If you think stories of a beautiful seductress-slash-lady spy only exist in Hollywood movies, you are mistaken. Meet Mata Hari—an exotic dancer, courtesan, and alleged double agent for France and Germany during the World War I.
The sensuous Mata Hari is perhaps one of the most beautiful and popular women ever to grace the pages of history. Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Netherlands, she was the daughter of a businessman who ran a hat store business and made investments in the oil industry. This allowed her to enjoy a lavish childhood and prime education in exclusive schools until the age of 13.
At 18, Margaretha married Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, who posted an advertisement in the Dutch newspaper, looking for a wife. Their union, albeit an unhappy one, moved Margaretha to the upper class, and allowed her to move to the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) with her husband and their two children. There, she was able to comprehensively learn Indonesian culture and traditions and joined a local dance troupe. It was there that Margaretha’s life of sensuality began. By 1897, Mata Hari, which means “sun” (literally meaning “eye of the day”) in Indonesian, was born.
She began her career and fame as an exotic dancer in 1905 in Paris, posing as a “Java princess of priestly Hindu birth”, trained in the “art of sacred Indian dance” at a very young age. At her debut performance, she captivated the audience overnight, and from then on, fascinated viewers with her provocative style and brazen flaunting of her body. Her act would later on hoist exotic dancing up to a more respectable status, and eventually make Paris world-famous for this early form of modern dance.
As a courtesan, Mata Hari had relationships with many influential people, such as politicians, high-ranking military officers, and even the German crown prince Frederick William Victor Augustus Ernest, who financed her affluent lifestyle.
As the Netherlands was neutral during World War I, Margaretha had no problems crossing borders, but to avoid battlefields, she traveled between her home country and France through Spain and Britain. This eventually caught the attention of French and British intelligence, believing she was a double-agent—spying for Germany AND France—despite the absence of conclusive evidence. The only incriminating pieces of evidence they deemed adequate to send her off for trial and eventually deem her guilty of espionage were:
1) radio messages outlining the aid of a German spy called H-21; the French intelligence who got hold of the message identified H-21 as Mata Hari;
2) secret ink spotted in her room, which Mata Hari defended as part of her make-up.
Mata Hari was executed on October 15, 1917 by firing squad. She was 41. Even her final moments sparked the imagination of many to create various rumors, from blowing a kiss to her executioners, to the clothes she wore to her execution, to her last words (some say “Merci, monsieur” and also “Harlot yes, but traitor, never.”).
Here are more stunning photos of the lovely Mata Hari, who became the ideal example of femme fatale:
Sources and additional readings:
Mata Hari on Wikipedia
The Execution of Mata Hari on Eyewitness to History
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