How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.
Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?
Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.
Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.
Yet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.
Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.
On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways. It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.
Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.
What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.
Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.
Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.
The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.
In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.
“Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.
Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.
When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.
On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).
Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.
In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.
It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.
In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.
Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.
A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”
The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.
Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.
Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.
At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.
When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.
Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.
Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.
The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.
Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.
Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.
In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.
Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.
As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.
Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.
On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.
Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.
During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.
A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.
Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.
Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”
Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014)
Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.
Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. 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.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.
No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.
Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.
Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.
Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.
It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.
Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!