Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland in the Netherlands, the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle on 2 October 1840.
At 18, she answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by a man looking for a wife. Margaretha married Dutch Colonial Army officer Rudolf John MacLeod They moved to Java in the Dutch East Indies and had two children.
The disenchanted Margaretha abandoned him temporarily, moving in with Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. For months, she studied the Indonesian traditions intensively, joining a local dance company. In 1897, she revealed her artistic name: Mata Hari, Indonesian for "sun" (literally, "eye of the day").
In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider, using the name Lady MacLeod. Struggling to earn a living, she also posed as an artist's model and exotic dancer.
Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, she captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on 13 March 1905. She posed as a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood.
Although the claims made by her about her origins were fictitious, the act was spectacularly successful because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status, and so broke new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous. Her style and her free-willed attitude made her a very popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing.
On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her.
Secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her make-up. She was found guilty and was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.
The fact that a former exotic dancer had been executed as a spy immediately provoked many unsubstantiated rumours. One is that she blew a kiss to her executioners, although it is possible that she blew a kiss to her lawyer and former lover Edouard Clunet, present at the execution. Her dying words were purported to be "Merci, monsieur". Another rumour claims that, in an attempt to distract her executioners, she flung open her coat and exposed her naked body.
"Harlot, yes, but traitor, never," she is reported to have said.
The idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent, using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers fired the popular imagination, set the legend and made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale.
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