Home » international news » A century after her death Mata Hari's enigma lives on

A century after her death Mata Hari's enigma lives on

Priyanka Chharia | Updated on: 14 October 2017, 15:23 IST
Dutch spy and dancer Mari Hari, pseudonym of Margaretha Geertruide MacLeod nee Zelle, (1876 - 1917). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 15 October, 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle -- famous as Mata Hari -- was executed by France. The Dutch dancer was charged with episonage during the years preceding World War I. In the 100 years in between she has become a cult of sort. Here’s a look-back at her challenging life.

Portrait of the famous dancer MATA HARI wearing a feather in her hair, around 1900. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)


Zelle, as she was known to friends and family, faced a series of unfortunate events in her childhood. Her parents had a failed marriage; soon after the death of her mother she was forced to fend for herself, often staying with her godfather and other male relatives.

Things changed for Zelle soon after she replied to a marriage advertisement in the local paper. Married to a Dutch Colonial Army Captain named Rudolf MacLeod, who was 20 years her senior, Zelle moved to the Dutch East Indies, present day Indonesia, where her finances and social standing improved considerably.

Mata Hari, pseudonym of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876-1917), Dutch dancer and spy. Postcard. Paris, Hôtel Carnavalet. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)


Eventualy, however, Zelle’s marriage did not work out and she was on her own again. She decided to move to Paris and continue with dancing, a skill she picked up in Indonesia. Her chosen stage name, which translates into ‘the light of the day’ in Malay, soon became her primary identity.

By 1905, Mata Hari gained widespread popularity and a number of loyal admirers in Paris. Her enigmatic Javanese dance moves, which were exotic and mysterious to the Parisians, were much loved and appreciated.

In fact, “By the time she was executed by the French for espionage in 1917, she was perhaps the most famous non-royal in Europe if not the world,” the Washington Times wrote in a book review published in 2007.

Portrait of Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari (1876 - 1917) (FPG/Getty Images)


During one of her performances in Berlin, Mata Hari was offered 20,000 francs by one of her patrons who happened to be a member of the German police. Owing to her erratic financial condition, she took up the offer and agreed to spy on the French.

However, at the same time, she went to the French and offered to be a double agent. In 1917, the French identified her as the German agent H 21, and she was arrested on grounds of being a counterspy.

Hand colored postcard of Mata Hari performing the 'Danse Indienne' taken by Paul Boyer in 1907. (Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)


Mata Hari was executed on the morning of 15 October, in the Eastern Parisian suburb of Vincennes. When asked to be blindfolded by the French police, she refused and instead, blew kisses to her enforcers.

Her life became an inspiration for filmmakers, writers and artists alike. Some of the most popular representations include the 1931 Hollywood film about the life of Mata Hari that starred Great Garbo and Paulo Coelho’s book titled ‘The Spy’ that was released in 2016.

Her story of a fragile, vulnerable, yet extremely independent and self-made woman is a story that will always be remembered by women all over the world. A thorn in the burdensome patriarchal crown, Mata Hari was a woman ahead of her times.

World War I, Circa 1914, Mata Hari, the famous Dutch World War I spy, is pictured in a provocative pose. (Popperfoto/Getty Images)
First published: 14 October 2017, 15:20 IST