Mata Hari: Exotic Dancer, Courtesan, Spy

Mata Hari iii

Name at birth: Margaretha Geertruida Zelle

Date of Birth: 7 August 1876

Place of birth: Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Spouse: Cpt. Rudolph John McLeod (m. 1895 – 1907)

Children: Norman-John MacLeod (30 January 1897 – 27 June 1899)
                     Louise Jeanne MacLeod (2 May 1898 – 10 August 1919)

Occupation: Highly questionable…


Mini Mata:

97i/35/huty/8036/02Margaretha Zelle grew up the spoiled daughter of a hat merchant who had become wealthy in the oil industry. However, by the age of 18, her father was bankrupt and her mother had passed away. She and her siblings were sent away to live with various relatives. At the age of 18, Zelle answered a newspaper ad to marry a captain in the Dutch Colonial Army. Zelle and her new husband moved to the Dutch East Indies, where he was stationed. The couple endured a turbulent marriage, fraught with troubles due to McLeod’s excessive drinking, the difference in their ages (some 20 years), and her popularity with other members of his regiment. Zelle and McLeod had two children. Their son died at age two, though history debates whether the cause of death was from syphilitic symptoms inherited from his parents, or poisoning by a wrathful native servant. Their daughter would later die a young woman of a similar illness, leading many to believe syphilis the cause of death for both Zelle’s children.

Exotic Dancer:

While in the Dutch East Indies (the McLeods are believed to have lived on the island of Java), Zelle studied the culture, religion, and dance of her surroundings. When she separated from her husband in 1902, Zelle moved to Paris where she embarked on a number of performance ventures to make ends meet. She performed under the name “Lady McLeod” as a circus performer, bareback rider, and artists model. In 1905 she adopted the stage name “Mata Hari,” which is interpreted “Eye of the Day” or “Sun” in Indonesian and other dialects. Mata Hari gained renown in the salons and dance halls of Paris for her risque exotic dancing. Orientalism and a general European interest in Asiatic and Egyptian lore meant that Mata Hari’s performances were enjoyed by fashionable and enthusiastic audiences.

Mata Hari iiCourtesan:

Mata Hari’s popularity as an exhibitionist on the dance floor also contributed to her popularity in the bedrooms of Paris’s most wealthy and powerful gentlemen.  Her career started to wane around 1912 when younger and prettier dancers began imitating her style. Although Mata Hari was very tall, had small breasts, and was not considered a great classical beauty, her carefree bohemianism made her an attractive lover for high-ranking government and military officials. Her second career allowed her to maintain the standard of living to which she had become accustomed as a famous dancer.


When the First World War broke out, Mata Hari continued her lavish lifestyle as the courtesan of the rich and famous of Paris’s elite. She seemed oblivious to the hardships being endured by war-torn Europe, much to the chagrin of the common people. As a citizen of Holland, which was neutral during WWI, Mata Hari was able travel relatively freely throughout Europe, consorting with important men on both sides of the conflict. In 1914, she signed up as Col Nicolai’s Agent H-17.

Using code-breaking techniques and technology then in their infancy, a British team in the Admiralty’s Room 40 – a precursor to Bletchley Park and GCHQ – intercepted her messages and she was arrested while visiting London, and was questioned by Scotland Yard. Although Mata Hari was then released due to a lack of hard evidence, the Yard tipped off their French counterparts to keep a close eye on her. The French authorities caught up with her at a fancy hotel on the Champs Élysées in February 1917. Brought to trial that autumn after the French army had suffered staggering losses and a mutiny, the authorities were in no mood to show mercy to a woman they accused of causing the deaths of up to 50,000 French soldiers. 

Mata Hari execution

The execution of Mata Hari (1876-1917)


The following is an excerpt of the first-hand account of Mata Hari’s execution by firing squad, as witnessed by British journalist Henry Wales. It was originally published in newspapers through the International News Service on Oct. 19, 1917:

“Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870. The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn. The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target. As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away.

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her. She did not move a muscle. The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air. It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back. Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.”

MATA HARI on film: 1920-present

Mata Hari 1931 poster

MATA HARI (1931) movie poster

Mata Hari Garbo Adrian

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari (gowns by Adrian)

The first film version of the Mata Hari legend was the 1920 German silent picture directed by Ludwig Wolff and starring the sensational European screen siren Asta Nielsen (Garbo once said she learned everything she knew from Nielsen’s acting). The most famous film adaptation of Mata Hari is the Greta Garbo/Ramon Navarro movie MATA HARI (1931). Although the film is an extreme romanticization of the experiences of the real Mata Hari, it is definitely a classic work of cinema. The costumes by Adrian are stunning, and MGM’s super star casting brough such personas as Lionel Barrymore and Louis Stone, in addition to the two headliners. Francois Truffaut wrote a steamy but corny romance/drama starring Jeanne Moreau called MATA HARI AGENT H 21 (1964). Curtis Harrington’s MATA HARI (1985) was also panned by critics and viewers for being nothing more than a soft porn fictional account of Mata Hari’s exploits. 

Apparently, David Carradine has been working with his daughter Calista since 1977 on a film proposed to cover Mata Hari’s entire life, from childhood to her death by execution. According to some sources, the movie is set to be released December 2015. It seems a very odd father/daughter project – especially with the nudity and sexuality implied in the subject matter. Read more about Carradine’s MATA HARI (2014).

???????????????????????????????????????????????????Final Analysis

Mata Hari Garbo

Greta Garbo as MATA HARI (1931)

Mata Hari has often been touted as a proto-feminist of the same brand as Mae West and her ilk. Although it is certainly important for women to have %100 ownership of their own bodies, including the right to consent to and initiate sexual activity, sexual promiscuity is not a quality that uplifts either sex. It is evident that Mata Hari lived life to the fullest, but it remains to be seen whether her espionage activities are the result of a highly active intellect or the lack of it. I also have to wonder whether her popularity reflects her talent as a dancer or the degrading desperation of a woman who was forced to go to extreme lengths to maintain her extravagant standard of living, even in the teeth of cruel war. As more of the records of Mata Hari’s wartime activities become public, we will continue to learn more about this very real woman who has captured the imaginations of movie-makers and theatre audiences for decades.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????Read more about the real Mata Hari

The female spies whose lives made fiction look tame

Mata Hari on

Mata Hari on

Mata Hari on

Review of MATA HARI (1931) on “A Person in the Dark” blog

This post is written in conjunction with the World War One in Classic Film blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently and Silent-ology.


4 thoughts on “Mata Hari: Exotic Dancer, Courtesan, Spy

Comments are closed.