Mata Hari (1876-1917) was one of the most famous courtesans of the Belle Epoque and the inventor of the striptease. Although she was a legend in her own time for these acts, what ensured her immortality was that she was convicted of treason and executed as a World War I spy.

Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “These days Mata Hari's name probably pops up most frequently in crossword puzzles, where solvers come across clues such as "Spy Mata" or "Infamous Hari" or, for the full eight letters, "Executed WWI spy." Her name has been reduced to one of those essentially useless bits of information with which the modern mind is cluttered. That may be true of most people who were in the headlines nearly a century ago, but in her case it's a pity, because her life's story is a humdinger and because the charge that sent her before the firing squad and into popular lore -- that she actively and effectively spied for Germany -- almost certainly was false. [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, August 5, 2007 ==]

“Despite the relative obscurity into which she has fallen, her story has been told innumerable times and continues to attract biographers. Early ones tended to toe the French line and argue that she was indeed a spy for the kaiser's Germany and that her execution was warranted. More recently, as unknown or suppressed information has surfaced, doubts have been raised both about her culpability and about the motives of the French officials who hounded her. ==

Mata Hari paid a very high price for being what her French interrogators called "an international woman." The phrase was a euphemism. "An international woman," her biographer Pat Shipman wrote, "was a worldly woman, a cosmopolitan woman, and by extension, a woman of loose morals." Not to mince words, the French thought she was a whore, as did many others. For starters she was a famous exotic dancer whose "flimsy garments did little to conceal her naked body." For another, all her life she had had "a nearly insatiable longing for male attention" and had sought to fulfill it, after the end of her unhappy marriage, with a long succession of men, especially military officers. It didn't matter to her what uniform they wore so long as they were "strongly built," or, as she put it herself: "Those who are not officers . . . do not interest me. An officer is another being, a sort of artist, living outdoors with sparkles on his arms in a seductive uniform. Yes, I have had many lovers, but it is the beautiful soldiers, brave, always ready for battle and, while waiting, always sweet and gallant. For me, the officer forms a race apart. I have never loved any but officers."

Book: “Femme Fatale Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari” by Pat Shipman (Morrow, 2007). Shipman teaches anthropology at Penn State University.

Mata Hari's Early Life

Mata Hari was born Gertrude Margarete Zelle. The eldest child and only daughter of dandified hat salesman, she was born and raised in a small farming town of Leeuwarden in northern Holland on August 7, 1876. Although her parents' families hailed from northern Germany and islands off of the Netherlands, Margartha had olive-colored, skin, brown eyes and black hair which later would help her convince the public that she a half-Indian, half-Indonesian temple dancer.

After her father's business failed and her mother died while she was still in her early teens, Margaretha was sent away to live with her godfather. After the headmaster of the school she attended showed her too much unwanted attention, she was withdraw and sent to The Hague were she lived with relatives and attended a different school.

Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “Shipman argues convincingly that Mata's hunger for male attention can be traced to the abandonment of her family by her adored father when she was a girl. She was the first of four children. Adam Zelle was a "prosperous and handsome" hatter and haberdasher who suffered business reverses and fled to The Hague in 1889. Her mother died two years later, but rather than take care of his daughter himself, Zelle sent M'Greet (as she was called) to live with her uncle and his wife. They were strict, and she was "headstrong." When they sent her off to boarding school, she may or may not have had a sexual relationship with the headmaster. The blame fell on her, not him. [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, August 5, 2007]

Mata Hari's Unhappy Married Life

Anxious to escape from her humdrum life, Margaretha answered an advertisement in a newspaper that read: "Captain in the Army of the Indies, on leave in Holland, seeks wife with character and taste." Three months later she married the man who placed the ad, 40-year-old Capt. Rudolf MacLeod, and traveled with him to the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), where she spent seven miserable years. The couple often argued and Capt. MacLeod sometimes beat her. Once he reportedly threatened her with a revolver. Their two children were poisoned, allegedly by a servant, and their oldest child, a son, died. On their return to Holland, Capt. MacLeod abducted their daughter, whom Margartha saw only once again.

Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, When she was 17 years old, “she met a handsome army officer named Rudolf MacLeod -- "cynical, confident, and tough, a true officer" -- she was ready to tumble: "She was in an odd way innocent. She still expected a magical love to transform her world. Still she knew instinctively how to flirt and please a man. At seventeen, M'Greet was deeply romantic, frivolous, and terribly vain. She longed for experience -- to burst out of the strict world of propriety and regulation so she could have fun -- and she craved admiration from an older man." [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, August 5, 2007]

“For a while that's what he gave her, marrying her in 1895 and taking her off to the Dutch East Indies. At first, too, she was occasionally happy with her marriage and excited about being in the "exuberant, wild, exotic, and very beautiful" Indies. By late in 1898, though, the marriage had "deteriorated into sharp quarrels, too much drinking, heavy spending, and suspicions of infidelity." Their 2-year old son died in 1899, possibly as a result of his father having contracted syphilis. They had a daughter who died at the age of 21 (two years after her mother's execution), of "a cerebral hemorrhage or aneurysm, which can be a consequence of congenital syphilis." Whether M'Greet had the disease as well is unknown, but one is left to wonder why it didn't spread through the armies of Europe considering her post-marital adventures. The marriage was over in the 1890s, though a divorce was not granted until 1906.”

Creation of Mata Hari

At the age of 27 she moved to Paris, where she hoped to make a living as an artist's model. She failed and returned to Holland, where she met a French diplomat, Henri de Marguérie, who convinced her to return to Paris, this time as his mistress and an exotic "Hindu" dancer.

Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “M'Greet metamorphosed into Mata Hari -- a Malay phrase often used in the Dutch East Indies to mean "sunrise" or, more literally, "the eye of the day". She become the sensation of Paris. Her dances, very loosely fashioned after those she had seen in the Indies, were a mixture of pop religiosity and open sexuality, and soon she became known as "exotic, hyperbolic, emotional, and fascinating: a star." What she performed onstage she practiced in the boudoir, as an endless string of men offered their favors and received hers. [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, August 5, 2007]

In the salons of Paris, Margertha told people she used to perform "sacred" dances in a temple along the Ganges. She performed ritual dances she had seen in Indonesia before her friends, who told her she do her dances on stage, which she did. Incorporating a striptease into her "religious" dances, she became an instant success. Claiming that she was born "in the south of India...the child of a family within the sacred caste of Brahma," she changed her name to Mata Hari.

In a striptease was known as the "Dance of the Seven Veils," Mata Hari imitated a Javanese dance she observed in Indonesia while removing the thin veils that covered her body until she was almost completely naked (the only part she didn't expose were her breasts which she said had been disfigured by her husband's violence). The famous French writer Collette, wrote, Mata Hari knew how to "move a long, thin and proud body as Paris had never seen before."

Mata Hari's Lovers

Mata Hari once said, "I have always lived for love and pleasure." She loved to take milk baths and reportedly enjoyed sex so much she went to French brothels to relax. Between 1905 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Mata Hari divided her time between performing her act in cities across Europe and working as a paramour for some of Europe's most influential men. She reportedly charged new customers $7,500 a night for her services.

Her lovers included the prominent French diplomat Jules Cambon, the Dutch prime minister, the Duke of Brunswick, the Crown Prince of Germany, the German Foreign Minister, the composer Jules Massenet and dozens of others. In 1915—after World War I had started—she slept with a Berlin police officer to get out of an indecency charge.

Mata Hari enjoyed her fame but as she got older she worried about how she would support herself and her lavish tastes when her career ended, Her solution: snag a rich husband. From 1910 to 1912 she was the mistress of a wealthy French banker but their relationship fell apart when his bank collapsed. In 1916, the slightly-overweight 40-year-old Mata Hari fell in love with Vladamir de Masloff, a 21-year-old Russian captain serving with the French army. Mata Hari used her allowance from a Dutch baron to pay the Russian’s gambling debts and buy him expensive meals. After he returned to the front he was exposed to mustard gas and lost the sight in his left eye.

Mata Hari Becomes a Spy

Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “By 1914, though, she was beginning to show her age. Into the bargain, "a darker, more puritanical mood was sweeping across Europe and the days of exuberant living were drawing to a close." Ever in need of money to underwrite her extravagant desires, and always dependent on men to supply it, in 1915 she accepted 20,000 francs to spy for Germany but, Femme Fatale argues, never acted on it. "She always had taken money from men because she needed money and they had it," Shipman writes; "she always felt she deserved it. The matter was over and done with as soon as she got the money, at least as far as she was concerned." [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, August 5, 2007 ==]

“The French felt otherwise. In 1916 and 1917 " 'spy fever' had broken out all over Europe, and people were encouraged to look for, and report, any potentially suspicious actions." Mata Hari, too self-absorbed to act rationally at all times, tried to play one side against the other but had the misfortune to come to the attention of Georges Ladoux, head of French intelligence. He recruited her to spy for France, which she did halfheartedly and ineptly. Then Ladoux "abandoned and betrayed his own agent" with the enthusiastic collaboration of Pierre Bouchardon, the investigator in the case, who "was convinced that she was a predatory woman, deliberately tricking men," Shipman writes. ==

Was Mata Hari a Spy?

