Her name is now synonymous for femme fatale, a slinky seductress luring men to their doom but who was Mata Hari exactly? Was she the treacherous spy who sent thousands of men to their death or was she used as a convenient scapegoat by not only the British, but the Germans and the French as well? In recent years, new biographies have come out that suggests just that but despite this, Mata Hari’s image as a seductive spider luring men to their doom continues to live on.
Mata Hari began life as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. Born on August 7, 1876 in a small town in northern Holland, she was the eldest child and only daughter, three younger brothers followed in quick succession. Her father Adam Zelle was a prosperous store owner in Leeuwarden, who spoiled his little princess, dressing her in silks and satins that made the other girls at her private school jealous. Margaretha even as a child had a talent for reinvention, she told them that her father was a baron and that she lived in a castle. From the very beginning, her father infected her with a feeling of superiority, when she turned six he bought her a goat cart, which caused the neighbors to talk. It was little Griet's first taste of causing a sensation.
The life that Margaretha knew came to a halt in 1889, when her father’s business failed and he declared bankruptcy. All of a sudden, she experienced the humiliation and horror of losing one’s social standing, an experience which would scar her for the rest of her life. Within a year, her parents had separated, and by the time she was fifteen her mother had passed away. Her father took off for Amsterdam, where he quickly found another woman. He eventually sent for her twin brothers but not for her, which Margaretha could never understand. More than likely her new stepmother didn’t want the competition of a younger, pretty girl vying for her husband’s attention. Margaretha never got over her father’s abandonment of her. She would spend her life seeking that attention and feeling of being special from the men in her life.
Now a sulky teenager, Margaretha went to live with her godfather with the intentions of training as a kindergarten teacher, a job she was totally unsuited for. However that plan went bust when her tutor, an older married man of fifty fell in love with her. Despite the age difference, Margaretha appeared a little too 'hot for teacher' which shocked her family. Of course, Margaretha was blamed for leading him astray, and soon she was shipped off to live with other relatives in The Hague. It was her first taste of the big city life and the men who inhabited it. After a few months, on impulse, Margaretha answered a personal ad in the paper, “Officer home from leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet girl of pleasant character – object matrimony.” It must have seemed like an interesting adventure for Margaretha, and a chance for her to once again have a family. However she would soon learn to regret her impulsiveness.
The officer in question was no great prize. Rudolph Macleod was thirty-nine, almost twice her age, and had served in the Dutch East Indies for almost twenty years. Despite his name, he was Dutch. His family had come from Scotland to Holland in the 17th Century and had served as soldiers ever since. When Margaretha met him, he had been home on leave for two years. Bald and good-looking, he wore a uniform well. Margaretha on the other hand, was dark and sultry, standing five foot ten in her stocking feet with an hour glass figure. The one flaw were her small breasts that she later kept covered up during her ‘dancing’ career.
Unbeknownst to Margaretha, her future husband was also a drunk who suffered possibly from syphilis. He hadn’t even placed the ad in the paper himself, it had been a joke played by his friend, a journalist. Out of the sixteen responses he received from eligible ladies, it was Margaretha’s picture that attracted him. From the beginning, Margaretha and Rudolf had an almost overwhelming physical attraction. Plus, he was an officer and the young Griet was almost fatally attracted to a man in uniform. She wrote later in her life, "Those who are not officers do not interest me. An officer is another being, a sort of artist, living outdoors with sparkles on his arms in a seductive uniform."
After a two month courtship, Rudolph proposed and they were married just before she turned nineteen. Starved for affection, Margaretha had clearly hoped that her new husband would treat her like a princess, just like her absent father had done when she was a child. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning, her husband preferred drinking and whoring with his friends instead of spending time with his eager young wife, but Margaretha tried to make it work. She had no choice. She gave birth to a son Norman John in 1897 just before Macleod’s leave was up and they went out to Sumatra. Margaretha had hoped that things would be different in the East Indies, instead they were worse. Macleod, depressed the direction or non direction his military career was heading in, became not only verbally abusive but also physically abusive, attacking her with his fists and once with a whip. She gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Louise, nicknamed Non, in 1898. He humiliated her in public, screaming “Go to hell, bitch,” when the other officers paid too much attention to her. “The young lieutenants pursue me and are in love with me,” she wrote to a friend (Bentley, page. 93).
