“I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I lose, sometimes I win.”
Gertrud Margarete “M’greet” Zelle was born on this day in Leeunwarden, Netherlands in 1876. Today is the 136 anniversary of her birth.
The second of five children, M’greet was the only girl. Her father doted on her calling her “an orchid among buttercups.” She did well in school, especially in langauge classes. She had an active imagination and a flair for the dramatic (her dark hair and eyes and olive skin already marked her as exotic amongst the pale skinned, blond haired Dutch villagers) and was popular with her classmates. She lived happily until her father lost his money, and the family status, in stock market speculations. When her mother died M’greet and the boys were separated and shipped off to relatives willing to look after them. After a short stint training to become a kindergarten teacher she moved to The Hague and stayed with her uncle.
At 5’10” M’greet was taller than the average dutch man. And she was small chested. She also didn’t have any money. Not the most attractive qualities for a young woman in wont of a husband. But she was pretty in an exotic sort of way, she was vivacious, she had style and grace and she planned to make the most of it. She answered an ad that read “Officer on home leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet girl of pleasant character — object matrimony.” The officer the ad referred to was 38 year old Captain Rudolph Macleod, (a friend of his placed the ad with out his knowledge, but he he agreed to meet M’greet and the two fell for each other.) Despite the 20 year difference in their ages the two got married. The marriage proved an unhappy one with Rudolph, an alcoholic, openly taking mistresses and abusing his wife. They moved to Java and Sumatra for his job in the Dutch Colonial Army.
Despite Rudolph’s orders otherwise, M’greet learned to speak Malay. She immersed herself in the culture and joined a local dance company. It was here that she took the artistic pseudonym “Mata Hari” Although the phrase “Mata Hari” has come to mean a kind of femme fatal spy, the term literally means “eye of the day” or “sun”. They had two children, Norman John and Louise Jeanne. While the MacLeods were stationed in Sumatra the children took seriously ill (they were either poisoned or suffered from complications from the treatment of syphilis.) The little boy died.
M’greet and Rudolf’s marriage, already on rocky ground, spiraled downward. When they returned to Amsterdam in 1902 she filed for separation. The Dutch courts, surprisingly, granted her request, gave her custody of little Louise Jeanne and ordered Rudolph to pay 100 guilders a month is support. The support never came. and a bitter Rudolph publicly denounced his “evil” wife for deserting him. With out a means of feeding or clothing her daughter she reluctantly turned the child over to her father. M’greet eked by relying on the kindness of her relatives.
In 1903 she decided to change her life. She moved to Paris and under the name “Lady MacLeod” she performed as a circus horse rider, a dancer and an artist’s model. The Orientalism movement in dance was sweeping Europe and her exotic/erotic style and Java inspired dancing became a hit. The website Mata Hari.com quotes Russell Warren Howe’s book to describe the dance…
…(the) diaphanous shawls she wore as the dance began were cast away to tempt the god until finally…the sarong was abandoned and her silhouette, with her back to the audience, writhed with desire toward her supernatural lover. … All passion spent, she touched her brow to Siva’s feet; one of the attendant dancers tiptoed delicately forward and threw a gold lamé cloth across the kneeling figure, enabling her to rise and take the applause.”
He goes on to say that her overnight success “was pivotal in elevating the striptease to an art form.” She took her act on the road and danced at all the European hot spots and capitals. She was a master of illusion in that she did a striptease without stripping all the way down. She wore a body stocking that matched her own skin color and she never took off her bejeweled bra (which she padded.) She dropped the moniker of “Lady MacLeod” and went as “Mata Hari” reinventing herself as a daughter of Indian temple dancer, raised in the temple of Siva. She became a courtesan and developed relationships with wealthy, powerful men. She had always loved “a man in uniform” and now she had lovers of the highest rank.
It was said that while in The Hague in 1916 she was offered cash by a German consul for information obtained on her next visit to France. Indeed, Mata Hari admitted she had passed old, outdated information to a German intelligence officer when later interrogated by the French intelligence service.
Mata Hari herself claimed she had been paid to act as a French spy in Belgium (then occupied by German forces), although she had neglected to inform her French spymasters of her prior arrangement with the German consul. She was, it seemed, a double agent, if a not very successful one.
While traveling in France she was arrested in Paris on February 13, 1917. She was held Saint-Lazare prison and interrogated on charges of espionage. She maintained her innocence. The trail was held on July 24 & 25. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. On October 15, 1917 she refused a blind fold and faced her execution squad. She blew them a kiss just before the fired.