The True Story Of How An Exotic Dancer Became One Of WWI’s Most Notorious Spies

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It’s 1916, and the First World War grinds on in Europe. A woman known as Mata Hari is in Madrid, neutral Spain’s capital. She’s there to see an officer serving at the German Embassy called Major Arnold Kalle. Hari in fact hopes that Kalle will be able to put her in touch with Germany’s Crown Prince Wilhelm. What’s unclear, though, is whether this exotic woman is spying for the French or the Germans – or if she’s simply in the game for money. But either way, things aren’t going to end well for her.

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We’ll come back to the puzzle of what exactly Mata Hari was up to in Madrid a little later. For the moment, then, let’s get to know more about this notorious courtesan, erotic performer and alleged secret agent – or possibly double agent. So Hari was actually born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876 in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden.

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Zelle was in fact the first-born of Antje van der Meulen and her husband, Adam Zelle, who were both in their mid-30s at the time. The couple also had three sons, and Adam owned a successful milliner’s store. The family therefore had enough money to give Zelle and her siblings a comfortable early upbringing. Zelle even attended upscale schools.

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But Zelle’s seemingly idyllic childhood and the lavish gifts with which her father had indulged her came to an abrupt end when she was 13 years old. That’s because Adam had made unwise investments in the oil industry and subsequently lost his fortune. Then, to make matters even worse, Adam left Antje for a woman he’d been having an affair with.

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And to top off this unwelcome disruption, Antje died in 1891, just a couple of years later. At the time, Zelle was only 15 years old. So it seems that for Zelle, family life had more or less disintegrated. She subsequently went to stay at the home of her godfather, a Mr. Visser, in the Dutch city of Sneek.

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And Zelle soon found herself in the first of the many scrapes she’d get herself into over the years. Aged 16, you see, the young woman went to train as a kindergarten teacher at an institution in Leiden. But she additionally started an affair with the married headmaster of her school. And this principal started the pattern of powerful men exploiting Zelle during her lifetime.

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Because although you might think that the headmaster should have borne the consequences of his abusive indiscretion, it was actually Zelle who was thrown out of the school. The young woman subsequently found herself in yet another Dutch city: The Hague. She lived there with her uncle, in fact, and her life was to be forever changed by a newspaper advertisement.

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It turned out that an army officer named Rudolf MacLeod had placed the ad. MacLeod was a captain in the Colonial Army serving the Dutch East Indies – today’s Indonesia. The purpose of his newspaper advertisement was to find a wife. According to a 2017 National Geographic article, in fact, MacLeod sought “a girl of pleasant character.”

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Zelle then responded to MacLeod’s ad, and the two were wed in Amsterdam on July 11, 1895. Her new husband was actually 20 years her senior, so the marriage had both advantages and disadvantages. One of the benefits was that MacLeod was from an aristocratic family – his mother was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas. That gave Zelle social cachet and, potentially, money.

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In May 1897 the couple sailed for the island of Java – now part of Indonesia. They voyaged aboard the SS Prinses Amalia, a steamer of the Netherland Line. And following their arrival, the couple settled in the Javan city of Malang. It all must have seemed like quite an adventure for Zelle, or Mrs. MacLeod as she now was. After all, she’d never been out of the Netherlands before.

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Yet by any dispassionate judgment, the disadvantages of the marriage unfortunately outweighed the benefits. For instance, the captain was a heavy drinker – probably an alcoholic – and prone to physically assaulting Zelle at regular intervals. And for some reason, MacLeod held Zelle responsible for the lack of advancement in his career. The soldier was also heavily in debt – but that was hardly the worst of it.

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MacLeod actually made no secret of the fact that he kept a concubine, which was apparently a routine practice for Dutch colonialists at the time. Zelle didn’t accept this state of affairs passively, though. For a time, in fact, she left her husband and lived with a Dutch officer called Van Rheedes. MacLeod begged Zelle to come back, however, and after a time she did.

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Zelle’s tumultuous relationship with MacLeod was made all the more complicated by the fact that the couple had two children. The first, Norman-John, had been born while the couple were still in Holland in January 1897. The second, Louise Jeanne, arrived after the MacLeods had settled on Java in May of the following year.

