Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” Zelle MacLeod (7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), better known by the stage name Mata Hari, was a Frisian exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy and executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.
She was the eldest of four children of Adam Zelle (2 October 1840 – 13 March 1910) and his first wife Antje van der Meulen (21 April 1842 – 9 May 1891).
She had three brothers.
Her father owned a hat shop, made successful investments in the oil industry, and became affluent enough to give Margaretha a lavish early childhood that included exclusive schools until the age of 13.
Mata Hari brought this carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim.
The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head.
She was seldom seen without a bra, as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted.
She wore a body stocking for her performances that was similar in color to her own skin.
Although Mata Hari’s claims about her origins were fictitious, it was very common for entertainers of her era to invent colorful stories about their origins as part of the show.
Her act was spectacularly successful because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status, and so broke new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous.
Her style and her free-willed attitude made her a very popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing.
She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles.
Adam Zelle had a successful hat business in an era when virtually no man would be seen in public without a hat.
He kept his family in comfortable circumstances and seemed to especially enjoy indulging his vivacious and lovely daughter.
She would someday recall that her father seemed to regard her as “an orchid among buttercups.” Disaster struck the family when M’greet was thirteen years old.
Adam Zelle went bankrupt as a result of a series of misguided speculations on the stock market.
After selling off their nice furniture, the family moved from its spacious home in one of the better parts of the city to a tiny, shabby house in a poor section.
Adam told them he was going to Amsterdam to try his luck there and left Antje to look after four children by herself.
In March 1895, while still staying with her uncle, 18-year old Margaretha became engaged to Rudolph (“John”) MacLeod, after answering a personal ad in the newspaper (the ad had been placed as a joke by MacLeod’s friend).
MacLeod was a 38-year old officer on home leave from the Dutch East Indies, where he had been stationed for 16 years.
During World War I, her frequent traveling across international borders and her varied companions caused several countries to wonder if she was a spy or even a double-agent.
Many people who met her say that she was sociable, but just not smart enough to pull off such a feat.
However, the French were confident that she was a spy and arrested her on February 13, 1917.
After a short trial in front of a military court, conducted in private, she was sentenced to death by firing squad.