The very name Mata Hari evokes a thrill – siren, seductress, oriental beauty, famous spy, dangerous woman. But sometimes the truth may be a little bit different.
Mata Hari was born a Dutchwoman, named Margaretha Zelle, in 1876, to a prosperous family. Her father went bankrupt and left his four children with their mother who died shortly afterwards. Unwanted by any other relative, Zelle tried to train as a kindergarten teacher, but was not strict enough and had to leave the training school in disgrace anyway – when an older man became infatuated with her. Now of marriageable age, but too poor, too tall and too small-breasted to be considered especially marketable, she ended up with an army officer twice her age. She gave him two children, which did not stop him from raping and beating her, and openly taking a concubine whilst they were posted to Java. On the family’s return to Holland, he deserted her, taking their one surviving child, a daughter, and leaving her to her own resources. Which were few.
Eventually, not yet 30 years of age and desperate now, Zelle made her way to Paris and reinvented herself as “Mata Hari”, a temple dancer from South Asia who would perform an (invented) “sacred” dance for European audiences, stripping down to her skin-toned body stocking – but never showing her still inadequate breasts to anyone*.
[* She claimed that her brutal husband bit off her nipples. This has not been verified one way or the other as far as I know.]
She was a massive hit, if a controversial one, and people flocked to see her. Even as her career as a dancer began to wane, Mata Hari was successful as a “courtesan” and survived by cultivating relationships of patronage with wealthy and influential men.
At the start of the First World War, Mata Hari – who had had, among others, a German lover and had been in Germany immediately before war broke out – was suspected of spying for the Germans and may indeed have taken money from German officers just as she did from any man who offered it. In any event, the French asked her to spy for them, seducing key enemy figures and pumping them for information. In need of money, she agreed to do it. She tried, but – whether she really was working for the Germans, which seems unlikely to me, or whether she just wasn’t very good at it and got rumbled and duped by her first mark – she soon ended up in trouble with her already suspicious French spymasters. She was arrested, given what was pretty much a show trial (not much of a show, actually – it was held in secret), convicted and shot. She was 41.