Mata Hari - the name alone sounds like oriental mystery, seduction and espionage. The girl behind the name was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in the Frisian town of Leeuwarden, and has turned into a legend.
She was born in 1876 as the first child of a hatter and oil-invester. She grew up in wealth, and being the first daughter she was shamelessly spoiled by her father. She would go around in fancy dresses, and be an outsider because of her flamboyant appearance. However, her father's company went bankrupt when Margaretha was 13, and soon after her parents separated. In 1891, Margaretha's mother died, and the family fell apart. Her father went to Amsterdam to live with his second wife and the children were sent to live with other family members.
She started studying to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden, and it was there that she learned she was sexually attractive to men: the school's headmaster helplessly fell for her. When a scandal broke out, Margaretha was dismissed from the school and went to live with her uncle in The Hague. At the age of 18, she saw an advertisement in the newspaper that was placed by friends of Rudolf MacLeod, a captain stationed in the Dutch East Indies who was - according to his friends - in desperate need of a wife. Margaretha answered the ad and enclosed a photograph, expecting that her beauty would convince him to choose her. He was twenty years her senior, but she understood that the captain would secure her the financial status she had known as a child, but had missed after her father's bankruptcy. The two got married soon after. She now was a member of the upper class, but because she had to live in the tropics, she hardly had any benefit of that. They got two children, Jeanne and Norman. The latter got poisoned at the age of 2,5, supposedly by medicines against syphilis. Because of Rudolf's rude character and Margaretha's troubles to get used to the Indies, the marriage did not work out. In 1902 they moved back to The Hague and got separated soon after; Rudolf took Jeanne with him. Margaretha was left alone without family, money or a proper education.
She did not know what to do and where to go, but then traveled to Paris to try to start anew. She was in her mid-twenties and on the top of her beauty, and so she started earning her pocket money as a horse rider in the circus and as a model for the several artists stationed in the French capital. Then she learned that exoticism was immensely popular, and decided to adopt what she had observed in the Indies to a stage show - as an exotic dancer. She took the stage name 'Mata Hari', which means 'eye of the day' in Malay. Also, she spread fictional stories about her background, like that she was a princess from Java. It may have been mere lies, but it worked: Mata Hari grew popular over night. She had liaisons with several wealthy men, traveled and performed throughout Europe, was invited to the most exclusive parties and was photographed hundreds of times.
But sudden popularity barely ever lasts. After five years, criticism rose: critics claimed Mata Hari couldn't dance and that she was popular only because she performed nearly naked (indeed, on many photographs she is displayed with only jewelry and beads hiding her breasts). But even when her success as an exotic dancer was over in 1915, she had installed herself as a courtesan and thus had relationships with rich and powerful men - including men who were influential in the First World War, that had broken out in 1914. She traveled between France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, and attracted attention by doing so. Even if The Netherlands were neutral in the war, British authorities interrogated her and she eventually admitted that she was working as a spy for the French. If this was true or just one of her invented stories to make her sound more intriguing, we do not know.
In 1917, however, the French intercepted a message that a military attaché in Madrid had sent to Berlin. They could easily decode that message, since it was written in a code language that had already been decrypted. The officer wrote that he had received valuable information from a spy named H-21; and the French identified the spy as Mata Hari. Because the message had been sent in an already decrypted code language - and the Germans knew that - it has long been suggested that the message was a fake to mislead the French. Although Mata Hari denied she had been spying and her international relations were only the consequence of her career as an international dancer. But the French authorities were convinced of her guilt and put her to trial. After a very short process, she was found guilty of gathering intelligence for Germany and the death of 50,000 soldiers and sentenced to death. On October 15th, 1917, she was executed by firing squad.
German documents found in the 1970s finally shed light on the case: proof was found that Mata Hari was hired by the Germans in 1915. She thus indeed had been a spy, although she'd never delivered crucial information.