Exotic dancing and espionage are the twin peaks that come to mind when the name Mata Hari is mentioned. But what is her full, true story? Lost to time and blurred in key passages, for sure. Fact and fiction began cross-pollinating quite early, furthered in great part by her own exaggerations in efforts to hype her lascivious career. Journalists lapped it up for purple prose lines like, “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” Today's Hollywood publicists have nothing on Ms. Hari when it comes to self-promotion and aggrandizement. She discovered early in her stage career that the more outlandish a rumor reported by the press, the more people paid to see her dance.
It all began for the modestly named Margaretha Zelle on August 7, 1876, born in the Netherlands to well-to-do parents. Her father—a haberdasher made even richer by successful speculation in the burgeoning oil industry—provided a comfortable existence for the family until 1889 when he nosedived into bankruptcy. Poverty sparked a chain of events that guided her ill-fated trajectory: her father remarried, her mother died when she was fifteen, and a young Margaretha was left to drift from a godfather to an uncle, never regaining her family stability.
During this time, however, she came into her own, realizing her strong sexual allure to men and showing no outward qualms about using that magnetism to its fullest potential. A scandal erupted as an early consequence of her progressive sexual mores while studying to be a school teacher when she carried on an affair with the headmaster.
Livelihood sidelined and options running low, she pirouetted toward a lonely-hearts ad in 1895 and married Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch Army captain who was 21 years her senior. Their union produced a son, Norman, and a daughter, nicknamed Non. This would not be a return to stable family life for Margaretha; inconceivable horror arose after a nanny in Sumatra—where MacLeod was stationed—poisoned the children, resulting in Norman’s death in 1899. (The nanny, by some accounts, was the lover of a man who MacLeod had helped send to jail, and she was exacting revenge.)
Beyond the devastating loss of a child, the marriage was doomed with alcoholic MacLeod’s increasing abuse. She departed, desperately trying many traditional avenues to support herself and Non on her own—going back to sadist MacLeod was not an option. In a letter to her cousin Edward, she wrote, “One Sunday afternoon, crazed and deranged, he came close to murdering me with the bread knife.” A piece of furniture had blocked his rampage and she was able to just barely escape.
Though contumelious to his wife, he was fatherly toward Non. When he finally carted her away for good in what was supposed to be an afternoon day trip with his daughter, Margaretha let them go and headed off to Paris alone. If society hadn’t been so suppressive toward working women, there may never have been a Mata Hari. As long as she had Non, there was still a connection to family structure and one she seemed willing to support. But with the little girl now part of her past, Margaretha was determined to be a success by any means.
She first worked as a model, simultaneously sliding into the role of mistress for a French diplomat. He crafted the idea of his paramour making money as a dancer, capitalizing on the “oriental” craze. Recalling the style of the dancers in the East Indies, Margaretha claimed it as her own—albeit a crude copy—calling herself Mata Hari (which translates to “eye of the day”), and she began wowing the Parisian crowd.
The images of Mata Hari may seem tame as we critique them from the 21st century, but in fact, they were quite risqué for the day. On stage, she would routinely show her derrière, which was considered indecorous (though, one body part she shied from revealing were her breasts because she allegedly felt they were too small). It was more than skin that packed the theaters; she had charisma and knew how to play to the crowd and work them into a frenzy as she slowly discarded piece after piece of clothing. She had approximately a 10-year run earning top dollar for an evening’s work, supplemented by affairs with various military officers and politicians.
As she approached the gravity of age 40, younger dancers began chipping at her profit margin. So she relied more and more on her work as a mistress to maintain her opulent lifestyle. Then, with WWI breaking out, the seemingly tone-deaf Mata Hari continued to live a cavalier life regardless of the fact she was bedding opposites sides in the deadly conflict.
Her spying career—a naïve, juvenile affair—breaks down to Mata Hari being paid by the Germans to snoop on the French. This made her a double agent because she had already agreed to work in the same capacity for the French. When caught, she only ever admitted to the German down payment. Her loyalty, she claimed, had remained steadfast with France, and the only reason she took the money is, well, that’s what she always did—a reflective gesture of a good courtesan. Helluva defense, but there’s no substantial proof to contradict her story. A seemingly harmless game to her in which she was so inept that she sent “intel” through the regular mail service that was easily intercepted.
She was arrested by the French and tossed into a vermin-infested cell. The harsh imprisonment for a woman used to luxury and a chief interrogator’s repetitive line of questioning broke her (from prison, she wrote, “I think I am going mad”). The “conclusive” evidence that she was known to the Germans as Agent H-21 and the prosecutor’s wild claims that her treachery killed over 40,000 French soldiers sealed her fate. In what should have been a miscarriage of justice, her lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses that would have cast reasonable doubt on the image of the “master” spy. It took the military tribunal less than an hour to find her guilty, to which a stunned Mata Hari muttered, “It’s impossible, it’s impossible.”
The night before her execution, authorities were concerned she would harm herself, so two nuns stayed in the cell. According to A&E Biography, one of the sisters asked her to dance to help calm Mata Hari’s nerves. Performing her signature routine, the Seven Veils, we can conjure up a quirky yet endearing, poetic scene: a dank lockup, no music except perhaps some sisterly handclapping, she sinuously twirls, sways, and hip-shakes. The infamous femme fatale who had enthralled crowds across Europe performed her last dance before the “eyes” of God. If she was nervous, those misgivings fell away with the illusory veils as she took center stage one last time.
The following day she boldly walked in front of the firing squad, refused a blindfold, said her goodbyes to the weeping sisters, and with a final flourish, blew a kiss to the soldiers. Margaretha was executed on October 15, 1917. On the scene, British reporter Henry Wales wrote:
“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.”
Margaretha MacLeod was dead, Mata Hari, the legend, danced on.
David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.