Though the world knows her by her stage name Mata Hari, she was actually born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle on August 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden.
Growing up with a taste for men in uniform, she idealized soldiers of rank. In her own words: “The officer is, in my eyes, a higher being: a hero, ever prepared to defy all kinds of perils and ever prepared to life adventures.”
While joining her husband, who was stationed in Sumatra, she became fascinated by the dances and rituals of the native people. These rites would later become part of the iconic persona of Mata Hari. So what do we know about this famous woman?
Returning to Europe
After the tragic death of her son and the end of her marriage, Zelle returned to Europe to live in Paris. It was the year 1902. At first, she made her money by posing for painters and by performing in the circus as an amazon. But Zelle would quickly rise to fame in the Parisian showbiz scene, and it was here that she took on the name Mata Hari, which is Malay for “Eye of the Day”.
Her definitive breakthrough followed in 1905 when she performed what is basically a strip tease, but somehow these turn-of-the-century folks thought more highly of it.
In their words: “her nudity is admirable and chaste, for it is beautiful. The perfection of forms gives an artistic delight to those who are privileged to behold her dance, and not a single idea that it is not purely aesthetic would occur to them.” (translated from the Sumatra Post, July 24, 1906).
With her beauty and the graceful mannerisms learned from the Sumatran people, Mata Hari quickly charmed her way into many intimate circles.
Never having lost her appetite for men in uniforms, she had many a horizontal conversation with soldiers of all kinds of rank, but needless to say, she preferred a general over a private. After growing bored of using her weapons of mass seduction, she moved to Italy to become an opera star.
The Great War
In 1914, however, she found herself in Berlin at a low point in life, with both her career and her figure more or less in ruins. Unable to go back to her house in Paris, she returned to the Netherlands. Though an old lover provided her with all the comfort and financial security she could reasonably ask for, boredom quickly struck, and she sneaked into Paris to satisfy her lust for uniforms and the men wearing them.
Unfortunately for her, the First World War (1914-1918) had been in a bloody stalemate for months at this point, and there was a profound paranoia in Paris over possible traitors and spies.
While the outbreak of WWI was met with a lot of enthusiasm on all sides at first, this excitement quickly came to a halt after the conflict turned into trench warfare. This kind of warfare meant lots of bloody battles, wherein literally, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died, but where neither side was able to gain territory.
To steal a joke from Blackadder: a more cost-effective approach to trench warfare would be to simply stay home and shoot 50,000 of your own soldiers every week. As a result of this, a true witch-hunt was in process in France, providing their firing squads with people suspected of being German spies. As you can understand, this was a bad time to be a foreign woman with a thick accent who is literally sleeping with entire regiments of French people.
Arrested for espionage
Mara Hari was finally arrested on February 13, 1917. She was suspected of being the ominous German spy with the code-name H-21, a figure who would later turn out to be a ruse — disinformation sent out by the German secret service.
Despite the poor case made by the prosecutors and the lack of condemning evidence, Mata Hari was found guilty of espionage and was sentenced to death.
To this day, there is no certainty how many — if any — of these accusations were true. On October 15, 1917, the then 41-year-old Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad. But even in her final moments, her charm did not escape her. With equal parts courage and grace, she calmly faced her death, greeting the members of the firing squad as if they were old friends.
The final act of seduction in the life of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, alias Mata Hari, was that she blew a kiss to the firing squad just before they unleashed their fatal load.
To this day, no one knows what happened to her remains other than that they were used for medical study since there were no family members to claim them. And with the destruction of her house of birth, another piece of the puzzle that was Mata Hari, was lost forever.
Interested to know more about Mata Hari’s life? Check out this documentary:
Have you heard the story of Mata Hari before? What else do you know about her life? Tell us in the comments below!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2016, and was fully updated in March 2023 for your reading pleasure.