Mata Hari: exotic dancer, femme fatale, traitor and spy

She was an exotic dancer who dabbled in low-grade espionage and high-society men, whose numerous dalliances led her to be convicted as a World War I spy. But was Mata Hari really the femme fatale of legend who deserved her death by firing squad?

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle called Mata Hari (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Dutch exotic dancer Margaretha ‘Gretha’ MacLeod – better known as Mata Hari – has the dubious reputation of being the world’s deadliest female secret agent. Convicted of passing classified information to the enemy, her prosecutors damned her as the greatest woman spy of the century, responsible for sending 50,000 Allied soldiers to their deaths. But was she more scapegoat than spymaster?

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Her story begins on 7 August 1876. She was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, into a prosperous family – her father, Adam Zelle, owned a hat shop and invested in the oil industry. But when Gretha was a teenager, he went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died. She was sent to live with her godfather, then later, her uncle.

Shaking off this fractured childhood and an unsuccessful stint as a trainee kindergarten teacher, at 18, Gretha answered a newspaper advertisement. It was placed by Dutch Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, who was looking for a wife. They married in Amsterdam in 1895, moved to Java and had two children – Norman-John and Louise Jeanne, known as ‘Non’.

The marriage gave Gretha financial security, but it wasn’t happy. Rudolf, 20 years her senior, was an abusive alcoholic. Gretha briefly abandoned him, throwing herself into studying Indonesian traditions and joining a local dance company. In 1897, when writing home to relatives in the Netherlands, she signed her letters ‘Mata Hari’. This was her new artistic name, meaning ‘eye of the day’ in Malay.

She went back to Rudolf, but the cycle of drinking and beatings continued. Her children then experienced serious illness; some alleged their ailments were connected to the syphillis they’d contracted from their parents. Non survived, but Norman-John, aged two, died.

The family moved back to the Netherlands but the couple separated in 1902, with Gretha awarded custody of Non. Rudolf was legally required to pay support, but he never did. Without financial help or family connections, and with most professions barred to women, Gretha had few choices. She reluctantly returned Non to her father and left for Paris.

In the French capital, Gretha tried to make money giving piano lessons and teaching German. Less seemly, but more lucrative, was sitting as an artist’s model for Montmartre painters, where she also made theatrical contacts. All things oriental were the fad in the Paris of 1905 and the time was ripe for Mata Hari, in her full incarnation, to bloom. She billed herself as a Javanese princess and her exotic dance performances took Paris by storm. Yet, while the fictional persona she’d created transformed her into an icon, it would later contribute to her downfall.

Her star shone brightly until 1910, by which time she had many imitators. Critics, once dazzled by the daringly decorous Mata Hari, began to snub her act as cheap exhibitionism. Her final show was in 1915. Always resourceful, Mata Hari became a successful courtesan. Her dalliances with powerful men of the day, from the ranks of politics and the military, allowed her to travel greatly. But her movements attracted attention. The woman viewed as a free-spirited bohemian before the war, now looked more like a wanton and suspicious seductress.

She was also in an intense relationship with a 25-year-old Russian pilot – Captain Vadim Maslov, serving with the French. In 1916, after Maslov had been shot down and grievously injured, Gretha visited him in hospital. There she was intercepted by French intelligence agents who explained that, unless she agreed to spy on Germany, she wouldn’t be permitted to see her lover.

Before the war, Mata Hari had performed before Crown Prince Wilhelm, eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and now a senior general on the Western Front. The French believed Mata Hari could seduce him for military secrets, offering her a sizeable sum if she could come up with the goods. The contact who set this up was Captain Georges Ladoux. He would later emerge as one of her principal accusers.

In late 1916, Mata Hari met with German military attaché Major Arnold Kalle, to request a meeting with the prince. She fed Kalle odd bits of gossip, hoping for information in exchange. On her return journey, her steamer called at Falmouth. She was arrested and interrogated at the Savoy Hotel, where she admitted working for the French intelligence service. In January 1917, Major Kalle transmitted easily decodable radio messages to Berlin, detailing the assistance of a German spy, codenamed H-21. As planned, these were intercepted by the French who identified Mata Hari to be H-21.

On 13 February 1917, following her return to Paris, she was arrested in her hotel room and thrown in a rat-infested cell at the Prison Saint-Lazare, allowed only to see only her elderly lawyer, Edouard Clunet. She was put on trial on 24 July, accused of spying for Germany and causing the deaths of thousands of soldiers.

Then Mata Hari dropped a bombshell confession. She revealed that she had accepted 20,000 francs from a German to spy on France, but had only offered trivial, inconsequential information as her adopted country of France was the recipient of her loyalty. “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!” she defiantly exclaimed. But when she admitted that a German officer paid her for sexual favours, it was interpreted as espionage money.

The military tribunal deliberated for less than 45 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. Refusing a blindfold and blowing a kiss at the riflemen, she was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917. We may never know for sure whether she was guilty of the crimes for which she was convicted.

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This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine