Mata Hari's Biography Was She Really A Spy Or Just A Seductive Courtesan

Mata Hari’s Biography: Was She Really A Spy Or Just A Seductive Courtesan?

The world around us has been very ancient, and there have been so many personalities before us who, even after leaving this world, still remain a matter of discussion to this day. And one such personality was Mata Hari, aka Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, née Zelle. The story of Mata Hari dates back to the late 1870s.

Born into a well-to-do family, Zelle never would have imagined that life would take so many turns for her, prompting her to become a courtesan first and then apparently a spy. This is the intriguing life story of Margaretha, a Dutch woman who went to work as a French spy during World War I. Did she really? Find out below!

Let’s try to unravel some important parts of Mata Hari’s biography right below.

Mata Hari’s Childhood and Early Life –

Mata Hari, aka Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, was born on August 7, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. His father was a wealthy hatmaker who also used to invest in oil machinery. But, unfortunately, her father lost all the fortune when Zelle was just a teenager, and everything started going downhill for a young girl with a dream to later become a kindergarten teacher.

Mata Hari’s mother also died early when she was quite young, in 1891, following the divorce of her parents. The young Zelle was then sent to live with her godfather in Holland, who enrolled her in school. But bad happenings didn’t leave Margaretha alone. She was withdrawn from the school because one of her headmasters allegedly started flirting with her.

It was around that time that Mata Hari decided to travel outside the Netherlands and settle in some other region. In her quest to find some opportunity to travel and live in some other place at the young age of 18, one day she came across a marriage advertisement in some newspaper, looking for a bride in the Dutch East Indies. The about-to-be groom was Capt. Rudolph MacLeod, a Scottish-born Dutch East Indies officer.

Mata Hari’s Marriage & Kids-

After some time knowing each other and exchanging some letters, Margaretha decided to travel to Java, Indonesia, and tie the knot with the Amry captain, Rudolph MacLeod. They got married in Amsterdam on July 11, 1895. MacLeod was the son of a baroness and came from a fairly well-to-do lineage. However, things didn’t get very well even after marriage for Zelle. In fact, marriage to MacLeod was going to make things painful for her.

Rudolph MacLeod used to keep concubines and was an alcoholic who emotionally and physically abused his wife. Margaretha gave birth to two children pretty soon after their marriage: Norman-John MacLeod (a boy in 1897) and Louise Jeanne MacLeod (a girl in 1898). But things kept on getting ugly between Margaretha and Rudolph MacLeod, and eventually, the couple called it quits.

Around that time, Hari decided to pursue local dance forms and traditions to keep herself occupied and productive. She then started using her artistic name, Mata Hari, during this time. The meaning of her artistic name was inspired by a local Malay name, which means “sun” (the eye of the day, literally).

Their toxic marriage also took a toll on their children’s health. The young Norman passed away, purportedly due to a syphilis infection. After the divorce, Margaretha was given custody of her only surviving child, Louise Jeanne, but MacLeod made things really difficult for Zelle. He even published ads in the local newspapers, asking people to not offer any help to Mata Hari. Consequently, she had to give up on her daughter and send her to her father.

Mata Hari as a Seductive Courtesan & Spy-

mata hari
Mata Hari- an Exotic Dancer

After not being able to survive in Holland because of her toxic ex-husband, Zelle decided to come down to Paris, Europe. She started working in a circus as a horse rider under the name Lady MacLeod. And that’s when she slowly started transitioning herself into an exotic dance performer. She started styling herself as a Westernised version of an Asian portrayal, making the most of Europe’s orientalism.

Zelle started using her previously learned Indonesian dancing skills and performing Eastern-inspired dance routines. Slowly, she entirely transitioned into an outright scandalous, exotic dance performer, performing in nudes or nearly nudes. Gradually, she gained a lot of notoriety and popularity in Europe, making men go gaga at her exotic performances and stage presence.

According to many chronicles, around that time, she also started working as a courtesan. Seemingly, men from billionaire business empires to high-ranking military officers all became her clients. During World War I, allegedly, she used to serve these military officers at the borders.

Well, Mata Hari apparently was involved with a lot of men as a courtesan, but it was Captain Vadim Maslov, a Russian dashing pilot stationed in France, with whom she really fell in love and wanted to get married. So, in 1916, when his plane was shot down and he got injured and hospitalized, Mata Hari was in a rush and wanted to see him immediately.

Mata Hari’s Death & Execution-

In desperation to meet her lover, Mata Hari applied for the visit, but French officials wanted something in return. Because she was a famous exotic dancer and had relationships with all the high German military officials, they wanted to use her as an undercover spy, collecting secret information that could be used in the war in their favor.

And that’s when things got hopeless for Margaretha. French officials eventually arrested her for double-crossing them and sharing important details with German officials. According to history, Mata Hari did accept the transactions that happened. However, she never accepted the accusations that she shared something important with the Germans, potentially making up for some serious espionage.

Besides, when officials arrested her in her hotel room in Paris, they didn’t find any physical evidence, proofing that she had spied on anybody or committed any sort of double-crossing. This makes people question even today: was she really a spy or just an exotic dancer? Only God knows! According to some accounts, she was quite innocent, and her profession as an exotic dancer and courtesan got used against her to paint her as some kind of spy.

Eventually, Zelle was executed and sentenced to death in the early morning of October 15, 1917. The 41-year-old Mata Hari was given the option to be blindfolded, but she refused, and after giving a farewell kiss to the firing squad and her lawyer, she was shortly executed. Following many historical accounts, none of her family claimed her body, and her head was removed and kept at the Museum of Anatomy in Paris.

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So, this was Mata Hari’s biography. Well,  Mata Hari was a spy or not—nothing can be said, certainly not even after a hundred years of her death. Whatever we can learn from her story is that bad choices lead to bad situations—places where there’s no turning back.

~Written By

Anam K.

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