A harlot? Yes, but a traitor, never!— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.
At 18, Zelle answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1 March 1856 – 9 January 1928), who was living in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and was looking for a wife. Zelle married MacLeod in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895. He was the son of Captain John Brienen MacLeod (a descendant of the Gesto branch of the MacLeods of Skye, hence his Scottish name) and Dina Louisa, Baroness Sweerts de Landas. The marriage enabled her to move into the Dutch upper class, and her finances were placed on a sound footing. They moved to Malang on the east side of the island of Java, traveling out on SS Prinses Amalia in May 1897, and had two children, Norman-John MacLeod (30 January 1897 – 27 June 1899) and Louise Jeanne MacLeod (2 May 1898 – 10 August 1919).
Margaretha Zelle was born 7 August 1876, in Leeuwarden, in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands. She was the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle (2 October 1840 – 13 March 1910) and his first wife Antje van der Meulen (21 April 1842 – 9 May 1891). She had three brothers. Her father owned a hat shop, made successful Investments in the oil industry, and became affluent enough to give Margaretha a lavish early childhood that included exclusive schools until the age of 13. Despite traditional assertions that Mata Hari was partly of Javanese, i.e. Indonesian, descent, scholars conclude she had no Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry and both her parents were Dutch.
Soon after Margaretha's father went bankrupt in 1889, her parents divorced, and then her mother died in 1891. Her father remarried in Amsterdam on 9 February 1893 to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (11 March 1844 – 1 December 1913), by whom he had no children. The family fell apart, and Margaretha moved to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser, in Sneek. Subsequently, she studied to be a kindergarten Teacher in Leiden, but when the headmaster began to flirt with her conspicuously, she was removed from the institution by her offended godfather. A few months later, she fled to her uncle's home in The Hague.
The marriage was an overall disappointment. MacLeod was an alcoholic and regularly beat his wife, who was twenty years younger and whom he blamed for his lack of promotion. He also openly kept a concubine, a socially accepted practice in the Dutch East Indies at that time. The disenchanted Zelle abandoned him temporarily, moving in with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. She studied the Indonesian traditions intensively for several months and joined a local dance company during that time. In correspondence to her relatives in the Netherlands in 1897, she revealed her artistic name of Mata Hari, the word for "sun" in the local Malay language (literally, "eye of the day").
At MacLeod's urging, Zelle returned to him, but his behavior did not change. She escaped her circumstances by studying the local culture. In 1899, their children fell violently ill from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis contracted from their parents, though the family claimed they were poisoned by an irate servant. Jeanne survived, but Norman died. Some sources maintain that one of MacLeod's enemies may have poisoned a supper to kill both of their children. After moving back to the Netherlands, the couple officially separated on 30 August 1902. The divorce became final in 1906. Zelle was awarded custody of Jeanne. MacLeod was legally required to pay support, which he never did, making life very difficult for Zelle and her daughter. During a visit of Jeanne with her father, MacLeod decided not to return Jeanne to her mother. Zelle did not have resources to fight the situation and accepted it, believing that while McLeod had been an abusive husband, he had always been a good father. Jeanne later died at the age of 21, also possibly from complications relating to syphilis.
In 1903, Zelle moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider using the name Lady MacLeod, much to the disapproval of the Dutch MacLeods. Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as an artist's model.
Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, Mata Hari captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on 13 March 1905. She became the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who had founded the Musée. She posed as a Javanese Princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter.
By about 1910, myriad imitators had arisen. Critics began to opine that the success and dazzling features of the popular Mata Hari were due to cheap exhibitionism and lacked artistic merit. Although she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions as a Dancer who did not know how to dance.
Unaware that the Crown Prince did not have much to do with the running of Army Group Crown Prince or the 5th Army, the Deuxième Bureau offered Zelle one million francs if she could seduce him and provide France with good intelligence about German plans. The fact that the Crown Prince had, before 1914, never commanded a unit larger than a regiment, and was now supposedly commanding both an army and an army group at the same time should have been a clue that his role in German decision-making was mostly nominal. Zelle's contact with the Deuxième Bureau was Captain Georges Ladoux, who was later to emerge as one of her principal accusers.
