Mata Hari: Feminist The World Wasn’t Ready For

Published August 7, 2016
Updated February 17, 2020
Published August 7, 2016
Updated February 17, 2020

Mata Hari was the leading lady in a story of sex, espionage, and war. A century after her execution, her name is still synonymous with intrigue.

Mata Hari1

WikimediaMata Hari in the bare minimum of her costume.

Many know the name Mata Hari, the famous exotic dancer turned wartime spy. Yet few know exactly which parts of Mata Hari’s fascinating story are fact and which are fiction.

What we do know is that she was well-traveled and fluent in over seven languages, and that during World War I, her charm and romantic exploits landed her in a web of espionage so tangled that not even her fame could save her.

Mata Hari’s Early Life

Bra Jewelry

WikimediaMata Hari poses wearing only a gold breastplate and jewelry.

The details of Mata Hari’s life before her rise to fame are more sad than they are glamorous.

Born Margaretha (“Gretha” for short) Zelle on August 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, as a child she had striking dark features — unusual among her Dutch peers — and was gregarious and bright. Zelle’s father, who owned a hat shop, was relatively wealthy and doted on his daughter.

However Zelle’s luck soon changed. Her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced, and her mother died all by the time Zelle was 14. Her father remarried and sent Zelle and her three younger brothers to live with other family members.

After being expelled from school for having a sexual relationship with a school headmaster (some historians say she was likely sexually abused), Zelle ran away to live with her uncle in The Hague.

Just two years later, at age 18, she answered a lonely hearts ad written by a 39-year-old Dutch army captain, Rudolf MacLeod. The two married in 1895 and moved to the island of Java in Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies). But the union was not a very happy one.

MacLeod drank frequently and kept a mistress — something that didn’t sit well with his new wife, who secured an extramarital lover of her own. At this point, Zelle also began studying Indonesian culture, which would prove quite handy later on.

The couple had two children, both of whom fell very ill in 1899. Their son, Norman, died that year at the age of two, but his sister, Jeanne Louise, survived.

Norman’s cause of death remains unknown, though it has been said that both children contracted congenial syphilis from their parents and a botched mercury treatment caused the boy’s death.

Not long after, MacLeod was discharged from the army, and the couple returned to the Netherlands where they parted ways.

At first Jeanne Louise mostly stayed with her mother, but MacLeod did not pay child support and there were few jobs available to women at the time. Without the financial means to fight a custody battle, Zelle was forced to make a difficult decision. In 1903, she moved to Paris without her daughter.

The Paris Years

Mata Hari Gowns

WikimediaMata Hari’s luxurious evening gowns.

At first, Zelle turned to prostitution to support herself, but soon found work as a horse rider in the circus. To fill in the gaps, she also worked as an artist’s model, and in 1905 found a small measure of success as a dancer.

In the theater, she took the stage name Mata Hari, which means “eye of the day” in Malay. Claiming she was a Javanese Hindu princess, she honed her provocative “sacred dance” — what we now know as a strip-tease.

After her debut at the Musée Guimet in Paris, the name Mata Hari would be known all over Europe. The exotic, seductive Javanese dancer was a sensation.

Men around the world would covet her, but Mata Hari mostly had eyes for military officers — a preference that would signal her ultimate undoing when Europe found itself at war in 1914.

World War I Breaks Out

Live Performance

WikimediaMata Hari performing in Paris in 1905.

Given the Netherlands’ neutral stance in World War I, Mata Hari had no trouble crossing national borders. And she did exactly that — and often — which is one reason why her name appeared on a watch list of suspected spies.

What happened next depends on who’s telling the story. It remains unclear whether Mata Hari was actually a spy for the Germans or for the French, or which she agreed to first and for what reason.

What we do know is that in 1914 she apparently had personal property (furs and some costumes) confiscated at the German border, at which point a German consul gave her money to extract information from the army officers she bedded. It’s also believed that a French officer extended the same offer in 1916, which she accepted to earn money for a war-injured Russian lover.

The Arrest And Trial Of Mata Hari

Black Dresses

WikimediaMata Hari dressed in the latest fashions from France.

In 1916, when a ship Mata Hari was aboard entered the English port of Falmouth, police arrested her and brought her to London, where she was interrogated. Though she was ultimately released from custody, things began to snowball quickly.

In January 1917, an officer at the German Embassy in Madrid sent a coded message to Berlin outlining the activities of a spy named H-21. The French intercepted this message and identified H-21 as Mata Hari.

However, many believe that German intelligence knew this code had already been cracked. In other words, they were setting her up for the fall.

Mata Hari’s trial, to be held at a secret military tribunal, was set for July. The charges included spying for the Germans and thus causing the death of some 50,000 soldiers.

On the stand, Mata Hari admitted to taking the German consul’s money but said she didn’t do the deeds he asked of her. She likewise added that she considered the money payment for her formerly confiscated property. Regardless, the French didn’t believe that she was innocent. On the next day of the trial, the defense wasn’t allowed to question any of the witnesses that could have cleared Mata Hari’s name.

Mata Hari could only write letters to the Dutch Consul, proclaiming her innocence. “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else,” she wrote. “Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.”

Mata Hari’s Execution And Legacy

Mata Hari Picture

WikimediaLeft: Mata Hari’s passport, Right: On the day of her arrest.

Regardless of the truth about Mata Hari’s guilt or innocence, her fate was sealed: death by execution, to be carried out on October 15, 1917.

The details of her death, like her life, are mired in mystery and myth. Some say she blew a kiss to the firing squad before they opened fire. Others say she refused a blindfold and bravely looked her executioners in the eyes until the last moment.

Perhaps the most believable is this eyewitness testimony from a journalist at the scene: “She displayed unprecedented courage, with a small smile on her lips, just like in the days of her great triumphs on stage.” Nobody arrived to claim her body.

Historians still argue over whether Mata Hari was indeed a double agent, or even a spy at all. With every recounting of her story more convoluted than the last, it seems that she was, if anything, a victim of sexual politics: She was not a chaste, self-sacrificing woman, so she was not to be trusted.

As Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo, who is writing his own book on her, said, “Mata Hari was one of our first feminists, defying male expectations of that time and choosing instead an independent, unconventional life.”

The French government will declassify the Mata Hari papers in 2017. Until next year, “we cannot know the full truth,” Evert Kramer, custodian of a large collection of Mata Hari memorabilia at the Fries Museum in Leeuwaarden told the Independent. But “even then,” he added, “I doubt whether the full story will be revealed.”

After reading about Mata Hari, learn about the most famous American spies. Then, hear the strange tale of famous corpses throughout history.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist, and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.