Probably the grandest woman spy of the 20th century, Mata Hari wasn’t just an espionage agent. She was also a daughter, wife, mother, but most importantly, a significant rule-breaker in women’s history.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in 1876. Her father, Adam Zelle, was a hat-shop owner. He supported his daughter of pretty looks in her flamboyance, thanks to which she later became famous. Also, he had investments in the oil industry. However, when Margaretha was a teenager, Adam Zelle went bankrupt, and so, the parents got divorced. Two years after, she lost her mother and was sent to live with her relatives.
Despite the trouble, she enrolled at a university and studied to be a teacher. Nevertheless, she was accused of having an affair with the headmaster of the institute and was expelled. Desperate to regain respect and funds, she answered a newspaper ad from a soldier named Rudolf John MacLeod. He had just returned from the Dutch East India, today’s Indonesia, and was looking to meet and marry a girl of a pleasant character,’ whom she doubtlessly was. They got engaged a couple of days after they had met.
But instead of a paradisiacal life in wealth in the exotic colonies, there was a marriage of misery. MacLeod was a violent alcoholic with enormous debts and various sexual affairs. While the couple was on their way to the Dutch East India in 1897 with their baby son Norman-John, Zelle discovered her husband had given her syphilis. They had a second child in 1898, a daughter called Louise Jeanne. However, the marriage remained unfulfilled.
In 1899, both children fell seriously ill, probably from congenital syphilis. The disease was treated with toxic mercury, and it is believed that the base doctor overdosed the babies while he was actually trying to save them. Their two-year-old son succumbed to the mercury overdose. Consequently, MacLeod was demoted and sent to a much smaller, remote station. Was that because of infidelity?
Later, the couple moved back to the Netherlands. Yet, in 1902, they got separated. Margaretha was granted custody of the little Louise Jeanne.
The correspondence with MacLeod’s cousin Edward revealed she was determined to keep her daughter. But the then poor career prospects for women left her with no other choice. She unwillingly returned Louise Jeanne to her father and set off to Paris to find a better life. ‘I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris,’ she added.
She then confessed that she was lost without her daughter but refused to reconcile with her ex-husband. With a heavy heart, she left both the past and Louise Jeanne behind.
As a single woman in a big city during the Edwardian era, Mata Hari first earned a living by giving language and piano lessons. She also modeled for Montmartre painters such as Edouard Bisson, Octave Denis Victor Guillonnet, and Fernand Cormon. It is where she most likely made the first contact with the theatre.
A friend of hers recommended that she try dancing in a salon for an audience of novelty-seeking culturati. And so, there she appeared as the famous Mata Hari — a stage name derived from Malay words for ‘sunrise’ or the ‘eye of the day.’ Revealing costumes, jeweled head-pieces, and breastplates. Nothing less, and nothing more. Surprisingly, her performances were not perceived as indecent.
She herself presented the shows as ‘a sacred poem’ which included ‘three stages that correspond to the divine attributes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—creation, fecundity, destruction.’ No wonder that she soon turned into a hit. Not only in Paris but also in all major European cities, such as Moscow, Berlin, or Madrid.
She became a desired female companion among the Parisian high-society. Naturally gifted in charm and foreign languages, she was offered a significant amount of money to spy on the French. And that became lethal to her.