• Fraser du Toit

Mata Hari - Original Femme Fatale or Victim of History

Mata Hari was an exotic dancer and socialite who rose to fame in early 20th century Europe. History remembers her as a prostitute and spy who played both sides of the First World War. Her life has been reduced to a stereotype, but what was her truth?



Daddy Issues, but Dutch


Mata Hari was born in 1876 in the Netherlands. Her birth name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, and she was the eldest of four children. Domestic bliss would be a bad way to describe her parents' marriage. Despite having four children, it seems there was trouble in paradise.

Adam Zelle, Mata Hari's father, owned a hat shop in Leeuwarden and was a shrewd investor. He provided little Margaretha and her three brothers with a luxurious childhood, the best toys, food, and schools, at least until Margaretha was 13. That's when Adam's fortunes took a turn for the worse.

In 1889, when Margaretha was only 13, her father went bankrupt and abandoned his family. Adam, in a real father of the year move, almost immediately remarried after moving to Amsterdam. Her mother, Antje van der Meulen, was left high and dry with four slightly spoiled children and no money. Unfortunately for the struggling family, fate would deal them another blow soon. Antje fell ill and died two years later, leaving Margaretha and her brothers at the mercy of their relatives.

Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser. He had her enrolled in a school in Leiden, where she would study to become a kindergarten teacher. Things would not go well for the 16-year-old girl at this school.

As it turns out, young Margaretha was growing up to be quite a beautiful young woman. This didn't go unnoticed by the headmaster of the school, who, as it turned out, had a thing for young girls. He began flirting with her openly, and after she was accused of having an affair with the headmaster, her godfather pulled her from the school. Shortly after this, she fled to The Hague to live with her uncle.


Adventures in The East


Margaretha yearned to escape the doldrums of her life in the Netherlands. At 18, she saw an ad in the newspaper that would change the trajectory of her life. Captain Rudolf MacLeod, of the Dutch Colonial Army, was looking for a wife. He lived in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). MacLeod was 20 years older than her, which may have been part of what attracted her to him.

Margaretha jumped at the opportunity of joining the upper crust of Dutch society. That and of course the romantic idea of a life in Indonesia. She accepted his proposal and the two married in Amsterdam, 1895.

She moved to Malang on the island of Java with MacLeod, full of hope and wonder at her new life abroad. They sailed on the SS Prinses Amalia, a Dutch steam ship. By the time they reached their destination, Margaretha had likely already discovered that MacLeod was less than she had been expecting.

MacLeod was a raging alcoholic and womanizer. He openly kept a concubine (Njai), which was apparently a socially acceptable thing to do at the time. The word Njai means sister in Javanese, but it later came to mean the concubine of an outsider. These women were housekeepers, language tutors, translators, and concubines to the European men who occupied Indonesia at the time. They were objectified to the point that they were referred to as meubels (furniture).

Margaretha didn't appreciate her husband's adultery, alcoholism, or the fact that he regularly beat her. She buried herself in the study of languages, the local customs and her children. Unfortunately for her two children, born in 1897 and 1898 respectively, her husband had contracted syphilis. Being generous with his ill-fortune, MacLeod infected Margaretha with his disease, which was then passed on to her children through hereditary transmission. Margaretha left MacLeod and moved in with a Dutch officer, Van Rheedes.

While living with her new, more age appropriate partner, Margaretha enrolled in a local dance troupe. She immersed herself in this new life as a dancer. This is also when she came by the name of Mata Hari, which in a Malay word meaning the eye of the day.

Eventually, MacLeod would lure her back to him with honeyed promises. He swore that he would change his ways for the sake of their children. They moved back to the Netherlands after their children fell ill.

Their son, Norman-John MacLeod, would not live long. Syphilis hit both him and his sister, Louise Jeanne MacLeod, hard in 1899. In an effort to treat their condition, the local physician pumped them full of mercury. You can't have syphilis in your body if you're dead, after all. Little Norman-John died of mercury-poisoning, while Louise managed to pull through. Officially, their sudden ill-health was blamed on a jealous servant poisoning the children, or one of MacLeod's enemies. In reality, their poisoning was simply a side effect of having an idiot for a doctor and living in a time when people were still under the impression that you could have ghosts in your blood.



Becoming a Legend - Mata Hari in Europe



A strong-willed person like Mata Hari wasn't going to stay with a sod like MacLeod for long. The pair moved back to the Netherlands in 1902 where they divorced officially. Mata Hari retained custody of Louise Jeanne, and MacLeod was ordered to pay child support. Unsurprisingly, MacLeod never paid a single cent of the child support. He still insisted on maintaining visitation rights, though. It was during one such visit that he kidnapped Louise Jeanne and refused to return her to her mother. The penniless Mata Hari was unable to fight the situation, so she resigned herself to life without her daughter. She assumed that since MacLeod had never been as cruel to the children as he had been to her, that Louise Jeanne would be safe with him.

Mata Hari moved to Paris in 1903 to pursue a career as a dancer. She joined a circus where she performed as a horse rider, and also worked as an artist's model to make ends meet. Despite her talent and beauty, it took another year for her dancing career to take off.

