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Mata Hari

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Picture of World War I spy, Mata Hari.

The infamous Dutch spy Mata Hari, real name Margarete Geertruida Zelle, who was born in Leeuwarden and became a dancer in France is performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. (1906)

(Photo by Walery/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Mata Hari?

Mata Hari was an exotic dancer and courtesan who was arrested by the French and executed for espionage during World War I. After her death, her stage name, "Mata Hari," became synonymous with spying and espionage.

Dates:

August 7, 1876 -- October 15, 1917

Also Known As:

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle; Lady MacLeod

Overview of Mata Hari:

Mata Hari's Childhood

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands as the first of four children.

Margaretha's father was a hat maker by trade, but having invested well in oil, he had enough money to spoil his only daughter. At only six years old, Margaretha became the talk of the town when she traveled in a goat-drawn carriage that her father had given her. In school, Margaretha was known to be flamboyant, often appearing in new, flashy dresses. However, Margaretha's world changed drastically when her family went bankrupt in 1889 and her mother died two years later.

Her Family Broke Up

After her mother's death, the Zelle family was split up and Margaretha, now age 15, was sent to Sneek to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser. Visser decided to send Margaretha to a school that trained kindergarten teachers so that she'd have a career. At the school, the headmaster, Wybrandus Haanstra, became enchanted by Margaretha and pursued her. When a scandal broke out, Margaretha was asked to leave the school, so she went to live with her uncle, Mr. Taconis, in The Hague.

She Gets Married

In March 1895, while still staying with her uncle, 18-year old Margaretha became engaged to Rudolph ("John") MacLeod, after answering a personal ad in the newspaper (the ad had been placed as a joke by MacLeod's friend). MacLeod was a 38-year old officer on home leave from the Dutch East Indies, where he had been stationed for 16 years. On July 11, 1895, the two were married.

They spent much of their married life living in the tropics of Indonesia where money was tight, isolation was difficult, and John's rudeness and Margaretha's youth caused serious friction in their marriage. Margaretha and John had two children together, but their son died at age two and a half after being poisoned. In 1902, they moved back to Holland and were soon separated.

Off to Paris

Margaretha decided to go to Paris for a new start. Without a husband, not trained in any career, and without any money, Margaretha used her experiences in Indonesia to create a new persona, one that donned jewels, smelled of perfume, spoke occasionally in Malay, danced seductively, and often wore very little clothes. She made her dancing debut in a salon and instantaneously became a success.

When reporters and others interviewed her, Margaretha continually added to the mystique that surrounded her by spinning fantastic, fictionalized stories about her background, including being a Javanese princess and daughter of a baron. To sound more exotic, she took the stage name "Mata Hari," Malayan for "eye of the day" (the sun).

A Famous Dancer and Courtesan

Mata Hari became famous. She danced at both private salons and later at large theaters. She danced at ballets and operas. She was invited to the big parties and traveled extensively. She also had a large number of lovers (often military men from a number of countries) who were willing to provide her financial support in exchange for her company.

A Spy?

During World War I, her frequent traveling across international borders and her varied companions caused several countries to wonder if she was a spy or even a double-agent. Many people who met her say that she was sociable, but just not smart enough to pull off such a feat. However, the French were confident that she was a spy and arrested her on February 13, 1917. After a short trial in front of a military court, conducted in private, she was sentenced to death by firing squad. On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was shot and killed. She was 41 years old.
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