Even though she is one of the best-known spies in history, Mata Hari (1876-1917) was far from being successful. She ironically found the fame she had longed for in her death and continued legend. Her life and adventures still fascinate people, who regard her as the twentieth century's first and foremost femme fatale.
Ababy girl was born in Leeuwarden, located in the Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, and christened Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She came from a proper bourgeois, Calvinist family, and her father was a well-to-do hatter. But when he abandoned his family for another woman, and Margaretha's mother died soon after, the teenage girl found herself in dreadful circumstances.
It wasn't until March 1895 that the 18-year-old's destiny began to take shape. It happened while reading the advertisements in the Het Nieuwes van den Dag. There, she came across an advertisement by an army captain, stationed in the Dutch East Indies, who was seeking a wife. The officer was Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutchman of Scottish ancestry who had been stationed in the Indies for almost 20 years. At the time of the advertisement, he was recuperating from malaria in Amsterdam.
The advertisement was actually placed in the Het Nieuwes van den Dag as a practical joke by one of the newspaper's reporters who was a friend of MacLeod. It received 16 responses, with Margaretha's the last to arrive. However, hers contained a photograph that obviously intrigued the army captain. They went on their first date, and their romance, such as it was, quickly took off despite a 21-year age difference. They exchanged numerous letters (which MacLeod later sold to Dutch reporters), and these revealed the passionate nature of the young woman. They were married in the town hall that July of 1895, honeymooned at the spa in Wiesbaden, Germany, and returned to Amsterdam where they settled into an uneasy life together.
By September of 1896, MacLeod was deemed healthy enough to return to the East Indies, but they were unable to return because Margaretha was pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Norman John MacLeod, on January 30, 1897. The family eventually sailed for the Dutch East Indies aboard the Prinses Amalia on May 1, 1897.
Dutch East Indies
For the next few years, the Dutch East Indies, located in southeast Asia, was home. MacLeod's first two postings on his return were to Ambarawa, located in central Java, and then Toempoeng, where the couple's second child, a daughter, was born. In December of 1898, MacLeod was promoted to major and given a new post as a garrison commander. It was months before Margaretha and the children were able to join him, and tragedy and scandal quickly struck the family.
Soon after their arrival, the children became violently ill and were hospitalized. It was determined that they had been poisoned. Within two days, young Norman was dead. Margaretha blamed the children's nurse who, according to gossip, had been having an affair with MacLeod. Others believed MacLeod had raped the woman's daughter, and she was getting her revenge.
MacLeod took a new post in the jungle, where Margaretha became ill with typhoid fever. MacLeod himself became ill once again, and on October 2, 1900 he retired from the army. The family remained in the Dutch East Indies, but Margaretha longed to return to Europe, specifically Paris. Her infatuation with the older man had long since worn off, especially since he no longer had a position of prestige.
The family returned to Amsterdam in 1902, but MacLeod too had become tired of the arrangement and he deserted the family. In the website article, "Child of the Dawn," it was noted that "MacLeod descended into alcoholism and flagrant womanizing." Margaretha was granted a divorce and custody of their daughter. She left her daughter with relatives, headed to Paris, and never looked back.
Life in Paris
She arrived in Paris with her beauty as her only asset, and soon took a job as an artist's model. But that didn't pay well enough for her to live and she returned to the Netherlands. She grew tired of life in The Hague and Amsterdam, and once again went to Paris. However, this time she had considerable assistance. In The Hague, she had met Baron Henry de Marguerie, a wealthy bachelor and man about town, who was attached to the French ministry at The Hague. He set her up at the Grand Hotel in Paris, bought her a new wardrobe, and gave her spending money. Yet she was determined to make it on her own.
At first, she took a job as a riding instructor, and joined a exhibition riding team that was to perform in circuses. When the team got no bookings, she took the advice of a friend, Ernest Molier, who had formed the riding team, and decided to give dancing a try. She also changed her name to Marguerite.
The culture of the Orient was sweeping Paris at the time of these changes in her life. This allowed her to draw on her five years in the Dutch East Indies, and to craft a legend for herself that marked her exotic beauty. The only problem was that she had never studied dance, though she possessed a natural grace. She decided to create something entirely new, at least to Europeans, based on the style of dancing she had seen in the Indies. She also began to rewrite her personal history.
Dancer and Courtesan
In the beginning, she told people that she was the daughter of a Javanese Buddhist priest and a Dutch woman. Her parentage then changed to an important Dutch colonial official and a local woman. But when it came time for her initial performance she billed herself as "Lady MacLeod," whose father was British aristocracy and her mother an Indian who had had her trained as a Hindu temple dancer. As Russell Warren Howe described it in Mata Hari: The True Story, Margaretha had no trouble redefining her experience, as some Europeans confused the Dutch East Indies with India.
Her first performance was in the salon in the home of one Mme. Kireyevsky (also transliterated Kireevsky), a former singer. It was a successful debut, but more important it brought her to the attention of M. Emile Guimet, the proprietor of the Musee Guimet, an oriental art museum. Guimet was the final step in Margaretha's transformation into Mata Hari. He invited her to dance at the museum while shrewdly observing that neither her original name nor her newly acquired "aristocratic" stage name were authentic enough for a Hindu temple dancer. After some discussion she came up with the name Mata Hari. The name translates to "light of the day" or "eye of the day," meaning the sun or dawn.