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But on top of being subject to her husband’s hard drinking, physical abuse and infidelities, Zelle then discovered that she had contracted syphilis from MacLeod. This extremely unpleasant and dangerous sexually transmitted condition was apparently rife among the Dutch colonial armies in the East Indies. Yet because MacLeod had given Zelle the disease before she’d birthed their two children, their offspring were also infected.

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So in 1899, both the MacLeod children became sick – quite likely because of the syphilis passed down from their parents. At that time, though, MacLeod was a commander on Java, and he turned to the doctor of the garrison where he and his family were stationed. This doctor reportedly had experience of treating adults for syphilis – probably with mercury. But he seemingly had no expertise in treating children.

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The children therefore reportedly suffered violent reactions to the doses of medicine that the doctor gave them. Indeed, Norman-John and Louise were apparently left in great pain as well as dealing with severe convulsions and vomiting. Tragically, too, the affliction was so acute that it killed the young boy.

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There were also rumors that the MacLeods’ nanny might have actually poisoned the children. The mooted motive for this act was that MacLeod had apparently assaulted the nanny’s boyfriend. Yet the woman in question was never charged with any crime. But regardless of whether the poisoning was an accidental overdose or a deliberate act, the MacLeods had still lost one of their children.

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And this tragedy seems to have pushed the MacLeods even further apart. In 1900, for instance, the couple came back to the Netherlands – but their marriage was over just two years later. At the time of the split, however, Zelle wanted to have custody of her daughter, Louise. But MacLeod failed to pay the maintenance he’d promised. And since Zelle was virtually penniless, this meant that she eventually had to hand over the child to her estranged husband.

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Then in 1903 Zelle settled in Paris, and she had to find a way of making a living. She subsequently tried her hand at a variety of jobs, including teaching piano, modeling in a big store and giving German language classes. Zelle actually found better-paid work as a model for some of the many artists living in the city too. And that work also helped her to build connections with the theater world.

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Next, in 1905, came the invention of Mata Hari – the exotic dancer. And since Margareta Zelle now called herself Mata Hari, we’ll follow suit from now on. The name apparently comes from a Malaysian phrase meaning eye of the day or sunrise. Nevertheless, it seems that Hari’s first show was at a Parisian gallery specializing in Asian artworks: the Musée Guimet.

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Hundreds of people from the cultural elite of Paris turned up, and Mata Hari danced for them in glittering lingerie, diaphanous veils and extravagant headwear. What’s more, her glamorous new persona was an instant hit in the French capital. Hari’s dancing has subsequently been described as erotic, and through this medium she recounted stories of passion and lust.

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To avoid charges of indecency for her risqué act, though, Hari always framed her performances in the context of sacred rites of Hinduism from the East Indies. A 2017 article in National Geographic quoted the words that Hari used to sidestep the attentions of the authorities at a time of censorious moral standards.

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“My dance is a sacred poem,” Mata Hari would reportedly tell her audiences. “One must always translate the three stages that correspond to the divine attributes of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva: creation, fecundity, destruction,” she apparently added. And for good measure, the dancer would seemingly give her explanation in several languages, including English, French and Malay.

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Perhaps some of her audiences enjoyed Mata Hari’s celebration of the sacred. But others almost certainly delighted in the thrill of the forbidden and the exotic. In truth, though, Hari’s act was rather more modest than it appeared – since she always wore a flesh-colored body stocking on stage. And Hari also kept her bejeweled bra on because she was uneasy about her body shape.

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Nonetheless, her performances brought her great fame – not to mention notoriety. She became the toast of French high society, in fact, or at least a certain male part of it. Her fame also spread well beyond France, and she later danced for enthusiastic audiences in many European cities over the years. It seems that her wealthy fans were happy to provide her with a luxurious lifestyle of diamonds, furs and lavish hospitality too.

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You can get a flavor of the impact Mata Hari’s act had on many men from the words written by a contemporary journalist in Vienna and quoted on the Biography website. Hari, he wrote, is “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” Another writer described her as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”

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But the glitz and glamor couldn’t last forever. To a large extent, you see, Mata Hari’s appeal depended on her youth and beauty – and as the years passed those began to fade. Then, in 1914, the First World War erupted. Hari seems to have taken little notice of the impact that the conflict was having on so many people in Europe and elsewhere in the world, however.

