Born August 7, 1876
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle--the woman who will become the Mata Hari--is born in 1876 in Holland. She is the daughter of a well-to-do hatter, and at age 19, in 1895, she marries a Dutch army captain of Scottish descent, Rudolf Campbell McLeod. Zelle travels with him through Java and Sumatra; gathering experiences that will help mold her view of the "exotic" and of Indonesian dance. The couple have two children, but is divorced upon their return to Europe in 1902. Her son is believed to have died after a poisoning by their nanny, and custody of her daughter is awarded to her ex-husband.
In 1905 Zelle moves to Paris, where she becomes a professional erotic dancer. Her stage name--Mata Hari--is derived from Malayan mata (eye) and hari (day, or dawn; sun); she is thus the "eye of the dawn" or "eyes of the days" or "the Sun". Her name is frequently misspelled Mati Hari and sometimes prefixed with a "the": The Mata Hari. She claims to journalists that she originated in Indonesia, where she learned the sacred dances in Buddhist temples. Certainly some of her costume influences come from the sarong of that region.
In Paris Mata Hari becomes an star in the emerging dance theater of the period. Photographer Stanislaus Julian Walery documents her fantastic costumes for a postcard series in 1906 (MH190610). Her supple body, freedom of movement, and willingness to appear nearly nude on stage (at a time when such behavior is rare) contributes to her rapid success. She is especially famous for her very low-riding waistlines that expose vast tracts of her belly (MH190710, MH190810).
Her career begins at Emile Guimet's Museum, where she performed her "Siva Dance," a striptease which uses shawls that are gradually peeled away in a very provocative way. She knows novelist and fellow dancer Colette who wrote, "She hardly danced, but she knew how to slowly remove her clothes." Beside Walery, the bejeweled dancer is photographed by Boyer in 1907 (again, MH190710), Leopold-Emile Reutlinger (MH19XX10), and many others (MH191210). Her Arabesque Dance of the Seven Veils and her metal bras and lavish costumes attract particular attention (MH190810). She is knows to have posed both topless (MH191110) and bottomless (MH191010). She is also famous for her hats (MH19YY10). Many of her images are hand-colored.
The Double Agent
Mata Hari's fame brings her to the various capitals of Europe at a time when the First World War is erupting. Her many liasons with army officers--French and German--fuel her reputation as a demi-monde (MH191605). After the war breaks out her fame makes it easy for her to continue to travel between France and Germany, a situation that ultimately leads to her downfall.
Even today many details of her career as a spy remain clouded. In 1916 she is recruited by the French Secret Service to mingle with the Germans and find out as much as she can. The French assume that the Mata Hari's loose sexual behavior can be used as a "honey trap" for unsuspecting German officers. But later that year, in The Hague, British Intelligence discovers she is being paid by the Germans. They question and release her, and inform French intelligence. When she tries to cross the French border on February 13, 1917 to visit one of her lovers, she is arrested by the French Secret Service (MH191710). She is imprisoned, interrogated intensely, and eventually breaks down and confesses to being a German spy, known under the pseudonym of H21.
At this point her fate is sealed. Whipped on by a hysterical press, the military stage a showcase, two day, trial in July for "one of the greatest spies of the century, responsible for the death of tens of thousands of soldiers." The military court finds her guilty and condemns her to death by a firing squad.
Her guilt is debated to this day. Some claim she was nothing more than a beautiful scapegoat for enjoying an expensive life style of "negotiable virtue," Others think she was a duplicitous double agent who used her "way with men" to advance her own greed. But after nine months living in nothing but a prison gown, the once-commanding dancer is executed by firing squad on October 15th, 1917 in Vincennes near Paris. The Mata Hari is 41 years old.
Mata Hari's story is immortalized in the movie Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo and Ramon Navarro in 1932 (GG3110), in which Garbo, like Mata Hari before her, dances in elaborate and often skimpy costumes--although never as skimpy as the original!
Mata Hari brings the dance of Indonesia to Europe.