Mata Hari – The Original Femme Fatale



Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. Margaretha had a lavish childhood, she was spoiled with beautiful dresses and her own small carriage. All of this ended when she was 13, as her father went bankrupt and soon after her parents divorced. Her tragedies did not end there though, as her mother died a few years later in 1891. Although her father had remarried, his new start at a family was unsuccessful, and Margaretha moved to nearby Sneek to live with her godfather.

As godfather thought it was wise that Margaretha learn a trade, she was enrolled to study as a teacher. Unfortunately, the head teacher of the school began to openly flirt with her as she was training. When her godfather discovered this he was furious and had Margaretha removed from the school. After this, she had to leave Sneek due to the scandal. Thus, Margaretha moved in with her uncle in The Hague.

At 18, she decided to respond to the personal advertisement of Rudolf MacLeod, a man about 20 years her senior and a Captain in the Dutch Colonial Army. Margaretha and Rudolf married soon after. Her marriage into Dutch high society again allowed her to lead the lavish lifestyle she had lost in her adolescence. Two children, Norman-John (born 1897) and Jeanne (born 1898) followed. Due to Rudolf’s position the MacLeods had to relocate to Indonesia (at the time a Dutch colony) shortly after the birth of Norman-John.

Sadly, married life was not successful. Rudolf was an alcoholic who often vent his frustrations on Margaretha, in addition to seeing other women. At first, Margaretha decided to move in with another man. But this was only a short term solution and she soon moved back in with her husband. To give herself a distraction from her marital woes she began to become engrossed in the local culture. She would often dress herself in the clothes of the local women, spend hours learning about Hindu mythology and she even joined a local dance group. In a letter addressed to relatives back in The Netherlands, she revealed that her artistic name was Mata Hari. Which translates as “eye of the day” in Malay.

Soon, tragedy hit Margaretha, as her son Norman-John died at only two years old. The death of their child did nothing to bring together Margaretha and Rudolf, who soon divorced after their arrival back in the The Netherlands in 1902. Their divorce was finalised in 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Jeanne, with Rudolf paying child support to her. Except, Rudolf didn’t pay any support to Margaretha, making her life and caring for their daughter very difficult. MacLeod, however, was determined to get back Jeanne from Margaretha. During a visit, he took Jeanne away for good. Margaretha did not have the resources to fight him and so had to accept the situation for good, regardless of how much it hurt her.


With nothing left for Margaretha in The Netherlands, she moved to Paris in 1903. When she first arrived Margaretha worked as an artist’s model and a circus horse rider under the stage name of Lady MacLeod, no doubt further aggravating her former in-laws. Eventually, Margaretha began to dance under her “Mata Hari” name, and her act consisted of her removing her clothing until all that was left was a jeweled bra, jewelry and a headdress. By openly presenting her body in a time when women were covered head to toe, she became an overnight sensation.

In order to play up to her image, she wove stories about how she was a Javanese princess from a priestly Hindu background, who had been trained in sacred dance since childhood. Although obviously all lies, many other entertainers at the time created elaborate back stories as part of their own shows. In addition, many people had either very little knowledge or did not bother to educate themselves on Asian cultures, so people assumed she was genuine.

By 1910, thousands of other dancers similar to Margaretha had risen. In addition, people had began to criticize her for not being able to actually dance and instead rely on her exhibitionism. As such her career began to go into decline. With World War One edging closer, people stopped seeing Margaretha as free-spirited and as a dangerous seductress instead. However, during her career she gained many connections with Europe’s elite and was able to establish herself as a courtesan. Margaretha performed her last show in 1915.

During World War One, The Netherlands remained neutral. This allowed Margaretha to cross borders easily. Due to the Western front, she would travel between France and The Netherlands though England and Spain. Her movements began to attract attention, and she was arrested in England in 1916. She was brought to London and interrogated at length until she admitted she was a French spy. It is unknown whether or not she was telling the truth, as even if the French were using her they wouldn’t acknowledge her due to the embarrassment it would cause.

In 1917, French intelligence was able to uncode a German message describing the helpful activities of a spy. The spy was identified as Margaretha. She was soon arrested and accused of spying for Germany, despite no evidence found to support this. Margaretha wrote frantic letters proclaiming her innocence, and her attorney had the impossible task of defending her whilst being prevented to examine witnesses. Eventually, Margaretha admitted to taking money to work as a German spy, though some historians think she didn’t actually perform any duties. Margaretha Zelle was executed by firing squad later that year. She was 41 years old.

So, was Mata Hari a spy? Or a poor woman caught in the crossfire of war? I suppose only she knew…


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant will graduate university this year. She is half scared and excited to be entering “the real world.” She is an amateur history buff, and interested in music, film and writing.

7 thoughts on “Mata Hari – The Original Femme Fatale

Add yours

  1. Wow, would you believe I had no idea who this person was till I read your post? I’d heard her name, but that was it–I didn’t know a single thing about her.

    She doesn’t sound much like a spy, tbh . . . If I had to guess, I’d say she was probably falsely targeted because she was a “dangerous woman” and therefore a good outlet for venting wartime frustrations? (But maybe that’s just me talking. I dunno.)


    1. Hi Jessica! Yeah I don’t think she was a spy either. I mean she was a famous dancer, so she wasn’t exactly someone who could blend into the background easily? I think she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time to be honest.


  2. Nice article! As a fellow Dutch (and even Frisian!) person, I knew quite a lot about Mata Hari already. It’s really nice to see her spotlighted here on this international blog!
    The most intriguing thing is, that even 100 years later, we still don’t know her whole story and I guess we never will. Although just last week there was an item in the Dutch news that some 50 unknown letters of her were given to a museum by her ex’s family. They show a lot of her innermost thoughts during her Paris period.


    1. Hi Birdie, I’m very happy that you liked the article and that I was able to write about your fellow countrywoman well! I didn’t hear about those letters, they sound very interesting though.


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