The inequality in their marriage mirrored the relationship between the Dutch and the natives of Indonesia, who the Dutch treated like little more than slaves. Tragedy struck when their two children were allegedly poisoned by either their Nanny or McLeod’s Indonesian mistress. No one was ever prosecuted, the Nanny conveniently died of cholera a week later, and no autopsy was ever performed. Pat Shipman makes a credible case that perhaps the children were being treated for syphilis, and Norman died from the treatment, which was why no criminal investigation ever took place regarding his death. Whatever the case, his parents were distraught, widening the cracks in their marriage even further. It was also the catalyst to end her marriage once and for all. Macleod resigned from the army after twenty-years when he wasn’t promoted to lieutenant-colonel and the family returned to Holland where Margaretha filed for a divorce, claiming spousal abuse. The case went forward, but Rupert refused to pay the money for support that the court ordered. Running low on funds, Margaretha bounced back and forth between relatives until she briefly reconciled with Rupert. Unable to make the marriage work, because of their mutual hatred and disgust, they separated again. This time she gave up custody of her daughter to her husband.
La Belle Époque Paris would now be her home. When she was asked by a journalist why she had chosen Paris, she replied, “I don’t know. I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris.” With no other visible means of support, Margaretha at first tried to get a job modeling for artists but with little success. She had already started turning to prostitution to earn money until she finally got a job with an equestrian circus run by Ernst Molier.
It was Molier who suggested that Margaretha turned to dance and helped her make contact with the people who might provide the entree to the right circles. And not just any dance, she would turn herself into Mata Hari, translated from Malay, it meant “the eye of the day.” While Isadora Duncan was entrancing Europe with her classical Greek dances, Margaretha turned to the sultry East for her inspiration. Her dancing, what there was of it, consisted of her striking erotic and exotic poses while slowly removing the veils from her body. Even Mata Hari admitted "I never could dance well. People came to see me because I was the first who dared to show myself naked to the public." Her costume consisted of a jeweled metallic bra, long veils, and a jewelled headress of Javanese design.
Making her debut at the home of Madame Kireevsky, a society hostess, she was an instant smash. Within a year she had given thirty performances, both public and private. She created a suitable background for this new creature, which changed from one interview to the next, but generally she said that she had learned the dances from her mother, who was a Javanese temple dancer. Like Lola Montez, after awhile, Mata Hari began to believe her own stories. Mata Hari’s dark complexion, which had given her so much trouble while living in Indonesia, had finally paid off.
The critics raved (of course they were mostly men), falling over themselves to come with new adjectives to describe her undulating arms, and swarthy complexion. The Gallic praised her as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” They bought into her exotic story, despite the fact that it changed almost daily. She also found the first of many lovers who paid the bills and kept her in the style that she had become accustomed to as a child. In Monte Carlo, she danced in the opera Le Roi de Lahore by Jules Massenet. She made a triumphant debut in Vienna at the same time as Isadora Duncan, and an American, Maud Allen, who had made a career out of playing Salome. The newspapers called it "the war of the rights." The critics lauded Mata Hari, with Duncan a close second and Maud Allen a distant third. It helped that Mata Hari also spoke fluent German and could converse without a translator to the various journalists. And everywhere she went she left a trail of admirers.
Instant fame also meant that others wanted to cash in, including her father Adam Zelle, who authored an 'autobiographical' novel about his daughter, that placed the blame squarely on Rupert McLeod for ruining his daughter's life. His first publisher withdrew his offer after consulting with McLeod and hearing his side of the story. Zelle found another publisher and The Novel of Mata Hari, Mrs. M. G. McLeod Zelle: The Biography of My Daughter and My Grievances Against Her Former Husband was published. Mata Hari found it amusing more than annoying.
Mata Hari had extravagant tastes, and was constantly in debt. One of her lovers Alfred Kiepert had given her 300,000 marks after their affair ended but her next lover Xavier Rousseau lost it all speculating on the stockmarket which led to his own bankruptcy, and forced her back on the stage. Her love of luxury eventually led to one of the worst mistakes of her life.
Come back on Thursday for Part II of the Truth About Mata Hari
Sisters of Salome - Toni Bentley, Yale University Press, 2002
Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007