On August 7, 1876, a young girl was born in Leuwardeen, Netherlands. Her father had left the family, and when her mother died, little Margaretha Geertruida Zelle found herself homeless. The girl’s future looked grim, but fate had other plans for her.
At the age of 15, Margaretha was alone in the world. But where others would have given up, she was determined to stake her claim. She pursued an education and worked hard to become a teacher. Having been alone from an early age, Margaretha was desperate for affection and became embroiled in a torrid affair with the director of the school where she worked. When the relationship was discovered, she was fired.
A few laters later, when she was 19, Margaretha met a marine officer and the couple married a short time later. Her husband was eventually stationed in Indonesia and the young, adventurous woman was more than happy to start a new life overseas. She adapted quickly, learning the local language and traditional dances. These pursuits became welcome escapes from life with what turned out to be a drunken, syphilis-infected husband. Despite having an unhappy marriage, the couple did have two children. Unfortunately, both were extremely unhealthy and died before reaching the age of 21.
It was during this time that Magaretha changed her name to “Mata Hari,” which means “eye of the day” in Malay. The new name allowed her take on a new identity and take back control of her life.
In 1902 she left her husband and moved to Paris. There she worked as a model and exotic dancer to make a living.
It didn’t take long before Mata Hari’s talent caught the public’s attention and in 1905 she began touring throughout Europe. Her dancing earned her great acclaim with many admirers describing her “feline grace” and the “moves of her curves.”
Her show was not only exotic, it was also extremely erotic, especially by the standards of the time. Mata Hari would dance almost naked, wearing only thin, transparent veils and a few strategically-placed jewels to cover her breasts. Her “hypnotizing” allure became scandalous.
As her fame grew, Mata Hari began attracting the interest of very influential men and eventually became one of the most famous courtesans in Europe. Her power of seduction inspired the term “femme fatale.”
By 1915, Mata Hari felt too old to continue her dancing career and lavish, exotic lifestyle. She retired to the Netherlands and attempted to lead a normal life by settling down with a man she had met and fallen in love with. This new, quieter life was short-lived, however, when her husband was called into military service during World War I. When Mata Hari found out that he had been injured and was in a hospital in France, she applied for a visa to visit him. The French authorities recognized who she was and decided to offer her a deal: she could have her visa in exchange for spying on the Germans. Desperate to see her husband, she accepted the offer.
She was able to use the connections she had made during her time as a famous courtesan to get close to Prince Wilhelm. Unfortunately, she was unable to get any useful information — it turned out that the prince knew very little about his country’s military strategy and had no real interest in politics. To make matters worse, the Germans found out that Mata Hari was trying to spy on them and forced her into their service.
From this moment, Mata Hari’s fate was sealed. She was now a double-agent — a simple pawn on the chessboard of international politics.
As time went on the French became suspicious and put Mata Hari in charge of a mission that was meant to her expose her. They gave her the names of six double-agents, and when they were executed by the Germans a short time later, the French had the proof they needed. Mata Hari had obviously given the names to the Germans. On February 13, 1917, she was arrested by French authorities.
When news of the arrest reached the press, Mata Hari’s name was all over the headlines. The coverage was relentless — despite having no tangible proof, newspapers fabricated stories and spread lies about her. Although all of the evidence that was submitted at her trial was circumstantial, Mata Hari was still found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
The execution of the “most dangerous of spies” took place on Oct. 15, 1917. Facing death by firing squad, Mata Hari refused to wear the traditional blindfold. Instead, she did something absolutely shocking: she blew a kiss to the firing squad! And then, at the age of 41, her life came to a sudden end.
Mata Hari’s story is fascinating and has left many questions. Historians are still trying to figure out who this enigmatic woman really was. Was she really a dangerous seductress, manipulating powerful men for her own pleasure? Or was she herself a victim of power-hungry political elites? These are only a couple of the many questions that may never be answered.
But one thing is for sure: Mata Hari was a strong and determined woman who managed to make a life and a name for herself on her own terms. And she’ll always be remembered as the first “femme fatale” in history!