Margaretha Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. She was the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen. Her father was a successful hatter.
She attended a teachers’ college in Leiden. In 1895 she married a Scottish officer named Captain Rudolph MacLeod, and from 1897 to 1902 they lived in Java and Sumatra. The couple returned to Europe but later separated, and she began to dance professionally in Paris in 1905.
She soon began touring all over Europe, telling the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari, meaning “eye of the day” in Malay. She and MacLeod divorced in 1906. Her beauty and willingness to strip nude in her shows made her extremely popular. She packed dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France.
She eventually became a famous courtesan, and the outbreak of World War I enabled her to have numerous lovers, including high-ranking military officers of various nationalities.
Her espionage activities began around spring of 1916, while she was living in The Hague, a German consul is said to have offered to pay her for whatever information she could obtain on her next trip to France. Mata Hari supposedly stated she had agreed to act as a French spy in German-occupied Belgium and neglected to tell French intelligence of her prior arrangement with the Germans. She had intended to secure for the Allies the assistance of Ernest Augustus, duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in Germany and heir to the dukedom of Cumberland in the British peerage.
The French began to suspect her of espionage, and on Feb. 13, 1917, she was arrested in Paris. She acknowledged only that she had given some outdated information to a German intelligence officer. They claimed she was indirectly responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Secret ink was found in her hotel room, which she claimed was makeup. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. She wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris, claiming her innocence. “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else …. Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself”. On October 15 she refused a blindfold and at the age of 41 she was shot to death by a firing squad at Vincennes.
Her innocence has been questioned for years. Many believe she was just a innocent woman with a fondness of men in uniform, who became a scapegoat. Others believe she was the first real femme fatale double agent. Whatever the truth her story is a sad strange tale.