Mata Hari, arguably the most well-known femme fatale in history, was born 143 years ago this week.
Her life started quite conventionally. She was born August 7, 1876 as Margaretha (“Gretha”) Zelle to solidly Dutch parents in the Netherlands. Her father owned a hat shop, invested in oil, and provided a very affluent lifestyle until he went bankrupt in 1889.
Her life was a series of tumultuous events after that, which may explain how she ended up as a reputed spy. Her mother died when she was 15 and her father remarried two years later. Gretha did not get along with her new stepmother, so went to live with her godfather. She attended a teacher’s school until the school’s headmaster began to pursue her and she left the school. A few months later, she moved to her uncle’s home, for reasons unknown.
Gretha was only 18 when she answered a newspaper ad for a bride. She married a Dutch army officer in 1895 and went with him to Java. However, her husband, who was 21 years older than her, was a violently abusive alcoholic and openly kept a mistress. Gretha found escape from her unhappy marriage by studying Indonesian culture, especially the dances. This is when she chose the name “Mata Hari” which was the word for “sun” in a local language. Gretha and her husband divorced after their return to the Netherlands.
She moved to Paris in 1903, and by 1905 she had established herself as an exotic dancer. She claimed to be a Javanese princess and performed what was essentially a strip tease. Mata Hari was instantly and wildly successful. She was blatantly flirtatious and provocative, and seemed to enjoy flaunting her body. She was in high demand as a courtesan, known to have relationships with millionaires, politicians, and high-ranking military officers. These liaisons caused her to travel frequently across Europe.
After WWI started, Mata Hari fell deeply in love with a Russian officer. After he was severely injured, she begged a French officer for permission to visit him near the front lines. This seems to be when her career as a spy began. There is some speculation that the French officer only allowed the visit after she agreed to spy for France. French intelligence then offered her one million francs if she would seduce the German crown prince to gain military information.
During a meeting with a German officer, she offered to sell them French secrets. It is unclear if she genuinely wanted the money, or if it was part of a larger ploy. The Germans hired her, but soon realized Mata Hari had no information other than social gossip to provide them. Wanting to get rid of her, they sent a message, using a code they knew the Allies had already broken, naming her as a German spy. The French, as expected, intercepted the message and arrested Mata Hari in February 1917.
Her arrest seems to have been a useful tool for the French government, and her trial was not a fair one. The French military had had some severe failures, the country was on the verge of collapse, and the new government desperately needed a scapegoat. Her reputation as a well-traveled courtesan made it easy to paint her as a foreign spy. Through it all, Mata Hari steadfastly denied spying for Germany against her adopted country. She is reputed to have said, “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!”
As expected, she was found guilty and was executed by a firing squad on October 15, 1917. Accounts from the day say she refused the blindfold and stood calmly until the shots rang out. Then she slowly sank to her knees, still silent, and eventually fell backward.
History has treated Mata Hari a little more kindly than she was during her life. Did she spy for Germany during WWI? No one really knows. But whether spy or patriot, her life was not an easy one. Looking back, one can see a pattern of adverse events which led her down a sad and unhappy path.
Though it is difficult to know who Mata Hari really was, I wonder what she would say if she learned that 100 years later her name still lives on as a byword for a seductive female spy.
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