Home / Arts & Life / Femme Fatale, Fallen Woman, Spy: Looking for the Real Mata Hari

Femme Fatale, Fallen Woman, Spy: Looking for the Real Mata Hari

In early 1917, Ladoux later arrested and interrogated Zelle, and garnered what he took as a confession: She admitted to taking money from the Germans, though she firmly denied having ever provided them with any useful espionage. On Oct. 14, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad. Newspaper reports described her as refusing to wear a blindfold and blowing kisses to the soldiers who raised their rifles against her.

Now, 100 years after the execution, the archives of her interrogation and trial have been opened to the public, and her complicated, extraordinary life is being reassessed and commemorated in the Netherlands, the country that she tried to leave behind at age 19. The Museum of Friesland in Leeuwarden is staging a biographical exhibition devoted to her life, while the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam is reprising a contemporary ballet, “Mata Hari,” which premiered in 2016 to great popular success. A theater piece focused on her mysterious life and performed by the singer and actor Tet Rozendal is also touring the country.

“Her story is still relevant in that she’s a woman who does not conform to society’s norms, and to anyone else’s ideas,” said Ted Brandsen, the managing director of the Dutch National Ballet. “She’s really about female transgression: She breaks through the limits of respectability.”

The commemorations in the Netherlands all attempt to separate the myth of Mata Hari from the truth of Margaretha Zelle’s life. But Zelle often presented herself as someone else from somewhere else — as Mata Hari, the exotic princess from the East — and her compatriots have had an uneasy relationship with her persona ever since.


Young Gyu Choi, top, and Anna Tsygankova in “Mata Hari,” at the Dutch National Ballet in 2016.

Marc Haegeman

“Almost everyone here knew that she got famous through exotic dancing, and people here didn’t like that,” said Klaas Zandberg, the coordinator of the Leeuwarden Historical Center, an archive in the city where Zelle was born in 1876 and lived until she was 18. He said many locals “still think that she’s some kind of whore who still gets too much attention.”

Mr. Brandsen said that she still commands fascination: “Ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of the seats” for each performance of the ballet were sold in 2016, he said.

Although her childhood was spent in a prosperous household, her father, a hat merchant and speculator, lost all his money when she was 14. A series of tragic events followed: Her parents divorced, her mother died, her father left her with relatives and that didn’t go well. At 18, she answered a newspaper ad from a 39-year-old captain in the Dutch colonial army, met him for a date and married him five months later.

Zelle’s husband, Rudolph MacLeod, took her with him to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where she learned some Javanese dance and had two children. Her son died suddenly at age 3, possibly from mercury poisoning by a nanny. The couple divorced; when her husband refused to pay alimony, she left her daughter with him and found ways to support herself.

In 1903, she moved to Paris. Later, when asked why, she is reported to have said, “I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went there.” She was equally saucy and vague about her personal history once she transformed herself into Mata Hari.

Although today’s exotic dancers are associated with grimy clubs, Mata Hari’s sensational premiere took place at the Musée Guimet in Paris, an art institution where it was seen by upper-crust socialites, and her enormous and immediate success thrust her into their ranks. “She was at least a millionaire at one point,” said Hans Groeneweg, the curator of the Museum of Friesland exhibition.


Margaretha Zelle wears her Mata Hari garb in an undated photo.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Preparing for the exhibition took four years. Mr. Groeneweg and other curators researched Mata Hari’s past extensively and drew new conclusions about her history. It was not entirely clear that she ever spied for the Germans, for example, though she admitted to taking money from them, perhaps because she was broke at the time.

“When you read what information she gave to the Germans, you think it’s all very small,” Mr. Groeneweg said. “Like she’d tell that there was going to be an offensive in the spring, but everyone already knew that.”

The exhibition presents original documents from her trial — including her “confession” document — that were unsealed by the French authorities in January, along with personal letters and diary entries, on loan from Zelle’s family, that have never been shown to the public.


A headdress with ear plates, part of a costume possibly worn by Mata Hari, is among the items on display at the Museum of Friesland.

Erik and Petra Hesmerg

Artifacts of her life include a gold brooch she bought for her daughter, her prayer book and a portrait of her painted by Isaac Israels. The exhibit ends with a wall of posters from books and films that have focused on her life, including films in which she was played by Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Femme fatale, fallen woman, brazen double agent — every generation has its own version of Mata Hari.

Today, Mr. Groeneweg said, there is a “bigger, broader picture” of the woman known as Mata Hari.

“We are trying to focus on more aspects of her life than only her dancing career or whether she was a spy,” he said. “When you focus on Margaretha as a mother or a spouse, you can relate to more aspects of her life.”

But the documents from the French archives have not filled in all of the gaps, Mr. Groeneweg said. “In some way, perhaps we have to be glad not knowing the complete story,” he added. “Something of the myth has to be preserved.”

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