Margaretha Geertruida McLeod Zelle, not a name that holds any great promise of seductive allure or for that matter indication of a gossip-worthy future.
But say the name Mata Hari and instantly the image that floats before one’s eyes is that of a barely dressed femme fatale, one who had the secrets of a thousand men in her elegant grasp, one who had affairs with prominent and wealthy men before war broke out and eventually acted as a German spy according to the French and as a French spy by her own alleged admission to the British during World War 1.
But Margaretha’s early life was much the same as any other Dutch girl born in 1876. She grew up in an affluent household and had a good education and what seems like a happy childhood. However it was not to last. Her father filed for bankruptcy when she was 13. Soon after, her mother left him and he soon remarried. At 18 the now neglected girl decided to answer a matrimonial ad. The groom was 20 years older and an army Captain in Indonesia. When she arrived in Java, she found he was an alcoholic with a local concubine. He was violent as well and despite the presence of two children by now the marriage was far from healthy. In fact she had caught syphilis from her husband and both her children were infected by her during birth. She left her husband and moved in with another Dutch officer. She also began studying Javanese dance and within two years of her first going to the East Indies, Margaretha was writing to her family in Holland using the name Mata Hari.
She had learned the dances well and knew enough of the East by 1905 to pass herself off as a Javanese Hindu princess in Europe. She was never a great classical beauty but she became known for her uninhibited dancing and provocative photographs. Oddly enough she was almost never seen without a covering across her upper body as she was very conscious of being small breasted.
The neutrality of Holland allowed her to freely travel across Europe as war broke out and sadly this coupled with her habit of making up stories might have led to her eventual death. The British arrested her and she was charged as being the German spy H-21 by the French. This was based on the fact that a double agent working for both the Germans and the French was executed by the Germans within weeks of this information being leaked to her.
Margaretha or Mata Hari was executed by firing squad in 1917 at the age of 41. She wore the one clean suit that she still owned with white gloves. Her unclaimed body was donated to medical science. No one has ever been able to find out what happened to it.