On March 13, 1905, the date of her performance at Musee Guimet, Mata Hari came to be. The impresario Guimet decorated the museum's stage with a statue of Siva (the Hindu God of destruction and reproduction), before which was a bowl of burning oil, employed four other dancers, and lit the whole scene in candlelight.
Mata Hari herself was dressed in clothing from the museum's collection, mostly gauzy and transparent shawls that she stripped away as her dance became more erotic. The culmination of her performance was a simulated sex act with Siva. The audience, on the peak of modernism, and never having seen anything like it before, adored her. A few days later she would dance again at Mme. Kireyevsky's salon (for the benefit of the Russian Red Cross) and between the two shows she suddenly had a name and a following in Paris-among her devoted fans were ambassadors and members of the Russian and French aristocracy.
For the next nine years, she reigned over a Europe that moved ever closer to her sensibilities-that is, the freedom of modernism-even as it trudged closer and closer to destruction. There were comparisons to Isadora Duncan, but in truth Mata Hari was more of a stripper than a dancer. And thanks to the entree into certain areas of society that her dancing had brought her she was also Europe's best known courtesan (defined as a lover or mistress of a nobleman). As the "Child of the Dawn" website article noted, "During the early years before World War I, Mata danced her way into the hearts and wallets of soldiers and statesman on all sides of the political map and all over the globe."
Her numerous lovers during this period included War Minister Adolphe-Pierre Messimy; Alfred Kiepert, a wealthy German landowner and military officer; composer Giacomo Puccini; Baron Henri de Rothschild; and possibly Jules Massenet, for whom she danced in his opera Le Roi de Lahore in 1906. Mata Hari managed to scandalize the audience, the theater management, or both wherever she performed-most notably Milan's La Scala. She maintained residences in Paris and the Hague, and her star burned brightly across Europe, until the eve of World War I.
Her only problem was her age. She had begun her career late in life and by 1914 she was 38-years-old. Although a 1915 report from the The Daily Telegraph (London) describes her as "mahogany in colour, rather tall, aged between 35 and 40, a very pretty woman," she was clearly past her prime. Younger women were now doing what she had done-and if not doing it better, they were certainly more risque. With fewer performances came fewer opportunities to meet new lovers. Both meant less money.
Became a Spy
She originally began spying for the Germans during the war, but the intelligence she gathered never amounted to much. By 1916, she had fallen in love with a young Russian officer, Vadim de Masloff, and as a consequence switched her allegiance, and offered to work for the French. She even made a proposal in which she would enter Germany and seduce the Crown Prince.
This proved to be her undoing. Her contact was none other than the head of French intelligence, Captain Ladoux, who had set out to entrap her. After a liaison with a German officer, Mata Hari then traveled from the Netherlands to Spain, and then to England. She hoped to eventually travel to Belgium and then Germany.
However, she was arrested in England. Since her Dutch passport bore her original full name, the British were confused, which led to them to confuse her with another German spy. After numerous cables back and forth between London and Paris, she was sent back to Spain. There, Ladoux's organization managed to get their hands on secret cables she had sent to the Germans, who no longer trusted her anyway. She returned to Paris, and was later arrested on February 13, 1917, at the Elysees Palace Hotel.
The French were determined to use her capture as a propaganda boost. They claimed she had cost the lives of 50,000 French soldiers. There were eight charges against her for espionage activities dating back to December 1915. It is believed that circumstantial as well as manufactured evidence, led to her being found guilty on all the charges. She was sentenced to death.
Subsequently, the French ignored an appeal from the Queen of the Netherlands to free Mata Hari. A French offer to the Germans for a prisoner exchange was also ignored. In the days before her execution, she exhibited a great deal of dignity, and converted to Catholicism. On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad.
On the website Famous Females: Women in Espionage, it was noted that "Most historians do not believe that she [Mata Hari] realized the seriousness of the game she was trying to play." An article in the Sunday Times debated whether she was a "cunning and manipulative double agent" or "a convenient scapegoat" for the French. The article added that her myth "has refused to die, despite historical evidence that she was not an alluring nymphette, but a prostitute in her 40s."
Although history and popular culture have long reinforced the romantic, infamous version of the Mata Hari story, by the end of the twentieth century, many historians had come to believe that she was at worst an inept spy, possibly not a spy at all, but also a victim of her own fame.
Howe, Russell Warren, Mata Hari: The True Story, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1986.
Waagenaar, Sam, Mata Hari, Appleton-Century, 1965.
Daily Telegraph (London), January 27, 1999.
"Child of the Dawn: Mata Hari," About French Culture website, http://frenchculture.about.com/culture/frenchculture/library/weekly/aa080700a.htm (December 11, 2000).
"Mata Hari," Famous Females-Women in Espoinage, http://famousfemales.tripod.com/6or.htm (March 11, 2001).
"MI5 lifts veil on Mata Hari's luckless lovers," The Sunday Times, January 24, 1999, http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/99/01/24/stinwenws01004.html?1056493 (December 11, 2000).
"One possibility of Mata Hari's trial," Famous Females-Women in Espoinage, http://famousfemales.tripod.com/6tri.htm (March 11, 2001).