In 1904, Mata Hari met Gabriel Astruc, who would become her booking agent. Gabriel was so deeply connected to nearly every facet of the performing arts that he was practically the beating heart of the Belle Époque in Paris. The Belle Époque was a particularly fruitful time for European artistic expression. From some time in the 1870s until the start of World War 1, Europe underwent a period of incredible prosperity. This was brought on largely by the manic looting that was colonialism and the influx of wealth it brought. European art, culture, and science advanced rapidly and optimism was the order of the day.

Gabriel Astruc helped Mata Hari get noticed in the art world. Her Indonesia-inspired exotic dances, provocative costumes and natural magnetism did the rest. Along with her contemporaries, Mata Hari brought a strong eastern influence to European dance. This happened at a time when European audiences were fascinated by the world revealed to them through colonialism.



One show in particular cemented her position as one of the most influential dancers of the time period, the performance at the Guimet Museum. She became romantically entangled with the museum's founder, millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet. After this show, Mata Hari became a celebrity.

With the new-found fame came questions. The people wanted to know where she was from, they were ready to lap up whatever she had to say, so she claimed to be a Javanese princess. Her backstory included her growing up in a priestly Hindu sect and being immersed in the sacred spiritual dances all her life. The public went mad for it.


Mata Hari regularly posed for both nude and seminude pictures, although she never removed her jewelled breastplate. Her dance style, confidence and backstory elevated what was essentially erotic dancing to a level of pure artistry. This artistic eroticism would be very influential in Parisian culture, and in fact Paris would later become famous for this type of expression. High society welcomed her with open arms, and she became a media sensation.

Journalists fed the public's fascination by reporting on her fictitious backstory as though it were fact. The fact that most Europeans had no idea what life was like in the colonies added fuel to their belief.

She had her critics. There are always critics, people who lack talents of their own, so they spend their days deriding others' abilities. Mata Hari's critics claimed that she was only popular because of the erotic nature of her dancing. They further claimed that she was, in fact, a bad dancer. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and contrary to the beliefs of her critics, Europe was clearly infatuated by her if the volume of imitators is taken into consideration.

The last show of her career happened in 1915. By this time, World War 1 had already kicked off, and Europe was becoming a dangerous place to be. Her career had been declining since 1912 though, and she supplemented her income by becoming a courtesan. She had relationships with powerful men of all stripes, military officers, politicians, and industrialists were all wrapped around her finger. The world loves a free-spirited woman, until it doesn't.


Diverging Accounts - Agent, Double Agent, Scapegoat




Being a Dutch citizen, Mata Hari was free to travel during the war. The Netherlands remained neutral throughout the war, and as such she had more freedom than most. This freedom, along with her connections to high society, are what drew certain elements from the world of espionage to her.

After having to cancel a performance in Berlin, Germany, in 1914 due to all of the declarations of war flying around. She tried returning directly to France, but had her luggage confiscated and bank accounts seized by the Germans. She would have to return home to The Hague, in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, she met Karl Kroemer, the honorary consul of Germany in Amsterdam. He was secretly working as a spy for Germany, and he considered her high-class contacts and neutral passport to be valuable assets. Kroemer offered her 20,000 Francs to act as a spy for the German Empire. Being penniless and desperate, Mata Hari agreed and took the money. She was assigned the codename H 21 by the Germans. Later she claimed to have only accepted the money as recompense for her seized assets and that she never actually spied for the German Empire.

After being nominally recruited by the Germans, she resumed travelling all over Europe. All of this travelling drew the suspicion of British Intelligence. They detained and questioned her when she tried to pass through England on her way back to Paris. The report they sent to their French allies read as follows:


“Although she was thoroughly searched and nothing incriminating found, she is regarded by Police and Military to be not above suspicion, and her subsequent movements should be watched.”

They let her go, after finding nothing more incriminating than the fact that she could speak multiple languages and was strong willed. From Folkestone she went on to Paris.

During those early days of the First World War, the Russian Empire sent a force of 50,000 soldiers to bolster the French on the Western Front. One of the pilots serving in the Russian Expeditionary Force in France was a 23-year-old named Vladimir de Masloff. Mata Hari, almost 40 at the time, fell head over heels in love with the virile young soldier. Before leaving for the front line, Vladimir proposed, and Mata Hari accepted.

Vladimir got on the bad side of a dogfight with a German pilot. He was badly wounded, and lost the use of his left eye as a result of his injuries. This also meant the end of his time as a pilot, as you need both eyes for depth perception. While he was languishing in a field hospital, Mata Hari pulled all of the strings that she had access to in order to go see him on the front line. Unfortunately for her, the French army was not in the habit of allowing civilians from non-combatant nations access to the front line.

That's when she was put in touch with agent Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau de l'État-major général (the French Intelligence Agency during the First World War), by an old lover, Jean Hallaure. Ladoux could get her access to de Masloff's hospital in exchange for her agreeing to become a spy for France. He offered Mata Hari 1,000,000 Francs to become a spy for France.

