A Butterfly in the Sun: The Mysterious Mata Hari

CULTURE | September 13, 2019

Mata Hari. Found in the collection of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Source: (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The historical archetype for the femme fatale is the famous Mata Hari – exotic dancer and double-agent for Imperial Germany during World War I. But the truth of the matter is complex and the likelihood is that Mata Hari was more of a witless victim than a sinister siren.

Margaretha Zelle and Rudolf MacLeod's wedding photograph. Source: (Fries Museum Collection, Netherlands).

A Dutch Woman

The woman who was to become Mata Hari was born in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden on August 7, 1876, as Margaretha Geertruide Zelle. Her father, Adam Zelle, was a tradesman and investor who spoiled the young girl and presumably her three younger brothers. Eventually, the family became bankrupt, her father abandoned the family for another woman, and her mother died two years later in 1891.

It was in the context of this broken home that Margaretha began to make her way in the world. She first went to school at age 14 to become a teacher, two years later she was expelled for improprieties with the headmaster. She relocated to the Hague where at age 18 she answered an advertisement that was posted on behalf of a Captain Rudolf MacLeod who was looking for a wife. According to various sources, Margaretha yearned for a life of adventure and high lifestyle and it seemed to her feasible that MacLeod might be a path to achieve that since he was posted to the exotic Dutch East Indies. “I wanted to live like a butterfly in the sun,” she would state later. She sent a photograph of herself to MacLeod to entice him.

Rudolf MacLeod with he and Mata Hari's son, Norman-John. Source: (wikipedia.org)

A Bad Marriage

The two were engaged six days after meeting and married in 1895. The marriage, however, was not ideal. MacLeod was over two decades older than Margaretha. Also, he was poor, saddled by debt, a serial philanderer, an alcoholic, and physical abuser. In fact, he openly kept mistresses and gave Margaretha syphilis. Margaretha for her part was flirtatious, promiscuous, and had her own affairs which enraged MacLeod’s jealousy. They did go to the Dutch East Indies and had two children, but the marriage, needless to say, was deeply troubled. This grew worse when their two-year-old son died of congenital syphilis. Their daughter would die young also, at age 21 possibly for the same reasons.

Upon their return to the Netherlands in 1902, the couple separated and divorced, both filled with loathing at the other.

Mata Hari around the year 1900. Source: (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Mata Hari is Born

Margaretha’s sojourn abroad gave her the opportunity to reinvent herself. She had studied local Indonesian traditions and joined a dance company taking on the name “Mata Hari” which meant in the local Malay dialect “eye of the day.”

Mata Hari performing in 1905. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Mata Hari’s Dance

In 1903 she moved to Paris and worked as a model and circus horse rider. She also then performed exotic dances. Her performance was filled with sensuality, beauty, and eroticism that titillated the early 20th-century public. Draped in veils, she would drop pieces of clothing through the act. Although she was never completely nude, the performances were extremely risque for the time. A 1905 article described her performance, “She undulates beneath veils that cloak and reveal her at the same time. It bears no resemblance to anything we’ve ever seen. Her breasts rise listlessly, her eyes drown in themselves. Her hands stretch out and fall back down as if laden with sun and effort.”

Postcard of Mata Hari in Paris. Source: (wikimedia.org)

A Growing Reputation

Mata Hari skirted indecency laws by informing the audience that she was a Hindu dancer performing sacred dances from the Indies which she paired with exciting tales worthy of a romance novel. The fact was that the dances were probably not traditional in any way. Critics opined that she was not a great dancer but only drew audiences because of the scandalous nature of her performances.

Her reputation grew until in 1905, Margaretha, now Mata Hari put on a performance at the Musée Guimet, France’s national museum of Asian art, which cemented her reputation.

Audiences loved Mata Hari who performed to sold-out audiences across Europe. The press wrote that she was Asiatic not realizing that she was truly a Dutch girl. Offstage, she went by Lady MacLeod.

Mata Hari in performance. Source: (wikimedia.org)

An Eastern Temptress?

As Mata Hari passed her prime years for dancing she worked as a courtesan, having numerous affairs with the elite of Europe including Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Germany. Where early in her career she was seen as the most tempting, exotic woman in Europe, as World War I approached she was seen with suspicion more as an Eastern temptress.

At the outbreak of World War I, Mata Hari, being a Dutch neutral, was able to cross borders of warring nations with ease. She continued having affairs and soon came under the surveillance of French and British intelligence agencies.

Georges Ladoux, the head of the French counterintelligence agency, approached Mata Hari in 1916 with an offer to spy on Germany for them. He reasonably supposed that all of her contacts as a courtesan would be of use to him. She accepted the one million Franc offer ostensibly because she wanted to help support Captain Vladimir de Massloff, a Russian officer who was fighting for the French. The captain had been gassed and was blinded in one eye. This did not prevent her from accepting his proposal for marriage.

However, it is also reported that while in Amsterdam, Mata Hari was approached by the German consul who offered to pay her 20,000 francs for information. She agreed and became spy H21.  

Mata Hari's mugshot. Source: (wikipedia.org)

For Love and Pleasure

Mata Hari was identified by a German attache as a spy identified as Clara Benedix, agent H21. Mata Hari was arrested on February 13, 1917.

However, it is very murky as to what really happened. Some scholars believe that Germany suspected that Mata Hari was a French spy and set her up. Other documents show that Ladoux thought Mata Hari was already working as a spy for the Germans and was setting her up in a sting operation. Mata Hari herself said that she was to spy for the French but was never given the chance. However, under interrogation, she also stated that she did agree to supply the Germans information and accepted payment as a courtesan. Mata Hari claimed she was always loyal to France and passed on no information: "A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never! I have always lived for love and pleasure."

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest. Source: (wikimedia.org)

Trial and Execution

Regardless, despite the historical allure of the name, Mata Hari was not a good spy and never gathered important information. At her trial, evidence was insubstantial. One of the French prosecutors noted that Mata Hari was "without scruples, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy." But there was no solid proof.

While she may have been rightfully punished for agreeing to pass information onto Germany, the sentence her, execution, was excessive. She was killed by a firing squad on October 15, 1917. She gave the last performance of her life, standing tall and proud and refusing a blindfold. When done, a sergeant major said, “By God! This lady knows how to die.”

Poster for the film Mata Hari (1931). Source: (wikimedia.org)

A Convenient Spy

There are several reasons why Mata Hari may have been so harshly killed. She was seen generally as immoral and was a good scapegoat for French losses on the front. Portions of the French army had mutinied. She could be a convenient spy that killed thousands of French soldiers.

But this seems to be more in the creative imagination of politicians who needed excuses and scapegoats. Mata Hari, had many faults to be sure, particularly too much love of the high life – but she was unjustly killed. She was, in effect, a victim of her own dubious success.  

Her immortal fame was secured by the 1920 film featuring Greta Garbo.

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.