In the mid-1890s, Margaretha answered a newspaper ad seeking a bride for Rudolf MacLeod, a wealthy but brutal military captain based in the Dutch East Indies. The teenager sent a seductive photo of herself and despite their age difference, they married in 1894. During their volatile, alcohol-affected marriage, Margaretha had a daughter who survived and a son who did not.
By the early 1900s, Mata Hari's marriage had failed. Her husband divorced her and disappeared with their daughter, so Margaretha moved to Paris. There she became a professional dancer, teacher and translator, and when she was hungry, she became the mistress of a French diplomat.
In Edwardian Paris, Margaretha's exotic looks were perfect. She created the Temple Dance by drawing on cultural and religious symbolism that she had picked up in the Indies. She called herself a Hindu artist, draped in veils that loosely covered her body. In one exotic garden performance, Mata Hari appeared with a naked bottom on a white horse and breasts covered with beads. Completing her dramatic transformation from military wife to an Indonesian princess trained in exotic rituals and Hindu dances, she called herself Mata Hari.
Clothes had always been one of Mata Hari’s passions, and she spent a great deal of money on them after she became famous. Erte, the brilliant designer who later worked for the Russian Ballet, designed his first theatrical costume for Mata Hari. Mata Hari’s other couturieres included Georgette Brama, Louise Emery and Lucille, Lady Duff Gordon. They knew Mata Hari as a demanding customer who preferred her dresses to be as revealing as possible, and she was acknowledged by many to be the best-dressed woman in Paris. She was photographed by Paul Boyer, Lucien Walery and Leopold-Emile Reutlinger, the leading theatrical and fashion photographers of the day.
During this period, Mata Hari tried repeatedly to enter the world of legitimate dance, opera, and theatre. In 1910, she performed a dancing role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Antar”. In 1912, she performed in Gluck’s opera “Armide” and Antonio Marceno’s ballet “Bacchus and Gambrinus” at the prestigious La Scala in Milan
with a naked bottom and breasts covered with beads
Mata Hari’s dances drove the Paris salons wild, then Berlin, Vienna, Madrid and other European capitals. Reporters across Europe described her as "slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair." "She was feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms."
But youth doesn’t last forever. As younger dancers came to fame, Mata Hari's bookings reduced. She boosted her income by seducing government and military men; sex was purely for money. Despite the growing tension in Europe pre-WWI, her lovers included German officers.
Despite the Netherlands remaining neutral in WW1, her relentless travelling and random sexual liaisons attracted attention from British intelligence who carefully searched and questioned her in 1915 and 1916. In fact it was MI5’s decrypting of German messages about Mata Hari that led to her subsequent arrest in France
At 40 Mata Hari fell in love with a 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, in 1916. During their courtship, Masloff was sent to the Front, where an injury left him blind in one eye. Determined to earn money to support him, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, an army captain who needed her “contacts” for French intelligence.
Mata Hari insisted that she planned to use her connections to seduce her way into the German high command, get secrets and hand them over to the French. So when she met a German attaché, she began tossing him bits of gossip, hoping to get some valuable information in return. Instead, she got named as a German spy in communiqués he sent to Berlin which were immediately caught by the French.
Some historians believed that the Germans suspected Mata Hari was a French spy and subsequently set her up, deliberately sending a message falsely labelling her as a German spy. Others believed that she was in fact a German double agent. In any case, the French authorities arrested Mata Hari for espionage in Paris in Feb 1917. They threw her into the filthy prison at Saint-Lazare, where no family or friends were allowed to visit.
During lengthy interrogations by the military prosecutor Captain Pierre Bouchardon, Mata Hari seemed uncertain of which events in her life actually happened and which she had made up over the years. Eventually she admitted too much: A German diplomat had once paid her 20,000 francs to gather intelligence in Paris. But she had always remained faithful to France - the money was compensation for furs and luggage that had once disappeared on a departing train while German border guards hassled her. "A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!" she repeated many times.
Mata Hari's trial for espionage came at a time when the Germans were advancing. Real or imagined spies were convenient scapegoats for explaining military losses, and Mata Hari's arrest was one of many.
So when Mata Hari (?accidentally) admitted that a German officer paid her for sex, the French prosecutors depicted it as espionage money. And money she claimed was a regular stipend from a Dutch baron was portrayed in court as coming from German spymasters. Sadly the Dutch baron was never called to testify before the military tribunal. Nor did they call Mata Hari's maid, who handled the baron's payments. Worst of all, she had the three most criticised character flaws - she was foreign, divorced and had sex outside marriage. "Without scruples, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy," concluded Bouchardon.
The military tribunal deliberated for only 45 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The defendant couldn’t believe it ☹. She made a direct appeal to the French president for clemency and was horrified when he too turned her down.
Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on 15th Oct 1917. Dressed in a French uniform, she had arrived at the Paris execution site with a minister and two nuns and walked quickly to the kill-site. She then turned to face the firing squad, removed her blindfold and was instantly killed.
It was an improbable end for the exotic dancer and courtesan, whose name came to stand for sexy spy who charmed war secrets from her lovers. At the time, The New York Times merely called her "a woman of great attractiveness and with a romantic history."
What do people believe now? Mystery and intrigue still surrounds Mata Hari's life and alleged double agency. Many people saw the 1931 film Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo as the courtesan-dancer-spy and Ramon Novarro as her Russian flier-lover, called Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff in the film. The conclusion seems to be that Mata Hari was thoughtless in her selection of sexual partners during WW1, but certainly not working as a spy for the Germans (or for anyone else). The military files used against her were filled with information gaps, exaggerations and blatant lies.
This year is the centenary of Mata Hari’s execution, so there is a renewed interest in her story: Paulo Coehlo’s new novel The Spy, Ted Brandsen’s ballet by the Royal Dutch Ballet, and an exhibition at the Fries museum. Perhaps Mata Hari's letters, edited by Lourens Oldersma offer a more human side to this woman, as a victim of domestic abuse and historical circumstances.