They say she didn’t flinch. Not even once.  Not when she was arrested at Hotel l Plaza Athénée in Paris. Not when she was interrogated and accused of being a double agent. Not when she was carted from the Saint-Lazare prison to a nondescript automobile to face the firing squad.

She was neither bound nor blindfolded, as per her wishes.  As twelve rifles aimed at a lone woman in front of them, she did not move a muscle. Her life had been one hell of a roller-coaster ride and it was finally coming to an end. Henry Wales, a British journalist who was present at the execution reported that Mata Hari did not even put her arms up in defense. She collapsed on her knees without the slightest change of expression on her face. The lieutenant who oversaw the execution walked up to the body, placed his revolver on her temple and shot a bullet to make sure she was dead.

Straight out of an Ian Fleming novel, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known as Mata Hari began her life just like any other woman living in the 1850s. After responding to a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper, Margaretha married Rudolf McLeod at the age of 18. The marriage was significant as McLeod was from an elite Dutch upper class. They moved to the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies where she gave birth to two children.  Over the years, McLeod turned into a frustrated alcoholic who openly kept a native wife as well as a concubine. Margaretha began to immerse herself in the local Indonesian traditions and culture to escape her daily troubles. She joined a local dance company and began to call herself Mata Hari , Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”).

After the death of her son, the family decided to move back to Holland where their marriage collapsed and Rudolf fought ruthlessly for the custody of their daughter. Margaretha moved to Paris where she reinvented her image and began to first work as a circus horse rider then as an artist’s model.  By 1905, she began to perform as an exotic dancer, where she permanently adopted the name Mata Hari. She soon began to be the center of attraction with her seductive dances and exotic personality. In interviews to reporters, she would tell long tales of her origins; she was a Javanese princess of Hindu birth, a daughter of a Baron who was actually a Brahman priest.  She would occasionally talk in Malay to add to her mystique.

The modern art of strip tease owes much to her talent. One of her main reasons for widespread popularity was her willingness to appear nude during stage shows. She danced in private theaters, salons, ballets and operas.  The carefree, provocative way in which she would gradually shed her clothes until she wore nothing but a jeweled bra and some ornaments made her spectacularly successful.  Mata Hari was responsible for elevating the status of exotic dancing which was till then seen as  uncouth and uncivilized. Her style and attitude made her popular among the Europe’s wealthiest circles.

As the popularity of her shows began to die down, she tuned into a courtesan, having ‘courted’ many high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries, including the German Crown Prince, all of whom funded her luxurious lifestyle.

As World War II broke out, her promiscuity was considered to be dangerous and her appeal as a free-spirited artist and Bohemian began to die down.  Cultural institutes all over Europe were apprehensive of her talents as a dancer and attributed her success to cheap theatrics and exhibitionist tactics.

Because of her relationships with powerful men in the military, Mata Hari enjoyed certain perks; she was for instance able to travel freely across national borders. In 1916, while she was traveling from France to Netherlands, she was arrested en route by British officials who interrogated her at length on charges of espionage. She was accused of working with the French but later, sources revealed that she confessed falsely in order to make herself seem more intriguing. After being placed under surveillance for several months, she was arrested as soon as she reached Paris, charged with being a German spy. She was put on trial and accused of causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Neither the British nor the French had definite evidence against her. However, both the parties were convinced that she was spying for Germany.   It was only after 68 years that the case file was opened again which clearly revealed that Mata Hari was truly innocent.

Last picture of Mata Hari - just before her execution

It is hard to find individuals who go against the mainstream, but Mata Hari did it with style. Flamboyant, flirtatious and a true femme fatal,  Mata Hari is still ranked as one of the top 10 spies of the world even though she never was one.


  • St.Jimmy

    a couple of inaccuracies: 1870s-80s and World War 1

    • Aniket Dasgupta