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Who Was the Most Famous Female Spy?

Updated on February 29, 2012

Interview with the Most Famous Female Spy in History

If I asked you, “Who was the most famous female spy in history?” what name would you say? Was it Florence Nightingale? No, she was a famous female nurse. Was it Medea? No, she was a famous female curse. Was it Prada? No, that’s a famous female purse. And these answers are getting worse! Was it Margaretha Geertruida Zelle? Yes!

You don’t recognize the name? I’m not surprised. That is the real name of the exotic dancer and courtesan who used the stage name of Mata Hari – the woman most of us think of as the most famous female spy in history.

Using my unique and now well-known supernatural interviewing skills, I have just interviewed Mata Hari who died in 1917 and here is her true story. The truth may surprise you.

me – How do you do, Ms. Zelle. May I call you Mata Hari?

Mata –Mata is fine, I don’t stand on ceremony. In fact, in my present deteriorated, desiccated condition, I seldom stand at all.

me – Are you aware, Mata, that your name has since become synonymous with espionage? You are regarded by many as the foremost femme fatale of the 20th century.

Mata – Yes, and that is why I agreed to this interview to set the record straight.

Margaretha/Mata with pigtails
Margaretha/Mata with pigtails
Margaretha/Mata in glamorous pose
Margaretha/Mata in glamorous pose

Early Years

me – Good. Tell me a little about when and where you were born and your earliest memories.

Mata – I was born August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Friesland – that’s in the Netherlands. I was given the name of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. I liked the Margaretha but hated the Geertruida. I was the oldest child with three younger brothers. My father, Adam, was a well-to-do hatter – he owned an exclusive hat store. My mother, Franeker, was a hausfrau (housewife). My early childhood was unremarkable and I attended exclusive private schools until I was thirteen.

Then my father lost his business, declared bankruptcy and my parents got divorced. My mother died two years later. My father remarried but our family had come apart. I went to live with my godfather, Heer Visser, who lived nearby in the town of Sneek.

I wanted to teach kindergarten students and studied at a teacher’s college in Leiden. I did well in my studies but the headmaster began a conspicuous flirtation with me which upset my godfather who refused to pay for any further classes. I had no money so I went to live with an uncle in The Hague.

If you read only one book, read "Femme Fatale"


me – I understand you were married when you were 19. How did you meet your future husband?

Mata – One day in 1895 I was reading the personal ads in a newspaper, “Het Nieuwes van den Dag,” It was the Facebook of its time.One of the ads intrigued me. An army captain stationed in the Dutch East Indies was looking for a wife. I needed to find a husband to support me.

His name was Captain Rudolf John MacLeod and he was of Scottish ancestry but serving in the Dutch army. He had been stationed in the Dutch East Indies for almost twenty years but was now recuperating from malaria in Amsterdam.

me – Did he place the ad in the newspaper?

Mata – No. he was much too serious a fellow. The ad was a practical joke by one of his friends. It was an attractive ad because he received sixteen responses and mine was the last. He told me it was the photo I included that intrigued him. He asked me for a date and our romance became serious despite our 21-year age difference.

We became how do you say, pen pals, and exchanged many letters in which I revealed my loving and passionate nature.

Note: Captain MacLeod later sold these passionate letters to Dutch reporters.

Captain Rudolf and Norman-John
Captain Rudolf and Norman-John
Captain Rudolf and Jeanne-Louise
Captain Rudolf and Jeanne-Louise


We were married that same year (July 1895) in the town hall and honeymooned at the Spa in Wiesbaden, Germany. We lived in Amsterdam for two years where my son, Norman-John, was born but returned to the Indies where we lived for five years in Java and Sumatra. My daughter, Jeanne-Louise, was born there.

me – Was this a happy period in your life?

Mata – It was glorious. My husband was promoted to major and given a new post as commander of the garrison. He was how do you say, big cheese, and I was Mrs. Big Cheese. But my happiness was short-lived. Both my children became violently ill and had to be hospitalized. The doctors said they had been poisoned. Can you imagine? My sweet little Norman died within two days.

I blamed the children’s nurse who friends said had been having an affair with my husband. There was also gossip that my beloved husband had raped the nurse’s daughter and she was getting her revenge by poisoning our children.

I never learned the truth but our marriage had been destroyed and I longed to return to Europe. We did return to Amsterdam in 1902 and my husband showed his true stripes by becoming an alcoholic and a womanizer. He deserted us and I was granted a divorce. I left my daughter with relatives and moved to Paris in 1903.

The God Siva
The God Siva

Early Days in Paris

me - How did you support yourself?

Mata – My first job was as an artist’s model. I wasn’t what you would call a great beauty like Angelina Jolie but I did have an interesting exotic look. My greatest asset was my graceful, some say sensual body. To supplement my very meager income, I also took a job where I performed as an equestrian in a circus using the name Lady MacLeod – I got the idea from Lady Gag Gag. That job didn’t last long – the circus didn’t get enough bookings.

me –You mean Lady Gaga.

Mata - Right. I had always loved to dance so I decided to become a professional dancer. At that time Parisians were very interested in the culture of the Orient. Although I had never studied dance, I had continuously observed Indonesian traditions and dances. I did have a natural grace of movement. My former husband could attest to that. I decided to bring to Europeans the style of dancing I had admired during my five years in the Dutch East Indies. I would become an Asian exotic dancer.

me – You were very courageous to begin a new career like that.