The issue over whether Mata Hari's was guilty or innocent of spying has been debated for decades. Was she "the greatest woman spy of the century" who was responsible for the deaths of "hundreds of thousands of Allied" soldiers as her prosecutors and the press alleged? Or was she shot because she knew too much about corruption and treachery of French government elite? According Russel Warren Howe, author of Mata Hari, the True Story, "German and French intelligence services inadvertently worked together to achieve a common goal—the elimination of Mata Hari—and a trial in which the prosecution never called (and the court never allowed the defense to call) the two witnessed who could have proved or disapproved the case against her." [Source: Russel Warren Howe, author of Mata Hari, the True Story (Dodd, Mead), Smithsonian magazine]

"Though Mata Hari admitted she took money from a German intelligence officer who assigned her a code name—"H21"—there is no evidence she gave anything but gossip in return...all that was proved during the trial was that Mata Hari was a free-lance agent who committed espionage only once—for the French."

She was first suspected of being a spy by British intelligence who were suspicious about her relationship with the Berlin police officer. She was followed by plain-clothed French police after she returned from Berlin in 1915. The police found no evidence of espionage activity. Scholars that argue Mata Hari's execution was justified claim that she gave the Germans information about the Allies "land ship" (tank) and plans of the Allied offensive at Chemin de Dames that resulted in 100,000 deaths and 100,000 other casualties.

Chain of Events that Led to Mata Hari's Arrest

In an effort to secure a special pass to visit her Russian lover Vadim who was recovering from his exposure to mustard gas in hospital near the front, Mata Hari needed special permission from a French officer named Captain Geroges Ladoux, who asked her if she was willing to use international contacts to help spy for France. She said would if they gave her enough money.

Mata Hari was given the pass to see her lover and later she met again with Ladoux to work out the details of her espionage assignment. The amateurish plan they concocted was for Mata Hari to seduce an influential officer in Belgium, and he in turn would introduce her to a general and other important Germans. According to the plan after that she would feed her pillow talk to the French and receive one million francs upon the successful completion of the assignment.

Mata Hari never even made it to Belgium. She only got as far as England where she was mistaken for a German spy and arrested. After she was released she went to Spain where she tried to contact Ladoux in Paris but got no reply. In Madrid, Mata Hari tried to spy for the French by contacting the German military attache, who discovered immediately what he was up to and gave her some rumors, lies and press releases plus a small amount of Spanish money. When Mata Hari returned to Paris, with what she was thought was important information, Ladoux refused to see her.

Mata Hari's Arrest and Trial

While Mata Hari sat in Paris doing nothing and running out of money, the Allies intercepted a German message that referred to Mata Hari by a code name "H21." The French reasoned that Mata Hari had to have been given the code name by the Germans before she started working for the French, and was thus arrested on February 13, 1917 "for espionage, attempted espionage...and intelligence with the enemy, for the purpose of promoting their interests." After examining 500 documents that he was given access to by the French Minister of Defense, Howe concluded that German messages were sent using a cipher that the Germans knew the Allies had broken and "all the traffic about H21—who is clearly Mata Hari—appears to be a bluff meant to persuade the French to arrest their agent and shot her. “

After her arrest, Mata Hari did not help her case as she mixed up dates and exaggerated certain details of her life and hid others to appear more respectable. Her lawyer, a 74-year-old former lover named Edourad Clunet, specialized in corporate law and rarely defended criminal cases. During interrogation sessions before the trial it came out that Mata Hari had met with the German counsel in Amsterdam in May, 1916 and was asked if she could gather information for the Germans. She accepted 20,000 francs and was given the code name H21, but she said she never actually spied for the Germans, she never saw the German counsel again, and only took the money because the Germans had seized her furs and other possessions, worth far more than 20,000 francs, while she was in Berlin. Howe suggested that perhaps one reason the Germans set her up was that she took their money and gave them nothing in return.

