Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy for Germany during World War I. She had seen in the Dutch East Indies, she took a stage name that means “eye of the day” in Malay.
Mata Hari was a professional dancer and mistress who accepted an assignment to spy for France in 1916. Hired by army captain Georges Ladoux, agreeing to pass military information gleaned from her conquests to the French government. Not long after, however, Mata Hari was accused of being a German spy. She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, after French authorities learned of her alleged double agency.
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, to father Adam Zelle, a hat merchant who went bankrupt due to bad investments, and mother Antje Zelle, who fell ill and died when Mata Hari was 15 years old. Following her mother's death, Mata Hari and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives.
At an early age, Mata Hari decided that sexuality was her ticket in life. In the mid-1890s, she boldly answered a newspaper ad seeking a bride for Rudolf MacLeod, a bald, mustachioed military captain based in the Dutch East Indies. She sent a striking photo of herself, raven-haired and olive-skinned, to entice him. Despite a 21-year age difference, they wed on July 11, 1895, when Mata Hari was just shy of 19. During their rocky, nine-year marriage — marred by MacLeod's heavy drinking and frequent rages over the attention his wife garnered from other officers — Mata Hari gave birth to two children, a daughter, and a son. (The couple's son died in 1899 after a household worker in the Indies poisoned him for reasons that remain a mystery.)
By the early 1900s, Mata Hari's marriage had deteriorated. Her husband fled with their daughter, and Mata Hari moved to Paris. There, she became the mistress of a French diplomat who helped her hatch the idea of supporting herself as a dancer.
In 1905 was the perfect time for Mata Hari's exotic looks and the "temple dance" she created by drawing on cultural and religious symbolism and that she had picked up in the Indies. With characteristic confidence, she seized the moment. She billed herself as a Hindu artist, draped in veils—which she artfully dropped from her body. In one memorable garden performance, Mata Hari appeared nearly naked on a white horse. Although she daringly bared her buttocks, she was modest about her breasts, generally keeping them covered with brassiere-styled beads. Completing her dramatic transformation from military wife to the siren of the East, she coined her stage name, "Mata Hari," which means "eye of the day" in the Indonesian dialect.
Mata Hari took the Paris saloons by storm, then moved on to the bright lights of other cities. Along the way, she helped turn the striptease into an art form and captivated critics. A reporter in Vienna described Mata Hari as "slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair." Her face, he wrote, "makes a strange foreign impression." Another enthralled newspaper writer called her "so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms."
Within a few years, however, Mata Hari's cachet had faded. As younger dancers took the stage, her bookings became sporadic. She supplemented her income by seducing government and military men; sex became strictly a financial practicality for her. Despite the growing tension in Europe in the years leading up to World War I, Mata Hari foolishly knew no borders with her lovers, who included German officers. As war swept the continent, she had some freedom of movement as a citizen of neutral Holland and took full advantage of it, country-hopping with trunks of clothing in tow. Before long, however, Mata Hari's cavalier travels and liaisons attracted attention from British and French intelligence, who put her under surveillance.
Now nearing 40, plumpish and with her dancing days clearly behind her, Mata Hari fell in love with a 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, in 1916. During their courtship, Masloff was sent to the Front, where an injury left him blind in one eye. Determined to earn money to support him, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, an army captain who assumed her courtesan contacts would be of use to French intelligence.
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.
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.