Mata Hari

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Mata Hari
Mata Hari 2.jpg
1906 postcard (colorized)
Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle
(1876-08-07)7 August 1876
Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Died 15 October 1917(1917-10-15) (aged 41)
Vincennes, Paris, France
Cause of death Execution by firing squad
Nationality Dutch
Known for Receiving a conviction for pro-German espionage from French military courts in World War I
Height 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m)
Spouse(s) Rudolf John MacLeod (1895–1906) (divorced)
Children 2
Parent(s) Adam Zelle
Antje van der Meulen

Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod (née Zelle; 7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), better known by the stage name Mata Hari, was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy[1] and executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.[2]

Early life[edit]

Margaretha Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.[3] She was the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle (2 October 1840 – 13 March 1910) and his first wife Antje van der Meulen (21 April 1842 – 9 May 1891).[4] She had three brothers. Her father owned a hat shop, made successful investments in the oil industry, and became affluent enough to give Margaretha a lavish early childhood[5] that included exclusive schools until the age of 13.[6]

Soon after Margaretha's father went bankrupt in 1889, her parents divorced, and then her mother died in 1891.[5][6] Her father remarried in Amsterdam on 9 February 1893 to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (11 March 1844 – 1 December 1913), by whom he had no children. The family fell apart, and Margaretha moved to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser, in Sneek. In Leiden, she studied to be a kindergarten teacher, but when the headmaster began to flirt with her conspicuously, she was removed from the institution by her offended godfather.[5][6][7] A few months later, she fled to her uncle's home in The Hague.[7]

Dutch East Indies[edit]

At 18, Zelle answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1 March 1856 – 9 January 1928), who was living in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and was looking for a wife. Zelle married MacLeod in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895. He was the son of Captain John Brienen MacLeod (a descendant of the Gesto branch of the MacLeods of Skye, hence his Scottish name) and Dina Louisa, Baroness Sweerts de Landas. The marriage enabled her to move into the Dutch upper class, and her finances were placed on a sound footing. They moved to Malang on the east side of the island of Java, traveling out on SS Prinses Amalia in May 1897, and had two children, Norman-John MacLeod (30 January 1897 – 27 June 1899) and Louise Jeanne MacLeod (2 May 1898 – 10 August 1919).

Her children Louise Jeanne and Norman-John, with his father

The marriage was an overall disappointment.[8] MacLeod appears to have been an alcoholic who would take out his frustrations on his wife, who was twenty years younger and whom he blamed for his lack of promotion. He also openly kept a concubine, a socially accepted practice in the Dutch East Indies at that time. The disenchanted Zelle abandoned him temporarily, moving in with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. For months, she studied the Indonesian traditions intensively, joining a local dance company. In 1897, she revealed her artistic name of Mata Hari, Malay (Indonesian as a standardized register did not exist in 1897) for "sun" (literally, "eye of the day"), in correspondence to her relatives in the Netherlands.[6]

At MacLeod's urging, Zelle returned to him, but his aggressive demeanour did not change. She escaped her circumstances by studying the local culture.[6] In 1899, their children fell violently ill from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis contracted from their parents, though the family claimed they were poisoned by an irate servant. Jeanne survived, but Norman died. Some sources[6] maintain that one of MacLeod's enemies may have poisoned a supper to kill both of their children. After moving back to the Netherlands, the couple officially separated on 30 August 1902. The divorce became final in 1906. Zelle was awarded custody of Jeanne. MacLeod was legally required to pay support, which he never did, making life very difficult for Zelle and her daughter. During a visit of Jeanne with her father, MacLeod decided not to return Jeanne to her mother. Zelle was forced to accept the situation, not having the resources to fight it, in the knowledge that whatever kind of husband MacLeod had been to her, he had always been a good father. Jeanne later died at the age of 21, also possibly from complications relating to syphilis.[7][9]


Performing in 1905

In 1903, Zelle moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider using the name Lady MacLeod, much to the disapproval of the Dutch MacLeods. Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as an artist's model.

By 1905, Mata Hari began to win fame as an exotic dancer. She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement, which around the turn of the 20th century looked to Asia and Egypt for artistic inspiration. Critics would later write about this and other such movements within the context of Orientalism. Gabriel Astruc became her personal booking agent.[6]

Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, Mata Hari captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on 13 March 1905.[10] She became the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who had founded the Musée. She posed as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter.