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In fact, Hari continued to travel from city to city and to live an ostentatiously lavish lifestyle. As we’ve seen, though, her dancing career was now on the wane, and her final public performance came in March 1915. She was then forced to concentrate on exploiting her reputation as a courtesan. So she conducted a series of relationships with senior politicians and military figures.

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As a Dutch national, you see, Mata Hari was the citizen of a neutral country. So this meant that she could continue with the international travel that had been a feature of her lifestyle for many years. In the later part of 1915, though, she was back in her home country in The Hague. And there a chain of events started that would eventually lead to her downfall.

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Unwisely, as it turned out, Hari accepted a payment of 20,000 francs (or around $60,000 in today’s money) from a man named Karl Kroemer. Kroemer was the honorary consul for Germany in Amsterdam. And as far as he was concerned, the money was paid on the understanding that Hari would spy for the Germans during the war.

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Mata Hari appears not to have appreciated the possible consequences of accepting money from a foreign power, however – even if she didn’t reportedly agree to spy for them. Instead, she seems to have believed that the cash was merely a fitting recompense for jewelry and expensive clothes that the Germans had confiscated from her when the war broke out. But that wasn’t necessarily how others would see it.

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On her way back to France in December 1915, for instance, Hari was stopped at the English port of Folkestone. There, she was questioned by a British security officer. And although he found nothing concrete to imply wrongdoing in her luggage or during her interrogation, the officer was clearly suspicious. In his notes about Hari, in fact, he made his beliefs all too clear.

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“[She] speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German. Handsome, bold type of woman. Well and fashionably dressed,” he wrote, according to National Geographic. “Not above suspicion… most unsatisfactory… should be refused permission to return to the U.K.,” he concluded. So this British officer clearly believed he was dealing with a dangerous individual.

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And this was an omen of the kind of reception Mata Hari would face when she was back in France. Once she had settled into the Grand Hotel in Paris, in fact, the French secret service took a keen interest in her. She was then followed everywhere on the orders of Georges Ladoux, who was in charge of the French Ministry of War’s counterespionage department.

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And in addition to shadowing Mata Hari wherever she went in Paris, staff at the counterespionage unit also opened her letters, bugged her telephone and kept a meticulous record of everyone she met. Yet despite this, the officers still weren’t able to provide any actual evidence that she was passing secrets to the Germans.

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Mata Hari, however, apparently knew nothing about the attentions of the French intelligence agents. In fact, she had fallen in love with a Russian officer named Vladimir de Massloff, who was a pilot fighting for the French. Massloff was then severely wounded in 1916, and Hari was desperate to visit him. But as a foreigner, she wouldn’t be permitted to travel near the frontline during wartime.

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So, using one of her lovers, Mata Hari made contact with agents from the very same French counterespionage unit that had been following her. The agents then offered her a deal: she would be able to see Massloff if she spied on Germany on behalf of the French. And they would pay her one million francs to do so – a huge sum at the time.

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Mata Hari was then ordered by Ladoux himself to return to The Hague via Spain and Britain. However, he never gave her either money or detailed instructions. So on her way to the Netherlands, Hari was again stopped by security officers in England. This time, though, the Dutch native told them that she was working for Ladoux. But when the British checked her story, Ladoux denied all knowledge. Hari was then later shipped off to Spain.

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And while in Spain, Hari actually did manage to discover from an indiscreet German official that his country intended to invade Morocco. After Hari made it back to France, then, she tried to pass on her information to Ladoux – but he would not meet with her. What’s more, he now claimed to have evidence that she was indeed a German agent. This led to Hari’s arrest in February 1917.

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And at Mata Hari’s trial in July 1917, the main evidence against her came from Ladoux. She was therefore found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. Hari was then executed on October 15, 1917. Brave in the face of death, though, she refused to be bound and stood proudly as she was shot. Yet because Hari is so well known as a traitorous spy, it’s shocking to discover that the glamorous and mysterious woman almost certainly didn’t betray the Allies. You see, historians have subsequently discredited Ladoux’s evidence.

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