Bright Side

30+ Facts About Mata Hari, a Spy Hundreds of Men Loved but She Never Knew What Happiness Was Like

144 years ago, on August 7th, 1876, one of the most mysterious women of the 20th century was born — Mata Hari. She was called many names: dancer, courtesan, spy, traitor, but nobody ever really found out who this great woman was. Mata’s life story consists of hundreds of myths that continue to keep the minds of researchers busy even today.

We at Bright Side tried to learn more about the biography of the amazing and mysterious Mata Hari.

  • Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (she would later be called Mata Hari) was born in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden. She was the only daughter of Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen. They had a total of 4 children. The family was quite wealthy — the father owned a hat store and made successful investments in the oil industry.
  • Margaretha attended a school for noble people. But several years later, her father went bankrupt and then divorced his wife. When she was 15 years old, her mother died and the family was completely destroyed.
  • The father sent Margaretha to live with her godfather in a nearby town where she started to learn to be a kindergarten babysitter. But soon, something very unpleasant happened: the headmaster started flirting with her, which is why her insulted godfather took Margaretha out of the institution, and a few months later, she fled to her uncle’s home in The Hague.
  • At the age of 19, she married 39-year-old officer Rudolph MacLeod. He put an ad in a newspaper claiming that he was looking for a wife and Margaretha really wanted her independence. In the end, after they’d barely met each other, they got married despite the significant age difference. Of course, they didn’t really love each other — the marriage was just good for the both of them.
  • Soon, they moved to the island of Java, where they had a son and a daughter. But the marriage was a huge disappointment. He openly kept a concubine which was totally acceptable there.
  • The disenchanted wife left her husband and even started a relationship with another Dutch officer. At the same time, she started learning more about Indonesian traditions and dances. Soon afterward, she joined a local dance group and got a stage name — Mata Hari which can be translated as “eye of the day.
  • Also, even though there are many people who believe that Mata Hari had Indonesian roots, scientists agree that this is nothing more than a myth that she made up herself.
  • Despite her poor relationship with her husband, he managed to convince Mata to return to the family, but his aggressive behavior didn’t end there. So she tried to get distracted from these problems by learning more about the local culture.
  • In 1899, the family experienced a tragic event — their little boy died. The children had fallen ill due to complications from treatment for a family illness, but Jeanne survived. The family’s story was that they had been poisoned by a servant, however, other sources claimed it could have been a family enemy.
  • 4 years later, the spouses retired to the Netherlands and got divorced. While their daughter was visiting him, MacLeod decided not to send their daughter back. Zelle didn’t have the power to fight this and condoned it. The girl later died at the age of 21.
  • Mata moved to Paris with no money. She found a job in a circus where she performed as a circus horse rider using the name Lady MacLeod, but then she decided to seek fame as an exotic dancer.
  • Also, some researchers believe that the dancer wore a thin knit costume that looked like a naked body from a distance.
  • In order to be more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari made up a lot of legends about herself. For example, she told the story of being raised in an Eastern monastery where she learned to dance.
  • She very quickly became famous, and not just in Paris, but in other European capitals as well. The newspapers said, “Mata Hari was slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.”
  • At the time, her name appeared on boxes of Dutch cookies and other sweets, as well as postage stamps where she was seen posing in a very revealing dress. Her poor father even wrote a book about the story of his daughter’s life, which earned him a lot of money and made Mata even more famous.
  • Even though she was incredibly successful, at some point she had to stop her dancing career and become a courtesan. The thing is, she started to put on extra weight due to her age, because she became a dancer pretty late in life.
  • This woman charmed men. She had relationships with high-ranking military men, politicians, and other influential people from different countries. Among her many lovers were Giacomo Puccini and Henri de Rothschild.
  • The dancer had residences in Paris and The Hague. She received expensive presents, but at the same time, she had financial trouble. Most likely, all of her money was spent on card games — this was Mata’s real passion.
  • Everything changed when World War I started. Before, Mata Hari was believed to be an artistic person, but when the war started, a lot of people started to think about her as a dangerous seductress.
  • The thing is, she had a lot of lovers and she was a citizen of the neutral Netherlands. Mata Hari traveled around Europe quite a lot, which attracted the attention of the secret service of France and Germany.
  • In 1916 she met Captain Maslov, of Russia, and fell in love with him. Unfortunately, he went to war soon after that and he lost one eye. According to some sources, this was when Mata agreed to spy for France against Germany, in order to see the person she called the love of her life. French intelligence told her that she would see him only once she got the necessary information. She was given the name H-21.
  • Mata Hari had planned to seduce Prince Wilhelm of Germany and get the necessary information from him. At the end of 1916, she went to Madrid, where she asked to meet the Prince. But this was the moment when the French received information that Mata Hari was a double agent. Allegedly, they intercepted a message from German intelligence, that the famous dancer had been working for Germany for a long time.
  • It is still not known whether Mata Hari was a double agent or whether German intelligence realized she was a French spy and decided to set her up. Either way, in 1917, Mata was arrested in a hotel. She was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the death of several divisions of soldiers.
  • And Mata Hari swore to the investigators that she had always been loyal to France. She even said, “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never! I have always lived for love and pleasure.”
  • The next day, Margaretha Zelle was found guilty. In the cell where she spent the last days of her life, her lawyer suggested that she lie to the authorities and tell them she was pregnant, but Mata Hari was against lying.
  • After the execution, Mata Hari’s body was given to the anatomy theater in Paris. But in 2000, experts found that her remains were gone. Allegedly, they disappeared back in 1954 during the museum’s move.
  • Interestingly, all documents about Mata Hari’s case (1,275 pages) weren’t declassified by the French authorities until 2017, 100 years after her execution.
  • Of course, her life story became an inspiration for many film directors, so there are a few movies and series about her life.

Did you know the story of Mata Hari? Have you watched any of the films about her?

Preview photo credit East News, East News
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