If history has shown us anything, it's that women who don't follow society's norms get portrayed as evil.
Whether or not you know her story, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard the name Mata Hari at least once in your life. The reason is that she’s a historical character who was known all over the world when she was alive and became a huge legend after her execution in October 1917. Considered by many to be a “man-eater” who used her looks and attributes to seduce men to get not only wealth but to do her job as a spy, while also considered a scapegoat by others, there’s no doubt that Mata Hari’s life was as mysterious as the character she invented.
She was born Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in the Netherlands, into a family who had been wealthy at some point, but bad business pushed them to bankruptcy. Still, she was the apple of her father's eye, and he did everything to fulfill his little girl's wishes. However, that all ended when he met another woman and left their family. Then, when Margaretha was in her teens, her mother passed away, leaving her alone to fend for herself. According to the many biographies about her, she was a beautiful woman with unique looks who learned from a young age that, if she played her cards right, she could use her attributes to get whatever she wanted.
With that mentality, when she was eighteen, she decided to answer a newspaper ad from an older Dutch captain looking for a pleasant girl to marry him. Believing that officers had a good economic situation, she married Capt. Rudolf MacLeod, but she found out much later that he had no money, tons of debts, and a terrible personality. They moved to the Dutch East Indies, where their life turned into a living hell. He had given her syphilis, and their two children got it as well. When the eldest was two years old, his condition worsened, and he eventually died from a mercury overdose. A couple of years later, the family returned to the Netherlands and Margaretha decided to leave him for good.
After the living hell that had been her marriage, she decided to reinvent herself and have the life she had always dreamed of. She had spent a good amount of time in Indonesia and learned a lot about the culture there. Since she already had what people considered “exotic” looks, it was easy for her to invent a mysterious persona. So, in 1905, she adopted the name Mata Hari meaning “eye of the day” or “sunrise” in Malay. She moved to Paris, the perfect scenario to present her character, and appeared on stage with sultry and provocative attires that could've gotten her arrested for indecency. Mata Hari was a very smart woman who knew how to sell her unique performance. She would start every show with a detailed and careful explanation claiming that she was performing authentic and sacred Javanese temple dances. Of course, it soon became a sensation among Europeans who loved getting a dose of culture with their “exotic” dancing.
Naturally, she became a hit, not only because of her suggestive moves and erotic demonstrations, but also because people really saw her as a mysterious character who had come from faraway lands to show her culture (yes, she claimed she had been born in Asia). Besides that, she used the stage as a way to entice men to give her all the things she wanted, and soon she found herself living in one of the most prestigious hotels in Paris, wearing the last fashion, and having a lavish life.
She continued traveling throughout Europe during WWI and it was during one of these trips to her native Holland (a neutral country during the war) when she was approached by the German consul in Amsterdam offering her 20,000 francs and luxury goods to become a spy for Germany since she frequented the most influential people in Europe. As the story goes, she took the money and the goods as refunds for what they had taken from her during the trip but refused to work for them. On her return back to Paris, her boat was stopped at a British port. Seeing her with such luxurious clothes (that not even aristocrats wore during the war), her ability to speak different languages, and her confidence and personality, she became automatically under suspicion.
Now, apparently, she had fallen madly in love with a Russian officer stranded in France, and she wanted to see him no matter what. To do so, she had to ask for special permission from the army, which she did by asking one of her former lovers, Georges Ladoux, who worked at the War Department as spy chief (though she didn’t know). He told her that he would help her reach her beloved and pay her one million francs, on the condition that she became a spy for France. She accepted and was soon sent to Holland via Spain. However, it was only a trap to get her. France was losing the war, and people’s spirits were really down, so soldiers had started to rebel against their leaders, and many died. The government was aware that the entire country needed something to lift their spirits and that something was finding someone to blame for all their misery.
Long story short, once in Spain, Mata Hari started gathering information, but Ladoux didn’t answer. After a long trip, she returned to France to collect her payment, but it was as if he had vanished. She was on her own. A few months later, she was arrested for eight charges, including the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers (though no evidence was given to explain why she was blamed for this). After five months of living in deplorable conditions in prison, she was found guilty of all eight charges, and sentenced to die. She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, and though her life had ended, the legend was just about to be born. Soldiers claimed that she had faced them with a charming smile and graceful attitude. However, not long after the execution, the prosecutor accepted that the evidence given wasn’t enough to condemn her.
After her death, a sudden interest emerged with the first biographies being published just a few weeks afterwards. She’s inspired novels, movies, songs, stage shows, and series. Many characters portraying alluring spies have been inspired by her story even though it’s been discovered that it was all a hoax and that she had been used as a scapegoat. As Pat Shipman claims, one of her main biographer's, if she had really been a spy, she was the worst of them. When Ladoux sent her to Spain, she would try to reach him with the information she had gotten through regular mail or intercepted telephones.
She was a woman determined to win in a man’s game; a woman who reinvented herself and got the tools to live the perfect life by her own means, something that for women in the early twentieth century was unthinkable. Again, as many women in history, she was used without knowing it and dragged into a nasty plot that took her life away. Nevertheless, she achieved what she wanted for years: becoming one of the most desired women in the world, and the fact that we still talk about her proves she managed to do so.
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