductive spy, even being as dramatic as to state "a great love cut her life". Despite Mata Hari being European, the song features strong Middle Eastern flavors, which was one of Haza's key musical styles.

In 2007 Dutch author Tomas Ross published De Tranen van Mata Hari (The Tears of Mata Hari), in which book he describes the secrets concerning her actions during the great war. According to this book Mata Hari was innocent.

During The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode "Paris, October 1916", which aired on July 10, 1993, Indy is depicted having a romance with Mata Hari and becoming embroiled in her espionage scandal.

In August 2012, a prequel to the seventh series of Doctor Who depicts the Doctor finding himself with Mata Hari in a hotel room while she takes off her clothes. The Doctor's narration refers to her as an "interesting woman".[18]

Her stockings appear several times in the Syfy series Warehouse 13. They cause incredible seductive properties that quickly lead to obsessive behavior.



  1. ^ Howe, Russel Warren (1986). Mata Hari: The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. pp. x–xi, 285.
  2. ^ "Mata Hari". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "The daughter of a prosperous hatter, she attended a teachers' college in Leiden. In 1895 she married an officer whose family was of Scottish origin, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in the Dutch colonial army, and from 1897 to 1902 they lived in Java and Sumatra. The couple returned to Europe but later separated, and she began to dance professionally in Paris in 1905 under the name of Lady MacLeod. She soon called herself Mata Hari, said to be a Malay expression for the sun (literally, "eye of the day"). Tall, extremely attractive, superficially acquainted with East Indian dances, and willing to appear virtually nude in public, she was an instant success in Paris and other large cities." 
  3. ^ Ancestors of Margaretha Geertruida ZELLE.
  4. ^ a b c Jennifer Rosenberg Mata Hari.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mata Hari.[dead link] World of Biography
  6. ^ a b c d Denise Noe Mata Hari. Retrieved on 2011-10-15.
  7. ^ The Spy Who Never Was, by Julia Keay, published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 1987
  8. ^ a b Shipman, Pat (2007). Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. New York: HarperCollins. p. 450. ISBN 0-06-081728-3. 
  9. ^ Denise Noe Mata Hari is Born.
  10. ^ Howe, Russel Warren (1986). Mata Hari: The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. pp. 143.
  11. ^ a b Mata Hari. German Spy. World War I. Retrieved on 2011-10-15.
  12. ^ Brieven van Mata Hari (Letters of Mata Hari). Dutch National Archives. 17 June 2011 Retrieved on 2011-10-15. (in Dutch)
  13. ^ Historical Dictionary of German Intelligence By Jefferson Adams, page. 405
  14. ^ Waagenaar: Sie nannte sich Mata Hari, page. 258
  15. ^ Flanner, Janet (1979). Paris was Yesterday: 1925–1939. New York: Penguin. p. 126. ISBN 0-14-005068-X. 
  16. ^ Execution of Mata Hari. (1917-10-19). Retrieved on 2011-10-15.
  17. ^ Samuels, Diane (2002). The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari. Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1854596727. 
  18. ^ "Full HD Doctor Who Prequel: Pond Life Part 1". youtube. Retrieved 4 September 2012. 

External links