Photo Of The Day

Photo by Walery/Hulton Archive/Getty Images The infamous Dutch spy Mata Hari, real name Margarete Geertruida Zelle, who was born in Leeuwarden the Netherlands and became a dancer in France is performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. (1906

Photo by Walery/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The infamous Dutch spy Mata Hari, real name Margarete Geertruida Zelle, who was born in Leeuwarden the Netherlands and became a dancer in France is performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. (1906

Who Was Mata Hari?

Mata Hari was an exotic dancer and courtesan who was arrested by the French and executed for espionage during?World War I. After her death, her stage name, “Mata Hari,” became synonymous with spying and espionage.

Margaretha’s father was a hat maker by trade, but having invested well in oil, he had enough money to spoil his only daughter, the first of his four children. At only six years old, Margaretha became the talk of the town when she traveled in a goat-drawn carriage that her father had given her. In school, Margaretha was known to be flamboyant, often appearing in new, flashy dresses. However, Margaretha’s world changed drastically when her family went bankrupt in 1889 and her mother died two years later.

After her mother’s death, the Zelle family was split up and Margaretha, now age 15, was sent to Sneek to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser. Visser decided to send Margaretha to a school that trained kindergarten teachers so that she’d have a career. At the school, the headmaster, Wybrandus Haanstra, became enchanted by Margaretha and pursued her. When a scandal broke out, Margaretha was asked to leave the school, so she went to live with her uncle, Mr. Taconis, in The Hague.

In March 1895, while still staying with her uncle, 18-year old Margaretha became engaged to Rudolph (“John”) MacLeod, after answering a personal ad in the newspaper (the ad had been placed as a joke by MacLeod’s friend). MacLeod was a 38-year old officer on home leave from the Dutch East Indies, where he had been stationed for 16 years. On July 11, 1895, the two were married.

They spent much of their married life living in the tropics of Indonesia where money was tight, isolation was difficult, and John’s rudeness and Margaretha’s youth caused serious friction in their marriage. Margaretha and John had two children together, but their son died at age two and a half after being poisoned. In 1902, they moved back to Holland and were soon separated.

Margaretha decided to go to Paris for a new start. Without a husband, not trained in any career, and without any money, Margaretha used her experiences in Indonesia to create a new persona, one that donned jewels, smelled of perfume, spoke occasionally in Malay, danced seductively, and often wore very little clothes. She made her dancing debut in a salon and instantaneously became a success.

When reporters and others interviewed her, Margaretha continually added to the mystique that surrounded her by spinning fantastic, fictionalized stories about her background, including being a Javanese princess and daughter of a baron. To sound more exotic, she took the stage name “Mata Hari,” Malayan for “eye of the day” (the sun).

Mata Hari took the Paris saloons by storm, then moved on to the bright lights of other cities. Along the way, she helped turn the striptease into an art form and captivated critics. A reporter in Vienna described Mata Hari as “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” Her face, he wrote, “makes a strange foreign impression.” Another enthralled newspaper writer called her “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”

Mata Hari became famous. She danced at both private salons and later at large theaters. She danced at ballets and operas. She was invited to the big parties and traveled extensively. She also had a large number of lovers (often military men from a number of countries) who were willing to provide her financial support in exchange for her company.

During World War I, her frequent traveling across international borders and her varied companions caused several countries to wonder if she was a spy or even a double-agent. Many people who met her say that she was sociable, but just not smart enough to pull off such a feat. However, the French were confident that she was a spy and arrested her on February 13, 1917. After a short trial in front of a military court, conducted in private, she was sentenced to death by firing squad. On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was shot and killed. She was 41 years old.

It was an improbable end for the exotic dancer and courtesan, whose name became a metaphor for the siren spy who coaxes secrets from her paramours. Her execution merited a scant four paragraphs inside The New York Times, which called her “a woman of great attractiveness and with a romantic history.”

Mystery continues to surround Mata Hari’s life and alleged double agency, and her story has become a legend that still piques curiosity.