Mata Hari

The cartoon short, “Plane Daffy” exposed me to a twisted version of history. I was only ten-years-old, but I knew that particular Daffy Duck episode was World War Two propaganda. I later learned that the villainess of the story was a parody of Mata Hari, and that her cartoon appearance applied to the wrong war. The real Mata Hari was a much more complex and interesting person than the Warner Brothers’ depiction made her out to be.

MataHari-02Margaretha Zelle was born August 7, 1876 in the Dutch city, Leeuwarden, Netherlands. She was the eldest child of Adam and Antje Zelle. Margaretha was spoiled by her successful father, who owned a hat shop and had invested smartly. She was able to attend exclusive schools until the age of 13. In 1889, Adam became bankrupt, then in 1891 Margaretha’s mother died.

After the breakup of the family, Margaretha was sent to a teacher training school by her godfather. However, a scandal ensued when the headmaster of the school became fascinated by the 15-year-old girl. Margaretha left the school, then moved in with her uncle, in The Hague.

At age 18, Margaretha became engaged to Rudolph MacLeod. The two had met as the result of a practical joke. MacLeod’s friend had placed a bogus “lonely heart” ad in the local newspaper to prank the officer on leave from the Dutch East Indies. John and Margaretha married two years later. The couple lived most of their married life in Indonesia under tight financial conditions, social isolation, and tropical heat. One of their two children died after a poisoning at age two. The family returned to Holland in 1902 then, the couple separated.

Margaretha had no husband nor income and needed a fresh start.  She decided to live in Paris. She parlayed her knowledge of Indonesian culture to create an exotic persona. She used her imagination to become a seductive dancer who wore flashy jewelry, sprinkled her speech with Malay phrases, and wore provocative clothing or next to nothing. She was an overnight success following her dancing debut in March of 1905 in a Parisian salon, Musée Guimet.

Margaretha adopted her stage name, Mata Hari, which is Malayan for “Eye of the Day”, the Sun. At the same time, she weaved a fictional back story for her self-promotion. Margaretha told interviewers and reporters that she was the daughter of a Hindu baron, a Javanese princess. Margaretha became the long-time mistress of Musée Guimet owner and industrialist Émile Guimet.

Even though Mata Hari’s stories about her youth were bogus, she continued to weave ever more fanciful tales. Her style was MataHari-01groundbreaking, even for Paris. Her free-willed, provocative personality led to her popularity and eventual global fame. As her popularity expanded, Mata Hari attended prestigious parties, traveled extensively, and acquired several military lovers.

Just prior to the Great War (WW I), Mata Hari performed the final show of her career, in March of 1915. Her youthful appearance had begun to wane, and she had gained more weight.  Her life as a courtesan had started to take center stage. Mata Hari had relationships and affairs with politicians, high-ranking military officers, and other wealthy men. The lovers brought her across international borders, frequently. As European, political tensions increased, some people in the intelligence services began to view Mata Hari as a potential danger.

Because the Netherlands declared neutrality during the war, Zelle could cross borders freely as a Dutch subject. Her movements between Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Britain attracted special attention from the authorities. She was a passenger on a ship from Spain in 1916. When the steamer docked at Falmouth, England, Mata Hari was arrested. She was interrogated about suspected counter-espionage, at New Scotland Yard. Mata Hari claimed she was an agent for French Intelligence and was released from custody.

In January of 1917, French Intelligence operatives intercepted several radio messages to Berlin. The communications described the friendly activities of a German spy, H-21. The French agents decoded the messages and determined that agent H-21 was one and the same as Mata Hari.

Mata Hari was arrested at her suite at the Hotel Elysée Palace, Paris, on February 13, 1917. She was charged with spying for the enemy and indirectly causing death for more than 50,000 soldiers.


No solid evidence could be found to back up the Allied claims, aside from some supposed “secret ink” found in her makeup case. Her defense attorney, Edouard Clunet was denied permission to interrogate his own witnesses and the prosecution’s witnesses directly. In what amounted to a “kangaroo court”, her conviction was inevitable. On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was brought to Vincennes, Paris, then shot to death by firing squad.

Mata Hari’s short obituary in the “New York Times” described her as a woman of great attractiveness with a romantic history. Much of the public is still fascinated with the mystery and intrigue surrounding Mata Hari. Her story gave birth to many books, and movies. Most famously, the 1931 movie “Mata Hari” which starred Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro.

The truth behind the espionage charges, was revealed in German documents unsealed in the 1970s. Several papers show that Mata Hari  was employed by the German services. Her reports were relayed to Berlin by the Kriegsnachrichtenstelle West in Düsseldorf. Other sources originated from the German embassy in Madrid. Her supervisor was a Captain Hoffman, the agent who assigned her code name H-21.

1984aThe Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Mata Hari. “The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in cultural highlights, Entertainment, History, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mata Hari

  1. Hariod Brawn says:

    Fascinating article Jay; I was previously in complete ignorance about this woman other than being familiar with her name of course.

    [P.S. typo: ‘freindly’]

  2. Lynn says:

    I just looked up Mata Hari fot the spelling in response to an answer for a crossword puzzle. I always knew she was a woman of great intrigue, but did not know her background history. She sounds like a brave and intelligent woman, someone I would like to know! Thanks for the info!

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