She was born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876. At the age of 18 she answered a newspaper ad that was looking for a bride for Rudolf MacLeod- a very bald military captain that was 21 years older. She sent a racy photo of herself – and on July 11, 1895 the were married. They had two children, a daughter and son. But the son was died in 1899 after a household worker poisoned him- this case is a complete mystery and there is very little information explaining “why.” After a rocky nine years of drinking and jealousy, MacLeod left with their daughter.
Mata Hari moved to Paris and began supporting herself by working as an exotic dancer. It was then that she began billing herself as a Hindu Artist and danced partially nude, covered in beads and draped in silk scarves. Clearly, this was a hit. She had managed to turn a strip tease into an art form. A reporter in Vienna wrote “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” Whoa. Sounds like a whole lot of jiggling to me. Anyway…
As she became older, and replaced by younger dancers, Mata Hari turned to a different way to support herself, she was now a mistress for government and military men- including German officers. This was just as tension was building in Europe- the years leading up to WWI. Because of her extreme “country-hopping” the British and French governments put her under surveillance. At the age of 40, and madly in love with an injured 21-year old Russian soldier, (hellooooo Mrs. Robinson) she took a lucrative assignment to spy for France.
The spy gig did NOT work out- the Germans knew what she was up to and sent false messages and set her up to be suspected of being a double agent. She was arrested by French authorities and tossed in a rat-infested cell at the Prison Saint-Lazare. During her interrogation, she confessed that a German diplomat paid her 20,000 francs to gather intelligence in Paris. She swore she never actually went through with it and used the money for furs and luggage.
It is widely believed that this desperate woman was set up in many ways by both sides and used as a scape goat for war propaganda. There are many, many holes in the story and in the actual court case- evidence was tampered with, key witnesses were never called to testify, etc. She was executed by firing range on October 15, 1917- before they killed her, she ripped off her blindfold, faced her executioners and blew them a kiss.
There are a lot of biographies and a movie starring Greta Garbo- the reading is riveting. Here are some links to articles on this fascinating woman: