Mata Hari (1876-1917)
Femme fatale, spy or victim?

In her words: “I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I lose, sometimes I win.”

In others’ words: “The stench of whoredom still clung to her”

Bio: Mata Hari was a Dutch woman whose life and legacy is clouded by mystery and intrigue. Born in the Netherlands in 1876, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle had a privileged upbringing, receiving lavish gifts from her father and a private education. At 18, Zelle responded to a newspaper ad posted by Captain Rudolph MacLeod who was seeking a bride. In 1895, the two married, though he was nearly twice her age, and were soon sent to be stationed in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). To her terror, Zelle soon found out that MacLeod was an abusive alcoholic who regularly beat her. To escape her home life, Zelle immersed herself in local culture and joined a dance group, all the while caring for the couple’s two young children. In 1899, their children fell ill and their son died. There is no definite cause for the illness though there are two common theories: that the disloyal MacLeod infected the children with syphilis or that they were poisoned by an angry servant. 

Finally in 1902, Zelle and MacLeod returned to the Netherlands, separated, and then divorced. Originally, Zelle won custody of their daughter, but because there were not many jobs a woman could hold and earn a living, she soon lost her custody battle with MacLeod. Brokenhearted, she made the decision to leave Holland.

When Zelle moved to Paris in 1905 she was painfully poor. While she eventually found a job at a theatre company, she sometimes had to rely on sex work to make ends meet. It wasn’t until she reinvented and renamed herself that she broke out into the Paris social scene. Zelle was henceforth known as Mata Hari, Malay for “sunrise” or literally “eye of the day.” Mata Hari presented herself as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth who had spent her entire life studying dance. In the subsequent decade, Orientalism was alive and well in Paris, so Mata Hari was able to perform regularly. As she was able to skirt local decency laws by explaining that her dances were part of Indonesian culture, Mata Hari was seen as glamorous and titillating, with every aristocrat wanting her on his arm. By 1912, other performers had seen her success and come up with similar acts of their own, diluting the market. Mata Hari performed her last show in 1915. Throughout her time living and performing in Paris, Zelle continued to painfully miss her daughter.

Zelle’s life continued on a slow downward trajectory as she got mixed up in espionage during World War I. While she agreed to spy for the French in order to visit her injured lover, Zelle was eventually accused of spying against the French for the Germans when a cable identifying her as a mole was intercepted. No one quite knows which version of the story is true, but what we do know is that France was suffering large casualties in the war and needed a scapegoat to boost public morale. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the unlucky recipient of this.

Zelle was executed by firing squad in 1917. She refused to be blindfolded, looking her killers right in the eyes.

NOTE: Mata Hari’s stage persona, costume design, and choreography were all born from a keen awareness that there was a growing western demand for fake orientalism. It’s important to note that her performance identity was seeped in cultural appropriation.