Happy Birthday Blog: Mata Hari

Happy Birthday Blog: Mata Hari

Margaretha Geertriuda Zelle AKA Mata Hari

Born: August 7, 1876

Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Known For: Exotic Dancer and Suspected Spy

Mata Hari is one of those names of famous women we all know. If you had asked me before I wrote this blog, I would have told you she was famous for her sexuality, without any specific reference. As is the case with most women reduced to tropes, there is much more than meets the eye.

Having read all about her life, and death, it appears to me that Mata spent her life trying to find adventure, and trying to survive as an unmarried woman. She left the Netherlands at 18, seeking adventure by answering a newspaper ad from a Dutch Colonial Army Captain stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Their marriage was difficult and Margaretha found herself divorced by her mid-twenties.

Living in Paris she worked as a circus horse rider and artist’s model. However, it was her invention of her alter ego Mata Hari, an exotic dancer, which propelled her rise to fame. For the better part of 10 years, she danced and became a successful courtesan to influential men throughout the capital city.

After the start of the war, she fell in love with a young Russian officer who was injured on the front. In exchange for the right to visit him at hospital, Mata was asked to spy for the French. Here’s where the story becomes even trickier.

The recent release of documents on the centenary of her death show that he was arrested by French authorities in 1917 on the suspicion of being a double agent. There is little evidence that she even spied for the French, much less also gathered information for the Germans. Most historians claim that Mata was an inconsequential spy, who was used as a scapegoat. Rumors abound that she was set up by the French and the Germans.

Regardless of her actual role, she was arrested, tried, and sentenced for espionage, even though most of her trial relied on information of her role as an ‘immoral’ woman as opposed to a spy. Mata was executed by a French firing squad after 8 months imprisonment.

We may never know her actual role as a spy, though it seems quite evident that her life as a dancer and courtesan certainly influenced her prosecution. Made famous through pop culture depictions, she’s often classified as an archetype of a ‘femme fatale.’ From the limited research I conducted for this blog, it’s clear that her situation was much more complex.

Dr. D and I salute Mata for her bravery and sense of adventure and wish her a happy birthday!

You can read more about her fascinating story here.

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