Mata Hari's career went into decline after 1912. On 13 March 1915, she performed in what would be the last show of her career. She had begun her career relatively late for a Dancer, and had started putting on weight. However, by this time she had become a successful courtesan, known more for her sensuality and eroticism than for her beauty. She had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries. Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an Artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.
In December 1916, the French Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected of being a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.
Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French officers just before dawn on 15 October 1917. She was 41. According to an eyewitness account by British reporter Henry Wales, she was not bound and refused a blindfold. She defiantly blew a kiss to the firing squad. Zelle has often been portrayed as a femme fatale, the dangerous, seductive woman who uses her sexuality to effortlessly manipulate men, but others view her differently: in the words of the American historians Norman Polmer and Thomas Allen she was "naïve and easily duped", a victim of men rather than a victimizer.
The idea of an exotic Dancer working as a lethal double agent using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale. Her life inspired a number of films, including Mata Hari (1927), a German production and Mata Hari (1931), a Hollywood motion picture starring Greta Garbo; as well as Mata Hari, Agent H21 (1964) and Mata Hari (1985). Mata Hari's life also inspired at least four stage musicals: the first in 1967, starring Pernell Roberts and Marisa Mell, the second by Lene Lovich, Judge Smith, and Les Chappell, which premiered in 1982 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, the third Mata Hari at the Moulin Rouge, by Frank Wildhorn, debuted in Seoul, South Korea in March 2016 and the fourth, One Last Night with Mata Hari, written Craig Walker, music by John Burge, debuted at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, in Kingston, Ontario, in January 2017. Mata Hari's tale was the subject of a short story in the first issue of American Comic Group's golden age title "Spy Counterspy." In the early 1970s children's series Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, one of the female agents was named Mata Hairi. She also appeared as a one star Assassin Class Servant in the Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order.
A 1934 New Yorker article reported that at her execution she wore "a neat Amazonian tailored suit, especially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves" though another account indicates she wore the same suit, low-cut blouse and tricorn hat ensemble which had been picked out by her accusers for her to wear at trial, and which was still the only full, clean outfit which she had in prison. Neither description matches photographic evidence. Wales recorded her death, saying that after the volley of shots rang out, "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." A non-commissioned officer then walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead.
Mata Hari's body was not claimed by any family members and was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. In 2000, archivists discovered that it had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, according to curator Roger Saban, when the museum had been relocated. It remains missing. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body, but none of the remains could later be accounted for.
Mata Hari herself admitted under interrogation to taking money to work as a German spy. It is contended by some historians that Mata Hari may have merely accepted money from the Germans without actually carrying out any spy duties. At her trial, Zelle vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland. In October 2001, documents released from the archives of MI5 (British counter-intelligence) were used by a Dutch group, the Mata Hari Foundation to ask the French government to exonerate Zelle as they argued that the MI5 files proved she was not guilty of the charges she was convicted of. A spokesman from the Mata Hari Foundation argued that at most Zelle was a low-level spy who provided no secrets to either side, stating: "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".
Mata Hari's birthplace is located in the building at Kelders 33. The building suffered smoke and water damage during a fire in 2013, but was later restored. Architect Silvester Adema studied old drawings of the storefront in order to reconstruct it as it appeared when Abraham Zelle, the father of Mata Hari, had a hat shop there. In 2016, an information centre (belevingscentrum) was created in the building displaying mementos of Mata Hari.
The Frisian museum (Dutch: Fries Museum) in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, contains a "Mata Hari Room". Included in the exhibit are two of her personal scrapbooks and an oriental rug embroidered with the footsteps of her fan dance. Located in Mata Hari's native town, the museum is well known for research into the life and career of Leeuwarden's world-famous citizen. The largest ever Mata Hari exhibition has been opened in the Museum of Friesland on 14 October 2017, one hundred years after her death.