The prosecution's case against Mata Hari was based on the following evidence: 1) she consorted with many French officers; 2) her trip to Holland; 3) her arrest in Britain; and 4) the intercepted "H21" radio transmissions. The Berlin policeman who saved her from the indecency charge described her as an important German spy. The Prosecuting attorney said: "The evil that this woman has done is unbelievable! ...The Zelle lady appeared to us as one of those international women—the word is her own—who has become so dangerous since the hostilities. The ease with which she expresses herself in several languages, especially French, her numerous relations, her subtle ways, her aplomb, her remarkable intelligence, her immorality, congenital or acquired, all...make her suspect."

The defense was not allowed to cross examine the prosecution’s witness, few witnesses appeared on Mata Hari's behalf, the entire plea by the defense took only three hours. After conferring for about 40 minutes the court found Mata Hari guilty on all eight counts, including charges that she spied between 1915 and 1917, even though there was no direct evidence that she spied for Germany.

Mata Hari's Execution

Mata Hari was brought before a French court-martial on July 24, 1917, sentenced to death by a unanimous vote, and executed on October 15, 1917 in Vincennes, eight kilometers outside of Paris. Shortly before 5:00am on the day of her execution, Mata Hari was awaken from her cot in Cell 12 at Saint-Lazare woman's prison in Paris by a prison guard nun named Sister Léonide. A party of 18 of men waited outside the cell. Their leader, Capt. Piere Bouchardon, told Mata Hari: "Have Courage! Your request for clemency has been rejected by the President of the Republic." The time for atonement has come." Mata Hari fumed: "It's not possible! It's not possible!" She then looked at the nun and said, "Don't be afraid, Sister. I shall know how to die."

For her execution Mata Hari wore a pearl-gray dress, a lace cache-corset, a tricorn felt hat, and fancy buttoned shoes. Before putting on the hat she asked the prison chaplain to baptize her. When a male warder took her arm as she getting ready to be led out of her cell, she barked, "I am not a criminal."

As she was lead to her execution she passed a battalion of troops who stood at attention and raised their sabers to the sky. She then gave her coat to a nun and the chief military officer of the court read her death sentence. When a soldier tried to tie her wrists to a stake she said, "That will not be necessary." As the soldier walked away he whispered to one of the executioners, " Parbleu, this lady knows how to die."

Normally enlisted men were chosen for espionage executions so that they had the pleasure of shooting a German spy. But in this case, because a woman was involved, 12 mature sergeants were selected. The execution took place at 5:47am. As the men raised the rifles, Mata Hari said, "Thank you, sir," blew a kiss to the firing squad, smiled and turned her head slightly. As the saber came down one sergeant fainted and only 11 shots were fired. Mata Hari collapsed into what one observer said "looked like a heap of skirts."

Mata Hari's Legacy

During and after the war numerous foreigners were arrested espionage. In France about 1,000 were expelled, about 500 were charged with spying and 300 were executed. Some scholars have argued that many of these "spies" were innocent scapegoats that were killed to place the blame on the horrors of the war on someone other than the French government. According to official Geschicte des Weltkriegs und Nachkriegsspionage Mata hari was not a spy,

Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “Femme Fatale's central contention is that "it is difficult to imagine a woman less likely . . . to be able to engage in clandestine activities than Mata Hari." She was a star, and "while she was certainly seductive, which might be viewed as useful for a spy, she was never on any occasion invisible"; in fact, she was "a ridiculous candidate for a job that required clandestine behavior." Yet her persecutors "believed firmly that Mata Hari was guilty because she slept with many men and traveled widely in wartime. Such a woman must be a spy." A kangaroo court agreed. Shipman reports that many years later, the prosecutor, André Mornet, talked to a writer about the case and said "with a supreme indifference, 'Between you and me, there wasn't enough [evidence] to flog a cat.' " There's more mystery about the woman than about the charges that cost her life. Shipman probably is right that "she was convicted not for espionage but for her lack of shame," but how she got that way -- defiantly, exuberantly, spectacularly -- simply can't be explained. [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, August 5, 2007]

One of the most famous spies during World War II was a beautiful young woman named Banda Macleod, who allegedly but likely was not the daughter of Mata Hari. A young socialite who had worked as a schoolteacher, Banda befriended several high-level Japanese soldiers in Indonesia, and gave the Allies important information pertaining to Battle of Guadacanal and other important battles, After the war she worked the Indonesian underground in their struggle against the Dutch and spied for the U.S. in Communist China and North Korea, where she predicted the invasion of South Korea and was eventually executed for espionage.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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