Margaretha “Greta” Zelle was a beauty. She tried her hand at respectability, and at 18, she answered an advertisement for a wife in the local paper. In 1895, she married Captain Rudolf McLeod, a hard-drinking, womanizing Dutch army officer who was 21 years her senior. He was posted to the Dutch East Indies, and Greta went with him. Greta’s infatuation with the older McLeod cooled, and she longed for Europe, specifically for Paris. In 1902, they returned to Amsterdam, and McLeod promptly deserted her and reverted to alcoholism and flagrant womanizing. She was granted a divorce, and headed for Paris.
Arriving in Paris with her beauty as her only asset, she was determined to make her own way in this world, despite the men who offered her extravagant gifts for her favors. At the advice of a friend, she decided to try dancing. Paris was in the grips of the Bohemian movement and a craze for all things Oriental was sweeping the city. Greta’s experiences in the East Indies allowed her to create an exotic legend for herself. According the the Encyclopedia of World Biography:
“In the beginning, she told people that she was the daughter of a Javanese Buddhist priest and a Dutch woman. Her parentage then changed to an important Dutch colonial official and a local woman. But when it came time for her initial performance she billed herself as “Lady MacLeod,” whose father was British aristocracy and her mother an Indian who had had her trained as a Hindu temple dancer. As Russell Warren Howe described it in Mata Hari: The True Story, Margaretha had no trouble redefining her experience, as some Europeans confused the Dutch East Indies with India.”
At her debut, at the home of a former singer, she met M. Emile Guimet, the proprietor of the Musee Guimet, an oriental art museum. He invited her to dance at the museum while shrewdly observing that neither her original name nor her newly acquired “aristocratic” stage name were authentic enough for a Hindu temple dancer. After some discussion she came up with the name Mata Hari. The name translates to “light of the day” or “eye of the day,” meaning the sun or dawn.
At her opening performance, she dressed in clothing from the museum’s collection, mostly gauzy and transparent shawls that she stripped away as her dance became more erotic. The culmination of her performance was a simulated sex act with a statue of Siva, the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction. The Parisian audience, always proudly on the cutting edge of modernism, had never seen anything like Mata Hari before. They adored her. She ruled Paris for the next nine years, as Europe’s most famous dancer and courtesan. She took her lovers from the ranks of politicians and high ranking military officers, royalty and the arts, and constantly managed to mesmerize and scandalize audiences until the eve of World War I.
With the world in turmoil, our Greta was fully aware that she was not getting any younger. At the age of 40, she watched as younger women took the stage and did what she had done, only better. She needed to reinvent herself. It appears that she may have offered her services as a spy for Germany, but, a romance with a Russian officer caused her to change her allegiance. She was instead drafted by the French intelligence officer, Captain Ladoux, to gather information from the Germans. Greta was unaware of the seriousness of the game she was playing. The German officers in whose beds she sought information, were suspicious and gave her misleading intelligence. The French, who needed a scapegoat, used this information to accuse her of being a double agent. They claimed that she cost the lives of 50,000 French soldiers. They produced circumstantial, and some blatantly manufactured evidence to try her as a traitor. They sentenced her to death, in spite of a plea from the Queen of the Netherlands to free her.
Although history and popular culture have long reinforced the romantic, infamous version of the Mata Hari story, by the end of the twentieth century, many historians had come to believe that she was at worst an inept spy, possibly not a spy at all, but certainly a victim of her own fame.
In October, 1917, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad for being a lousy spy, but a truly infamous Tart of the Week.