Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876, the eldest of four children. “M’greet” to family and friends, she answered a newspaper ad placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, then stationed in the Dutch East Indies, in modern day Indonesia.
She’d come from a broken home. Being a “mail order bride” must have seemed like the way to financial security. The marriage was a disappointment, MacLeod was a drunk and openly kept a mistress. Margaretha moved in with another Dutch officer some time in 1897.
Despite problems at home, the Dutch mail order bride found herself moving among the upper classes. She immersed herself in Indonesian culture and traditions, even joining a local dance company. It was around this time that she revealed her “artistic” name in letters home: “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”), in Sanskrit.
Margaretha Zelle was divorced by 1905, and becoming known as an exotic dancer. She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement. As Mata Hari, she played the more exotic aspects of her background to the hilt, projecting a bold and in-your-face sexuality that was unique and provocative for her time.
She claimed to be a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, immersed since childhood in the sacred art of Indian dance. Carefree and thoroughly uninhibited, she was photographed in the nude or the next thing to it on many occasions during this period, becoming the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet.
The world stood still at the beginning of World War I, but not Margaretha Zelle. By 1914 her dancing days were over, but she was a famous courtesan, moving among the highest social and economic levels of her time. Her neutral Dutch citizenship allowed her to move about without restriction, but not without a price. Zelle’s movements brought her under suspicion of being a German Agent, and she was arrested in the English port of Falmouth. She was taken to Scotland Yard for interrogation in 1916, but later released.
French authorities arrested her on February 13, 1917, in her room at the Hotel Elysee Palace, in what is now the banking giant HSBC’s French headquarters. She was kept in prison as the case was prepared against her, all the while writing to the Dutch Consul in Paris, proclaiming her innocence. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else”, she wrote. “I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself”.
Her defense attorney, Edouard Clunet, never really had a chance. He couldn’t cross examine the prosecution’s witnesses or even directly question his own. Her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was executed by a French firing squad on October 15, 1917. She was 41.
British reporter Henry Wales described the execution, based on an eyewitness account. Unbound and refusing a blindfold, Mata Hari stood alone to face her firing squad. After the shots rang out, Wales reported that “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.”
An NCO walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead.
German documents unsealed in the 1970s indicate that Mata Hari did, in fact, provide information to German authorities, though it seems to have been of limited use. It is possible to believe that she was little more than a young woman, with a fondness for men in uniform. French authorities built her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century”, though that may have been little more than covering up for their own disastrous performance in the Nivelle offensive.
French officers from whom she ostensibly got all that information, seem not to have been questioned.
The whole truth may never be known, but the tale of the real-life exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent, is a story that’s hard to resist.