Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands in 1876. She was the eldest of four children to Adam Zelle and Ante van der Meulan. Her father was successful in¬†his business ventures, including a¬†hat shop and oil investments. Margaretha had a privileged start to life, going to good schools and living comfortably. In 1889 things started to fall apart: her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and in 1891 her mother died. Margaretha moved to Sneek to live with her godfather and started training to become a kindergarten teacher. However, when the headteacher began to show inappropriate interest, her horrified godfather removed her and she fled to her uncle’s home in The Hague.
Tired of moving from one place to another, and seeking a way into the Dutch upper classes where she could enjoy a lifestyle similar to the one from¬†her youth, Margaretha answered an advert in the paper from Dutch colonial army captain, Rudolph Macleod. She moved to Java to be with him, and they had two children; Norman John Macleod and Louise Jean Macleod. Unfortunately for Margaretha, her husband was not the man she hoped he would be. He was 20 years her senior, an alcoholic, and he beat her and blamed her for his lack of career progression.
Leaving yet another home, Margaretha left her husband and moved in with another army captain, Van Rheedes. At this point she joined a local dance company and changed her name to Mata Hari. She temporarily reconciled with her husband, but after the death of their son they moved back to the Netherlands, divorcing shortly after. Mata Hari left for Paris soon after.
Here Mata Hari began her career as an exotic dancer. She created an exotic background for herself as a Javanese princess who had been brought up learning sacred Indian dance. Her dance routines often included her slowly removing items of clothing, ending with her in a jewelled bra and jewellery on her head and arms. Her¬†act contributed toward exotic dancing becoming a more respectable form in Paris society. Her career declined as she got older, and in 1915 she performed her last show. However by this point she had been a courtesan for many important men, including millionaire industrialist Emile Etienne Guimet, high ranking military officers, politicians and other influential men. She had become more known for her sensuality than her beauty.
During the First World War she became a spy for the French; she had many European connections due to her dancing and being of Dutch nationality she was considered neutral. However the Allies began to believe that Mata Hari had become a double agent and was feeding information to Germany. She was arrested in Paris, and was executed by firing squad in 1917. She was 41.
Looking back it seems the French have very little definitive proof that Mata Hari was guilty of these crimes, and as a low level spy she was certainly not responsible for the deaths of 50,000 men. Whether she was a double agent or not, she became a handy scapegoat for the French government.
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