Many know the name Mata Hari, but far fewer know exactly which parts of her 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
The details of Mata Hari’s life prior to her purported war crimes are more sad than they are glamorous.
Born Margaretha Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, her mother died when Zelle was only 14. Her father remarried, and sent her and her three younger brothers to live with other family members. After being expelled at age 16 for having a sexual relationship with a school headmaster, she ran away to live with her uncle in The Hague.
Just two years later, she answered a lonely hearts ad written by a 39-year-old Dutch army captain, Captain Rudolf MacLeod, who lived in Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies). The two married in 1895, but the union was not a very happy one.
MacLeod drank frequently and kept a mistress — something that didn’t sit too well with his new wife, who secured an extramarital lover of her own. At this point, she also began studying Indonesian culture, which would prove 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, survived. Norman’s cause of death remains unknown, though it has been said that he and Jeanne contracted congenial syphilis from their philandering parents. The couple, however, maintained that one of MacLeod’s enemies poisoned the children.
MacLeod would soon be discharged from the Army, and the couple returned to the Netherlands where in August 1902 they parted ways.
Jeanne mostly stayed with her mother, but one day MacLeod did not return her after a scheduled visit. Without the financial means to fight a custody battle, in 1903, Zelle would move to Paris without her daughter.
The Paris Years
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.
There, she took the stage name Mata Hari — claiming she was an Indonesian Hindu Princess — and honed her provocative, quasi-religious “sacred dance,” what we now know as a strip-tease.
After her debut at the Musée Guimet, a museum dedicated to Asian art, the name Mata Hari would be known all over Europe. Men around the world would covet her, but she only had eyes for military officers — a taste which may have spelled her ultimate undoing.
War Breaks Out
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 your source. It remains unclear whether she was definitely a spy for the Germans or for the French — particularly 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 many 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.