Mata Hari brought a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head.[6] She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. She wore a bodystocking for her performances that was similar in color to her own skin.[7]

Although Mata Hari's claims about her origins were fictitious, it was very common for entertainers of her era to invent colorful stories about their origins as part of the show. Her act was successful because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status and so broke new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous. Her style and free-willed attitude made her a popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles. Since most Europeans at the time were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies, Mata Hari was thought of as exotic, and it was assumed her claims were genuine.

Mata Hari in 1906, wearing only a bra and jewellery

By about 1910, a myriad of imitators had arisen. Critics began to opine that the success and dazzling features of the popular Mata Hari were due to cheap exhibitionism and lacked artistic merit. Although she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions as a dancer who did not know how to dance.[6]

In 1910 wearing head jewellery

Mata Hari's career went into decline after 1912. On 13 March 1915, she performed in what would be the last show of her career.[11] She had begun her career relatively late for a dancer, and had started putting on weight. However, by this time she had become a successful courtesan, known more for her sensuality and eroticism than for her beauty. She had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries. Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.

"Double agent"[edit]

In Amsterdam, 1915

During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Zelle was thus able to cross national borders freely. To avoid the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, and her movements inevitably attracted attention. In 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the English port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. He gave an account of this in his 1922 book Queer People, saying that she eventually admitted to working for French intelligence. Initially detained in Cannon Street police station, she was then released and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. A full transcript of the interview is in Britain's National Archives and was broadcast, with Mata Hari played by Eleanor Bron, on the independent station London Broadcasting in 1980.

It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.

In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information it contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. The messages were in a code that some claimed that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French (in fact it had been broken not by the French, but by the British "Room 40" team), leaving some to claim that the messages were contrived.[12] However, this same code, which the Germans were convinced was unbreakable[13] was used to transmit the Zimmermann Telegram.

Trial and execution[edit]

At her arrest

On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées in Paris. She was put on trial on 24 July, accused of spying for Germany, and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Supposedly secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup.[14] She wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris, claiming her innocence. "My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else .... Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself".[15] Her defence attorney, veteran international lawyer Edouard Clunet, faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly.[citation needed] Under the circumstances, her conviction was a foregone conclusion.

Mata Hari herself admitted under interrogation to taking money to work as a German spy. It is contended by some historians that Mata Hari may have merely accepted money from the Germans without actually carrying out any spy duties.[16]

In December 1916, the French Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected of being a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.[17]

She was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.

Disappearance and rumours[edit]

Mata Hari's body was not claimed by any family members and was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but in 2000, archivists discovered that the head had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, when the museum had been relocated.[citation needed] Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body, but none of the remains could later be accounted for.

A 1934 New Yorker article reported that at her execution she wore "a neat Amazonian tailored suit, especially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves"[18] though another account indicates she wore the same suit, low-cut blouse and tricorn hat ensemble which had been picked out by her accusers for her to wear at trial, and which was still the only full, clean outfit which she had in prison.[9] Neither description matches photographic evidence. According to an eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales, she was not bound and refused a blindfold. Wales records her death, saying that after the volley of shots rang out, "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." A non-commissioned officer then walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead.[19]


Scrapbook of Mata Hari in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands
Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands

The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, contains a "Mata Hari Room". Included in the exhibit are two of her personal scrapbooks and an oriental rug embroidered with the footsteps of her fan dance.[14] Located in Mata Hari's native town, the museum is well known for research into the life and career of Leeuwarden's world-famous citizen.

Legend and popular culture[edit]

The idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale.[20] Her life inspired a number of films, including Mata Hari, a 1927 German production; Mata Hari (1931) starring Greta Garbo; Mata Hari, Agent H21 (1964) and Mata Hari (1985); and three stage musicals: the first in 1967, starring Pernell Roberts and Marisa Mell, and the second by Lene Lovich, Judge Smith, and Les Chappell, which premiered in 1982 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. A third, by Frank Wildhorn, will debut in Seoul, South Korea on March 2016. The Dutch Royal Ballet debuted a ballet based on her life on 6 February 2016.

