Born to a wealthy family in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari) led a comfortable and sheltered life in her early childhood. Her father and mother, Adam and Antje, lavished Zelle and her three brothers with gifts. Then in 1889, when she was 13, her father was forced to declare bankruptcy. Soon the family's new financial situation caused friction in the Zelle's marriage; the couple separated in 1890. Less than a year later, her mother died and she was sent to live with an uncle in Sneek, who sent Zelle to school to learn to be a teacher. The young woman, however, had no interest in working with children.
In 1895, Zelle answered a newspaper personal advertisement from a captain in the Army of the Indies who wanted a wife. The ad was placed as a joke, but she and 15 other women responded. She was the only woman to include a photo. The captain, Rudolf MacLeod, was enamored with the picture and the couple married in 1896; Zelle was 19 and MacLeod was 40. The couple had two children but the marriage did not last. Most historians attribute the failed marriage to MacLeod who frequently visited local brothels and was known for being meanspirited.
While the family was stationed in Java, their children, John Norman and Non, fell ill from poison put in their food by one of MacLeod's rivals. Non recovered but John died. Finally, in 1906 the couple divorced. Non, Zelle's daughter, was supposed to stay with her, but MacLeod abducted the girl and she never saw her again. Divorced and having lost her children, Zelle headed for Paris, France.
In Paris, she debuted her dance routine under the name “Mata Hari,” a Malay phrase meaning “eye of dawn.” Her shows were wildly successful at least in part because she was almost nude; she wore jeweled breast cups and a flesh-toned body stocking. Almost 30, Mata Hari's dance career was already cut short; her popularity peaked from 1905 until 1912. As her dancing career waned, she earned a living as a courtesan. From the time of her arrival in Paris, she also traveled and had numerous affairs with many men, especially military officers.
Mata Hari's career as a spy remains the subject of much speculation. Some accounts have her spying on the French for the Germans after attending a German spy school in Antwerp, Belgium, and earning the code name H 21. Mata Hari denied having attended the German school. She did, however, make frequent trips to Germany. Two days after the onset of World War I, Mata Hari left Germany, eventually returning to Paris. Since she had recently had a German lover, the French immediately began keeping her under watch.
Shortly after returning to Paris, Mata Hari fell in love with a young Russian pilot named Vladimir Masloff. After Masloff was wounded, losing sight in one eye, she increased her work as a courtesan so she could take care of him. She also wanted to visit Masloff in a hospital located in the war zone. As a suspected spy, she had a particularly difficult time obtaining a pass, so she sought help from Georges Ladoux, a French army captain in charge of counterespionage. Ladoux questioned Mata Hari extensively and she swore, as a Dutch citizen, she was neutral but sympathized with France. Ladoux approved her visit to Masloff in the hospital and offered her a job spying for the French. In desperate need of money, Mata Hari agreed.
Her first assignment was to seduce the German general in charge of the Belgian occupation, but she never completed the mission. She was detained while on a trip to Britain and questioned by British police. The British authorities contacted Ladoux who instructed them to send Mata Hari to Spain, where she met and romanced German Major Arnold Kalle. By their second meeting, Kalle grew suspicious and gave Mata Hari false information. She returned to Paris, believing she had acquired new intelligence for the French.
Meanwhile, Ladoux had received an intercepted German message that referred to H 21. Apparently, the Germans were sending messages about Mata Hari in a code they knew the French had broken. As a result she was arrested on February 13, 1917, interrogated, and tried before a military jury. The rules of military trials hindered her defense by 74-year-old lawyer, and former lover, Edouard Clunet. While Clunet cared for Mata Hari, he did not specialize in criminal or military law. She was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death.
Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917. Two nuns and Clunet accompanied her to the execution location; all three were inconsolable. Mata Hari refused to have her hands bound or to use the blindfold. As the execution began, she stared directly at the riflemen and blew them a kiss. Whether or not she ever really spied for Germany remains unclear.
SEE ALSO: World War I; women.
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