10 Facts About Mata Hari

Sophie Gee

5 mins

09 Jul 2020

Her name now represents all female spies and any woman seen to be sabotaging her country through her relationship with men, but the woman behind the myth has somewhat disappeared.

Convicted as a spy, the story of Mata Hari is understandably confused and dotted with hearsay. Here are 10 facts:

1. Mata Hari is not the name she was given at birth

Mata Hari was a stage name taken on by a woman born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Zelle, on 7 August 1876.

The Zelle family was fraught with issues. Margaretha’s father speculated unsuccessfully in oil and left his family. After her mother died, 15-year-old Margaretha was sent to live with relatives.

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2. She found her husband in a newspaper advert

Margaretha exchanged the surname Zelle for MacLeod in 1895, when she married an officer of the Dutch East India company, Rudolf MacLeod.

Aged 18, Margaretha responded to a newspaper advert for a wife with a photograph of herself. Her application was successful and she married Rudolf, who was 20 years her senior, in 1895. Together they moved to the Dutch East Indies, specifically Java, in 1897.

Her marriage elevated her social and financial position and the MacLeods had two children, Norman-John and Louise Jeanne, or ‘Non’. Rudolf was an abusive alcoholic. Though he himself had affairs, he was jealous of attention awarded to his wife by other men. The marriage was an unpleasant one.

Margaretha and Rudolf MacLeod, 1895 (Credit: Fries Museum Collection, Netherlands).

3. She lost both of her children

In 1899, two-year-old Norman died after reportedly being poisoned by a nanny. His sister narrowly survived.

After the tragedy, the MacLeod family returned to the Netherlands. Margaretha and her husband separated in 1902 and divorced in 1906.

Though Margaretha was initially awarded custody, Rudolf refused to pay the agreed allowance. Margaretha was incapable of supporting herself and her daughter, or of fighting when her ex-husband took custody of the child.

4. She became famous as ‘oriental’ dancer Mata Hari

After separating from her husband, Margaretha searched for work in Paris. After respectable routes as a ladies’ companion, piano tutor and German tutor proved fruitless, she returned to exploiting the aspect of herself which she had used to get a husband. Her appearance.

She sat as an artist’s model, all the while making theatrical contacts who she would use to get roles in plays, and then to begin her career as an exotic dancer in 1905.

Mata Hari in 1910 (Credit: Public Domain).

Using cultural and religious symbolism picked up during her time in Java, Margaretha danced in a style novel to Paris. Margeretha began to fashion herself as an Indonesian princess, lied to journalists about her birth and took on the name Mata Hari, which translates literally from Malay to ‘eye of the day’ – the sun.

The exotic style prevented her dances from being perceived as overtly lewd. Historian Julie Wheelwirght also attributes this quasi-respectability to Hari’s emergence from private salons rather than music halls.

Hari’s pioneering style made her well known, regardless of how talented a dancer she was. Famous designers would offer her outfits for the stage, and postcards showing Mata Hari wearing her breast plate in poses from her routines were circulated.

5. She was a courtesan

Beyond performing on a stage, Mata Hari had numerous relationships with powerful and wealthy men as a courtesan. This career was taking centre stage in the build up to World War One, as Hari got older and her dances less lucrative.

Hari consorted across national borders with influential lovers of various nationalities. It is often argued that her famed sensuality, at a time when overt female sexuality was unacceptable, heightened the threat that Hari was perceived to present.

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6. She admitted to taking money from the Germans for spying

Whilst the efficiency of her spying is questioned – some say she was ineffectual whilst others attribute up to 50,000 deaths to her work – Mata Hari admitted under questioning to receiving 20,000 franks from her handler, Captain Hoffman.

Hari argued that she had viewed the money as recompense for the jewels, belongings and money taken from her at the start of the war, when she had been considered an enemy alien in Berlin due to her prolonged residence in Paris.

Once again she had found herself penniless and took the money offered to her. She claimed to have dumped the invisible ink given to her, never considering actually spying. She was, however, noted as the source of German information that the French were not planning an imminent attack in 1915.

The Metropol or Theater am Nollendorfplatz, Berlin, in 1906. Mata Hari was beginning a 6 month run here in 1914 when World War I started (Credit: Public Domain).

7. She received training under an infamous female spy

Mata Hari was reportedly trained in Cologne by Elsbeth Schragmüller, known by the Allies only as Fräulein Doktor or Mademoiselle Docteur until German intelligence documents were seized after World War Two.

At a time when espionage was not professionalised, however, any training was rudimentary. Hari wrote reports in regular ink rather than invisible ink and sent them via easily intercepted hotel post.

8. She was also recruited by the French

The French claimed not to know of Mata Hari when she was arrested and interviewed by British authorities in November 1916, having come to their attention because of the freedom of movement afforded to her by her neutral Dutch nationality.

However, it was reported at her arrest and trial in 1917 that Mata Hari had been in the employ of France. In the process of visiting and supporting her young Russian lover, Captain Vladimir de Masloff, she was recruited by Georges Ladoux to spy for France.

Hari was tasked with seducing the Crown Prince of Germany, who had recently been placed in command of an army.

Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Germany and Prussia in 1914. Mata Hari was tasked with seducing him (Credit: Public Domain).

9. Her capture was initiated by her German contact

Either because she was ineffectual or because her recruitment by the French came to their attention, the German transmission of a radio message detailing Hari using a code already broken by the French may not have been accidental.

Mata Hari had been passing information with her German military attaché lover, Arnold Kalle. When a radio from Kalle detailing new information was intercepted by the French, the code name H-21 was quickly assigned to Hari. It is thought that Kalle knew that the code he used had been decoded.

It is speculated that the French were already feeding Hari false information due to their own suspicions.

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace, Paris, 13 February 1917 (Credit: Public Domain).

10. Mata Hari was executed on 15 October 1917

Arrested on 13 February, Margaretha pleaded innocence; ‘a courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!’ But, as mentioned, she admitted to taking payment under questioning and was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Arguments as to her guilt are ongoing. Some argue that Mata Hari was used as a scapegoat with her famed immorality.

The fact that she portrayed herself as an exotic ‘other’ might have enabled the French to use her capture as propaganda, separating the blame for the lack of success in the war from themselves.