The historical Mata Hari featured as the fictional Indy's first sexual encounter in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones episode "Demons of Deception", an episode filmed in a different, slightly surreal style (it flashes between present time, and Mata's execution for supposed espionage by the French). The actress who played Mata was a slender redhead whereas the historical figure was a slightly plump brunette. In theatre the monologue Mata Hari: A Dawn's Sentence by Jorge Arroyo has been staged in Costa Rica (1987) and Brazil (2002-2003).

"The Spy" novel based on her life by the Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo will be released on Nov. 22, 2016.

Mata Hari also appears as a playable character in the 2015 RPG for the Android/iOS from Type-Moon, Fate/Grand Order, as an Assassin class servant.

Mata Hari is the focus of the New York Times bestselling historical fiction author Michelle Moran's new book, Mata Hari's Last Dance. The book released July 19th, 2016.


  • Collas, Phillipe, (2008). Mata Hari, sa véritable Histoire. Paris: Plon. ISBN 978-2-2591-9872-1.
  • Coulson, Thomas. Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy. London: Hutchinson, 1930. OCLC 17969173
  • Huisman, Marijke. (1998), Mata Hari (1876–1917): de levende legende. Hilversum (Netherlands): Verloren. ISBN 90-6550-442-7.
  • Ostrovsky, Erika. (1978), Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0025940309 OCLC 3433352
  • Shipman, Pat. (2007), Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson ISBN 0-297-85074-1
  • Waagenaar, Sam. (1965), Mata Hari. New York: Appleton-Century.
  • Wheelwright, Julie. (1992). The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage. London: Collins and Brown. ISBN 1-85585-128-8.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Howe, Russel Warren (1986). Mata Hari: The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. pp. x–xi, 285.
  2. ^ "Mata Hari". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 21 August 2007. The daughter of a prosperous hatter, she attended a teachers' college in Leiden. In 1895 she married an officer whose family was of Scottish origin, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in the Dutch colonial army, and from 1897 to 1902 they lived in Java and Sumatra. The couple returned to Europe but later separated, and she began to dance professionally in Paris in 1905 under the name of Lady MacLeod. She soon called herself Mata Hari, said to be a Malay expression for the sun (literally, "eye of the day"). Tall, extremely attractive, superficially acquainted with East Indian dances, and willing to appear virtually nude in public, she was an instant success in Paris and other large cities. 
  3. ^ Her birth house, at Kelders 33, survived a big fire that destroyed the three houses immediately next to it on 19 October 2013.[citation needed]
  4. ^ Ancestors of Margaretha Geertruida ZELLE.
  5. ^ a b c Jennifer Rosenberg Mata Hari.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mata Hari at the Wayback Machine (archived 15 September 2010).[dead link] World of Biography
  7. ^ a b c d Denise Noe Mata Hari. Retrieved on 15 October 2011.
  8. ^ The Spy Who Never Was, written by Julia Keay, published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 1987
  9. ^ a b Shipman, Pat (2007). Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. New York: HarperCollins. p. 450. ISBN 0-06-081728-3. 
  10. ^ Denise Noe Mata Hari is Born.
  11. ^ Mata Hari- The True Story. By Russell Warren Howe, pg. 63. 1986
  12. ^ Howe, Russel Warren (1986). Mata Hari: The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. pp. 143.
  13. ^ Tuchman, Barbara W. The Zimmermann Telegram (1985),
  14. ^ a b Mata Hari. German Spy. World War I. Retrieved on 15 October 2011.
  15. ^ Brieven van Mata Hari (Letters of Mata Hari). Dutch National Archives. 17 June 2011 Retrieved on 15 October 2011. (in Dutch)
  16. ^ Shipman, Pat (2007). Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. New York: HarperCollins.
  17. ^ Waagenaar: Sie nannte sich Mata Hari, page 258
  18. ^ Flanner, Janet (1979). Paris was Yesterday: 1925–1939. New York: Penguin. p. 126. ISBN 0-14-005068-X. 
  19. ^ Execution of Mata Hari. (19 October 1917). Retrieved on 2011-10-15.
  20. ^ Samuels, Diane (2002). The True Life Fiction of Mata Hari. Nick Hern Books. ISBN 978-1854596727. 

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