Mata Hari: Seductress, Social Shocker, and Spy (I)

20 Nov

Postcard of Mata Hari in Paris

Passion. Intrigue. Brilliance. Power.

A woman made infamous by the international scandal of her 1917 trial and subsequent execution, Mata Hari fully embodies William Shakespeare’s statement that “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”  Many people still remember the legends left by Mata Hari’s supposed treachery during WWI, her storied life as a spy, and her resulting death by firing squad.  But few know that she was  not always a woman of famed beauty, known for her ability to shock and awe.  Rather, her story was quite different at the beginning . . . in a small town in the Netherlands.

Born August 7, 1876, Margueretha Gertruida Zelle was the daughter of small shopkeepers, and her early education occurred in a convent near The Hauge.  Unfortunately, at 18, her life tragically changed for the worst with her marriage to a forty-year-old alcoholic Dutch Army Officer, Rudolph Campbell Macleod.  The marriage proved an unhappy one for Margueretha, and her life soon reflected the torment of many other young, hurt, and abused young wives.  But letting the past dominate the present was never Margueretha’s way; no, she was a drama queen at heart, an actress by design, and a lover of the exaggerated.  If she could not fix the past, she would certainly change the future.  She would not let her life pass by unremembered and unmarked by those around her.  Rather, Margueretha would instead reform her life into something new—a story that lays the foundation for Mata Hari: Seductress, Social Shocker, and Spy (1).

She began this change when her husband was assigned to the Foreign Legion in Java; there she undertook learning the erotic dances of a local Buddhist Temple and began calling herself “Mata Hari” which translated “Eye of the Dawn”(1). By 1902, they had returned to the Netherlands, and Mata made a shocking move for the time she lived in—she actually divorced her husband (1).  Brave though this was, it was not swiftly rewarded, and the scandal of her divorce left Mata penniless and unable to gain employment.  Finally leaving her children and history behind, she moved to Paris, France and took up the mantle of an Eastern Temple Dancer (1).   Yes, you heard right, an Eastern Temple Dance—Mata was always determined to make a statement.

Mata was a laudably beautiful woman; photos and her popularity are evidence of her grace and good looks (2).  But while, society acknowledged her beauty, her behavior left them talking.  Her dancing style consisted of oriental dances blended with deliberate seductive moves, and she increasingly exhibited a “degree of nudity which even at that time was unknown (3, 4).    She later completed one dancing audit completely naked (3), and her “sensational abandonment to unrestricted nudity furnished her exploiters with blurbs and photographs that few newspapers would refuse to print” as the tale of the European seductress swiftly spread throughout the world (5).

By 1914, she had abandoned her life as Margueretha MacLeod, wife to a man she abhorred, and had thrown herself into becoming Mata Hari—the most expensive courtesan in Europe (1).  She claimed to have been born in Jaffnapatam, India on the coast of Malabar, the child of a family within the sacred caste of Brahma (5).  She said she was dedicated to the Indian goddess Siva, in whose temple she lived, hidden from the world and trained in the “mysteries of love and faith”(5).  Instead of a divorce, she claimed her husband died of fever (4).  The stories changed from place to place, audience to audience.  She could not fix the past, but she could retell it, and in doing so, create a new personality for the future.

Mata did everything in full view of the public’s eye—“her departures and arrivals were functions attended by a train of admirers” (5).  She dressed as fitting the height of fashion during the time, and then would intersperse her photo shoots with images of her in clothing no respectable woman would wear (6).  Mata Hari encouraged tales naming her an expert “in the sixty-four rites of lust practiced in Hindu temples, the rumors that she had studied love philters, incantations, and amulets with aphrodisiac powers . . .Legends could only add to her mystery; the exotic was her best ally” (6).  Soon, “passed with improvements from one salon to another, picked up and embroidered by every newspaper in the world, the legend of Mata Hari . . .  reached fantastic proportions” (7).

Margueretha Zelle’s life thrived on drama and scandal; she purposely developed a persona of the mysterious, seductive female who willing offered sexual favors in return for money and material possessions.  But it was the treason that would be her downfall in the end.

Works Referenced

  1. Spy and Terrorist Briefing Center, Office of Counter Intelligence, “Mata Hari,”
  2. “Mata Hari, Portrait of about 1912,” (Accessed April 1, 2010).
  3. Udo Kultermann, “The ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’: Salome and Erotic Culture Around 1900,” Artibus et Historiae 27:53 (2006).
  4. Sam Waagenaar, Mata Hari  (New York: Appleton-Century, 1965).
  5. Kurt Singer, The World’s 30 Greatest Women Spies (New York: Wilfred Funk, 1951).
  6. Erika Ostrovsky, Eye of the Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari (New York: MacMilan Publ. Co., Inc., 1978).
  7. Fitzroy Maclean, Take Nine Spies (New York: Atheneum, 1978).

4 Responses to “Mata Hari: Seductress, Social Shocker, and Spy (I)”

  1. Irwin Strike December 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

    Bonjour my name is Jill and I’m a researcher and this blog really aided me. I’m inspired! Thanks very much!

  2. leahmama1 December 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

    The fact that you referenced many resources to tell this exciting story really amazes me. Have you read the bio of Lola Martinez who also had many famous lovers throughout Europe inn the 19th century. Not as well know as Mata Hari and not involved in espionage, as far as I recall.

    • leahmama1 January 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

      Sorry, I meant Lola Montez! I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!

      • deceptivelyblonde January 2, 2013 at 12:33 am #

        🙂 Thank you so much for your encouraging comments! I truly appreciate them. I haven’t heard of Lola Montez, but she sounds like one of the people I enjoy researching. I’ll have to look her up; maybe I’ll write an article on her some day. As for the references, I think my old professors just scared me forever of being accused of plaguiarism. They always said I should cite every single thing I write to show where I got it, and the instinct sticks with me today. 🙂

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