Who Was Mata Hari?

The story of famed coutesan Mata Hari.

During her heyday she was considered to be one of the most beautiful and seductive women in the world. Thousands flocked to see her perform her Dance of Love at show halls all over Paris. Men fell in love with her and foolishly promised her anything in return for her sexual favours. She even became the mistress of Germany's Crown Prince Willem and later, his son, both royals showering her with jewels and money. And she basked in it -- the attention, the riches and the endless strings of lovers. But by early 1917 her perfect world was unravelling. Labelled a traitor and spy, French authorities arrested her and after a sensational trial and short imprisonment she was executed. How did Margaretha Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, also known as Mata Hari, come to such a swift and ignoble end?

Margaretha Zelle could never have imagined what would eventually befall her the day she answered a personal ad in the newspaper. A Dutch army officer was looking for a suitable wife. A short time after meeting Captain Rudolf Macleod, a man who could well have been her father, Margaretha and Macleod married, then sailed off to Java, a Dutch East India settlement and garrison. Macleod soon proved a less than perfect husband, flaunting his countless dalliances before his young, pregnant wife. Margaretha put up with his conduct but not so the family of one of the female servants he'd supposedly raped. They poisoned the couples eldest child and he subsequently died.

After the death of their son, the Macleod's returned to Holland and were soon divorced. With money received from the settlement Margaretha left her surviving child, a daughter, with relatives, then set out for Paris, determined to make her mark in the world. But how could a woman with virtually no marketable skills and little money support herself? She tried modelling for painters and instructing at a riding school but barely made ends meet. Then her current benefactor made a suggestion, perhaps she could try dancing. Margaretha thought over the idea; she had always adored dancing. In fact, while in Java she had become quite entranced by the exotic, sinuous dances performed by Javanese women. With a little practice she could perfect her own rendition and perform before an audience for money.

All things Oriental happened to be in vogue during the early 1900's so Margaretha simply embellished her experiences in Java, not to mention her own heritage, and prepared for her first show. She had little trouble convincing her audience that "Lady Macleod" was half Hindu, half British nobility and had been trained as a Ganges temple dancer. Her tall, lithe body, dark coloring and natural beauty lent themselves well to her subterfuge as she appeared before her small salon audience clad only in an assortment of colored veils and a metal brassiere of her own creation. Thus the woman who would become known as the inventor of the "strip tease" gave her first successful performance.

Wealthy businessman, Emile Guimet, wasted little time inviting Margaretha to dance at his Museum of Oriental Art. Using the stage name, "Mata Hari", meaning "the light of day", Margaretha agreed to make her official debut. Guimet transformed an upper floor of his museum to accommodate Mata Hari's act, a sinuous and provocative dance of supplication before the six-limbed statue of the Hindu god, Siva. Guimet even provided a pseudo-jungle environment to make the setting seem even more real. After her seductive performance on March 13, 1905, Mata Hari became an instant sensation.

Over the next few years Mata Hari danced her dance of the veils in salons, music halls, and theatres all over Europe. Monte Carlo, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, and Cairo were just a few of the cities where she attracted huge crowds. Men fell at her feet wherever she went and would promise her anything for a glance or a favour. An early German movie maker immortalized her Siva dances on celluloid. Even her father, once a wealthy hatter who'd gone bankrupt, tried to cash in on her fame and fortune by writing a tell-all book. Critics largely panned his work as one of fiction even though much of what Mata Hari had already told others about her background was pure fabrication.

Through those early years before the first World War, Mata Hari danced her way into the bedrooms and hearts of countless well-to-do lovers, many of them having royal connections. She also had liaisons with many leaders in the political and military arenas. There seemed to be a method to her choices in lovers and benefactors. She not only wanted men who would gladly pay anything for an affair with the sensational and sensuous "Mata Hari", she made sure they also paid her day-to-day expenses, not to mention showering her with gifts of jewels or furs. Her performances began to lose their former appeal as other dancers like Isodora Duncan took to European stages naked. There were also those who began to question the authenticity of not only Mata Hari's dances, but her background. Soon she became nothing more than a high paid courtesan. Worse, she was becoming an ageing courtesan.

Because Mata Hari had taken many highly-ranked soldiers as lovers, notably French and German officers, French officials decided to keep track of her comings and goings. Her former fame had also allowed her a free diplomatic ticket to countless embassy parties over the years. As WW1 escalated this raised suspicions that she was still in contact with some of her international lovers and that she had to be spying for one or more of them. Mata Hari was immediately put under 24 hour surveillance but French Intelligence could find no proof with which to hang her.

The French did eventually find the proof they needed to arrest Mata Hari as a spy, but whether it was real or fabricated is still being argued to this day. Many believe she inadvertently caused her own downfall when, during her initial interrogation, she revealed a German spy number, H.21, that only a real spy could know. She further implicated herself by offering to spy on the Germans for French Intelligence. Unfortunately her desperate tactics did not work and she was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death by French firing squad.

In the early morning of October 15, 1917, Margaretha Zelle Macleod was awakened in her cell and driven to her place of execution. Refusing both a blindfold and restraints she was shot dead by the 12 man firing squad moments after she smiled and blew them a kiss. Margaretha swore until the end that she was not a spy, would never have betrayed her adopted French homeland. Whether she was indeed a cunning and manipulative woman with only her own interests in mind or a victim of French Intelligence is still unclear, although some documents recently reviewed indicate she may have been an unfortunate scapegoat. Whatever the case, Margaretha's stage name, Mata Hari, will always remain synonymous with female seduction and betrayal.

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