‘Mata Hari,’ possibly the twentieth century’s most famous spy was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, on August 7, 1876. Her parents were Dutch shopkeeper Adam Zelle and reported Javanese beauty Antje van der Meulen. The brunette-haired, dark-skinned ‘M’greet,’ as her doting family and friends affectionately nicknamed her, was well liked and popular as a child. She loved brightly colored, flashy clothes, and frequently regaled her family and friends with outrageous stories, telling them that she was, in fact, royalty. Sadly, her father went bankrupt when M’greet was 13 and two years later, her mother died. The fifteen-year-old girl went to live with her godfather Heer Visser. She attended a school for teachers in Leiden, and she was well liked by teachers because of her ability to quickly learn languages. She was eventually expelled from the school for allegedly having sex with her headmaster, Heer Wybrandus Haanstra.
In Leiden, tongues wagged about the mysterious Margaretha Zelle: Men would never look at her because she was “too tall,” (5’10”); she was mysteriously “wealthy,” (she often traveled with ten trunks; she was “strange-looking,” (she had unusual dark brown hair and bronzed skin). Despite the gossip, on July 11, 1895 M’greet married Dutch army colonel Rudolph McLeod-she was 18 and he, 48. Soon after their marriage Colonel McLeod’s work took the newlyweds to Java, Indonesia. There M’greet and Rudolph had two children, Norman John and Jeanna Louise McLeod. After the birth of their children, Rudolph began abusing his young wife, and openly having an affair with a Javanese woman. Understandably the marriage was not a happy one and the McLeods divorced in 1906.
While in Java, M’greet watched exotic dancers in the temples, and assumed the persona of “Mata Hari,” Malay for “Eye of Dawn.” She modeled her erotic dances after the Javanese temple dancers, and her smoldering dark beauty supported her claim that she was a “Javanese princess”. Upon returning from Java, she immediately became a sensation in Paris, where she danced the “Dance of Love,” a racy, exotic number.
Immediately “Mata Hari’s” popularity spread throughout Europe, and she traveled easily around the continent without suspicion. Because of this ease, she became a spy during World War I. Even after her fame as a dancer waned, she was able to get information from officers when she became a stripper and eventually, a prostitute.
In November of 1916, British officers took Mata Hari off of a steamer going from Spain to Holland, believing she was another much-sought-after spy, Clara Benedix. Though she was not the espionage artist they sought, she was taken into custody. MI5 files report that she was watched for two years before she was apprehended, though they claimed that the information that she passed to Germans was not of any real importance. A statement by the Amsterdam government revealed that, “Mata Hari… confessed that she has been engaged by Consul Cremer of Amsterdam for the German Secret Service.” Mata Hari was appalled by her situation, crying, “Harlot, yes! But traitoress, never!” Nevertheless, the Council “unanimously condemned the named person, Zelle, Marguérite, Gertrude, as mentioned above, to the punishment of death.” On October 17, 1917 in Vincennes, near Paris, France, “Mata Hari” was killed by a twelve-man firing squad. The woman who stood before the soldiers was not the exotic beauty that Europe had known; she was a tired, worn-out prostitute. Nevertheless, the brave woman refused to be blindfolded or tied to a stake. It is reported that before the soldiers shot her, she blew them a kiss.