To many Mata Hari is known as “that Dutch spy”, but who was she, and was she really a spy?
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born the eldest of four children into a prosperous Jewish family in 1876 in Leeuwarden (the capital of Friesland). Her father owned a successful hat shop and they had a good income. Her father liked to show off his wealth: Margaretha had private lessons and her own pony-drawn carriage and the ladies of the family had many fine clothes. He also maintained a prominent position in the town and liked to be seen with dignitaries and had his portrait painted for example.
Unfortunately, his outgoings far exceeded his income and he was eventually declared bankrupt. This had an enormous impact on Margaretha. Not only was there no money, but her beloved father left to try and find work in Amsterdam. Her parents’ marriage deteriorated rapidly and in an unusual move for the time, her parents legally separated. Two years later her mother died, and at age 15 Margaretha was separated from her siblings and sent to live with cousins first in Sneek and then in The Hague (Den Haag).
She was enrolled in a school to learn to be an infant- teacher but was forced to leave under a cloud. There was allegedly an incident with the school head-master and as usual during those times, the blame was laid squarely with the young girl and she was forced to leave. (Other reports say her uncle withdrew her before anything happened.)
Now with no money, no education and no close family and therefore a very uncertain future, she answered an advertisement in the local newspaper. A captain in the KNIL (Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indisch Leger (Royal Dutch Army for what is now Indonesia)) was looking for a wife. Young officers looking for promotion often married for tactical reasons, as a married man was seen as more stable and respectable and therefore more promotable. The man who placed the advertisement was a Rudolph John McLeod, known as John or Johnny. Although his name was Scottish (his ancestors came from the Isle of Sky in Scotland), he himself was a Dutchman from Gelderland. He was of a “good” family, providing Margaretha with the status and stability she craved.
The two married and left for Indonesia (then a Dutch colony). Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one. Margaretha craved fun and excitement, but money was tight and John was violent and unkind and regularly unfaithful. Margaretha was able to enjoy dancing though, and studied Indonesian dance. She first used the stage name Mata Hari during this time. Mata Hari is Malay for Sun (literally: Eye of the Dawn).
The couple had two children Norman-John and Louise, but sadly their son died of poisoning when still young. Although the family spread the rumour it was a dissatisfied servant with a grudge, the most likely explanation is that he died as a result of an overdose of mercury which in those days was used for the treatment of syphilis. (Syphilis is an STD very prevalent in the late 1800s, early 1900s (particularly rife in the armed forces), which was often passed from husbands to their wives, who would pass it on to their unborn children.) Their daughter died in her early twenties, as a result of having being born with the condition.
Margaretha eventually moved out and probably had an affair, but later returned to her husband. The couple returned to the Netherlands together in 1902, but soon divorced and Margaretha was awarded custody of her daughter. Unfortunately, John refused to pay alimony/child support properly, eventually not paying any at all and Margaretha became destitute. Various attempts at obtaining gainful employment (including a stint in a circus) failed, and her ex-husband accused her of prostitution. Heartbroken and penniless, unable to work and look after a child at the same time, Margaretha surrendered her daughter to John.
Mata Hari is born
Then Margaretha hit on the idea of performing exotic dances wearing very little clothing. She had previously learnt dances based on Indonesian traditional dances, and wore a body stocking that made her look nude, and hung it with a lot of costume jewellery. Now at the age of 29, she permanently adopted the stage name Mata Hari. She became an almost overnight sensation and successfully toured all over Europe with her performance. It is likely she had several affairs and probably was a so-call ‘kept woman’. Rumours abounded about her extravagances and her ruination of ‘decent’, married men.
World War I and spying
Margaretha, now Mata Hari, was in Berlin when World War I broke out and her shows were cancelled. She found it increasingly difficult to earn a living dancing. She returned to Paris and now lived entirely off men “befriending” her and taking care of her.
And this is where the trouble really began. As a Dutch woman, Margaretha was a citizen of a country that remained neutral during WW I, allowing her to travel freely across Europe. She befriended men of all nationalities, including German officers and French officials. She continued to travel widely and dropped hints to both sides about being a spy. Both the British and the Germans made mention of her in their official secret service papers. Was she just very naïve? Was she just out for financial gain and sublimely unaware or uncaring about politics? Was she really a very clever spy, a double-agent even? Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle?
One night, after a German raid on a French fortification that she had previously visited, Mata Hari/Margaretha was arrested. After prolonged interrogation by a French official who was already convinced of her guilt, Margaretha allegedly confessed (she denied this) and was found guilty in court. Shortly thereafter she was executed by firing squad when she was 41. Mata Hari had become synonymous with a female spy who gains knowledge of secrets by seducing men. Her name and image in this context have since been used repeatedly in advertisements for example.
More questions than answers
What the truth is, is now impossible to discover. Whatever her actual crimes were, personally, whilst not condoning any such crimes, I have a lot of sympathy with how she came to that point. Her upbringing conditioned her to value money and display of wealth, but was very insecure. She was like so many women of her time, the victim of several men in a patriarchal society with severe double standards regarding women, and in addition she experienced some real tragedies.
What do you think?
You can form your own opinion at the exhibition currently at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden: https://www.friesmuseum.nl/te-zien-en-te-doen/tentoonstellingen/mata-hari/
Alexandra van den Doel
I am indebted to Ellen Teunter for bringing Mata Hari to my attention, and additional research conducted.