She accepted the offer, hoping the small fortune would be enough to support her and Vladimir after the war. They would need the money if he was unable to regain the use of his eye, or if his aristocratic family cut him off.


The Trap is Set - You Must First Capture the Goat to Scape It


Georges Ladoux had in fact been spying on Mata Hari for months. The British report had aroused his suspicions, and he had her followed closely. Ladoux's agents went through her mail, listened to her phone calls and kept tabs on her movements within Paris. They would later claim to have found evidence of Mata Hari's spying during this time, but in truth they found nothing.

Mata Hari's travels throughout Europe had put her in touch with some of the Prussian Empire's most powerful leaders. Among these contacts was the crown prince of Prussia, Wilhelm, who was the eldest child of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ladoux reasoned that she could seduce Prince Wilhelm and extract military secrets from him. Prince Wilhelm was being portrayed as a great general in the German propoganda after all.

She waited for orders from Ladoux, but he never sent any. Eventually Mata Hari grew impatient waiting for orders from Ladoux. She sent a letter via the regular post, asking him for an advance on the million Francs. Arguing that if she was going to be seducing someone she would need new clothes at least.

When no reply came, she traveled back to the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, although she would never arrive at her destination. The British detained her once again, this time under suspicion that she was actually the German spy Clara Benedix in disguise.

Mata Hari was transfered to London and questioned extensively. She confessed to being a French spy in an attempt to get out of the situation. So, the British contacted Ladoux, who responded with:


"Understand nothing. Send Mata Hari back to Spain."

MI5 (the british secret service) released her without further incident and sent her back to Spain. Once in Madrid, Mata Hari went about finding a way to spy for the French. She must have assumed that it was due to her connection with Ladoux that she had been freed, and as such she was in Madrid for a mission.

Mata Hari did her first real spying in Madrid. She seduced a German diplomat name Arnold von Kalle and managed to extract a planned invasion of Morocco from him. She sent word to Ladoux, warning him about the impending infiltration of a French colony by German and Ottoman forces via submarine, but again he failed to respond.

Having heard nothing from Ladoux, she asked another of her lovers, Col. Joseph Denvignes who was a French officer, for advice. He asked her to press von Kalle for more details on the planned invasion of Morocco.

Arnold von Kalle and his superiors grew suspicious of Mata Hari's interest in their plans. They suspected her of being a French spy, they also knew that she had disappeared with the money that Kroemer had given her without ever providing Germany with intelligence in return. So they sent a message back home that would seal her fate.

Arnold von Kalle sent an encrypted message to Germany using a code that he knew the French had already cracked. This message made several references to agent H 21, and Mata Hari was implicated as a German agent.


Arrested, Tried, Executed



Arnold's message was intercepted by a listening post atop the Eiffel Tower. The message was decoded easily and sent to Ladoux, who was overjoyed to finally have proof that Mata Hari was a German Agent.

This was in 1917, and France had just lost around 50,000 men in an ill-fated attack known as the Nivelle Offensive. Following this failure, French soldiers mutinied en masse. While they didn't abandon their posts, they did refuse all orders to attack. Morale was at an all-time low, and it seemed as if the French nation would disintegrate from the pressure.

Mata Hari wasn't aware of the developments in France, and so she returned to Paris to confront Ladoux and demand her money. He had her arrested on charges of espionage and sent to Saint Lazare prison to await trial.

She was interogated by Investigative Magistrate, Pierre Bouchardon, a noted hater of "loose women". Ladoux kept Mata Hari isolated. He wouldn't allow anyone other than Bouchardon to see her, especially not her lawyer. Mata Hari stuck to her truth the whole time, denying that she had been a spy for the Germans. She is quoted as saying:


“A courtesan, I admit it,” she said. “A spy, never!”

Bouchardon questioned her about Arnold von Kalle's message, and she admitted to accepting money from the Germans, but that she never actually gave them anything in return.

On 24 July 1917, Mata Hari was put on trial for the crime of spying for the Germans against France. Ladoux could provide no evidence that Mata Hari had actually provided the Germans with any intelligence. Still they accused her of being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Allied soldiers. They pointed to her many romantic involvements as proof that she was secretly gathering intelligence. The prosecutor had this to say:


“This is perhaps the greatest woman spy of the century.”

Mata Hari was found guilty by the military tribunal after less than an hour of deliberation. She was sentenced to death by firing squad. On October 15 1917 Mata Hari was taken to a field outside of Paris. There, twelve French soldiers waited with loaded rifles to deliver death to the free-spirited performer. It is said that she refused a blindfold, wanting to face death with eyes wide open.

Legend has it that Mata Hari, the Dutch girl who escaped to Indonesia where she learned to dance before capturing the hearts of Europe, blew a kiss to her executioners right before they fired.

According to Henry Wales, an eyewitness to the execution, she did not fall backwards when the bullets hit her. Instead she slumped slowly to her knees, her chin up and eyes staring emptily at her killers before she toppled backwards.