Mata – It was a case of survival you know. I had invented a new personal history. As Lady MacLeod, I told people my father was a British aristocrat and my mother an Indian woman who trained me as a Hindu temple dancer. Fortunately, most Europeans at that time confused the Dutch East Indies with India.

A good friend, Mme Kireyevsky, a former singer asked me to perform in the salon of her home. Emile Etienne Guimet, the proprietor of the Musee Guimet, an oriental art museum, was in the audience. He became a “follower” and invited me to dance at his museum. He decorated the stage with a statue of Siva, a Hindu God, hired four additional dancers, and lit the whole scene in candlelight.

I wore gauzy, transparent shawls that I removed as the dance became more erotic. The climax, and I use the word loosely, of my performance was a simulated sex act with the statue of Siva. The audience had never seen anything like this before. They went crazy. I was instantly a celebrity with a following of Russian and French aristocracy.

me – Was that when you became Mata Hari?

Mata – I can tell you’ve done your homework. Yes, M. Guimet realized that my aristocratic stage name was not authentic for a “Hindu temple dancer.” We decided on the name Mata Hari which means “light of the day” or “eye of the day” meaning the sun.

Note: Mata Hari’s timing was perfect. An Asian Exotic Dancer was something new and novel to the European public. And she was a contemporary of noted dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis who were leaders of the early modern dance movement.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in 1931 film

I borrowed the snake ornament from Cleopatra
I borrowed the snake ornament from Cleopatra

Success in Paris

me – News reporters at that time compared you to Isadora Duncan. Did that surprise you?

Mata – Yes, I never had any delusions about my dancing ability. The only real comparison was that we were both dancers. Isadora danced with the freedom of modernism. I danced with the freedom of an exotic dancer, in other words, an ecdysiast or what you call in the U.S., a stripper.

me – Ecdysiast ? That’s a five dollar word.

Mata – I know. I used the computer you lent me and looked it up on Google. (Giggles) But I have to admit that exotic dancing was not my only talent. For nine years until 1914 when World War I began, thanks to the entrée into society that my dancing brought me, I was also well-known as a famous and successful courtesan. I danced my way into the hearts and wallets of military men and statesmen all over the globe.

I’m not admitting anything of course, but it is said that one of my first conquests was Baron Henry de Marguerie, a wealthy man about town who was attached to the French ministry in Hague. He underwrote my expenses when I first began my career.

As well as other lovers including War Minister Adolphe-Pierre Messimy, composer Giacomo Puccini, Baron Henri de Rothschild, Frederick William Victor Augustus Ernest, the German crown prince, and composer Jules Massenet. I danced in his opera, “Le Roi de Lahore” in 1906.

me – What do you mean, “… it is said ….” Were these famous men not your lovers?

Mata – What is that well known adage in the U.S.? Don’t ask, don’t tell? I subscribe to that. I will say that I managed to scandalize the audience and the theater management wherever I performed. I captivated audiences by posing as a princess from Java who had been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. Many of the photos taken at the time show me to be nude or nearly so.

Note: Some of these nude photos were obtained by Mata’s former husband and strengthened his case in maintaining custody of their daughter.

me – Why do you think your act was so successful?

Mata – Two reasons: first – my “act” as you put it broke new ground for a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world famous (think Folies Bergere), and elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status. Second, my carefree, free-wheeling provocative style was the attraction.

me – Meaning . . .

Mata - my willingness to appear almost nude on the stage. The most celebrated segment of my act was progressively shedding my clothing while dancing (think Salome and the dance of the seven veils) until I wore only some ornaments upon my head and arms and a small bra.

Note: Mata Hari was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. Photos taken during her performances suggest she may have worn a body stocking for her appearances.

I'm not getting older. I'm getting better.
I'm not getting older. I'm getting better.


me – What problem did you encounter?

Mata – The problem was my age. I had begun my career late in life and by 1914 I was 38 years old. I was still attractive but past what is called one’s prime. Younger women were now doing my act and some were even more risqué. There were fewer performances and as a result fewer opportunities to meet new lovers . . . with funds.

My relationships and liaisons with powerful men had taken me across international borders constantly and as World War I approached, people who formerly viewed me as a free-spirited artist were now seeing me as a promiscuous and perhaps even dangerous seductress.

Mata Hari Montage

Statue of Mata Hari, Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Statue of Mata Hari, Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Kurt Vonnegut, the author, dedicated this book to Mata Hari.

World War I

me - Were you a spy, Mata?

Mata – While I was in The Hague in 1916 a member of the German consulate offered me money for information I obtained on my next visit to France. I passed some old, outdated information to a German intelligence officer. That was my entire spying career. I was guilty only of being naïve.

me – What happened next?

Mata - I fell in love with a young Russian officer, Vadim de Masloff, switched my allegiance and offered to work for the French. I even proposed to enter Germany and seduce a former lover, the Crown Prince. My contact, however, turned out to be the head of French counter-espionage, Captain Georges Ladoux, who had planned to entrap me.

Note: Ladoux later was arrested for being a double agent himself.

The Netherlands remained neutral during the war so as a Dutch subject I was able to cross national borders without problems. I had many friends among high-ranking allied military officers. But British intelligence learned of my prior arrangement with the German consul and informed the French. I was arrested on February 13, 1917 when I returned to France.

me – Why did the French believe you were such a dangerous spy?

Mata – French intelligence agents intercepted messages from Germany describing a helpful German spy with the code name of H-21. I am told they believed that was me.

me – You were not the spy H-21?

Mata – Of course not. It was all a contrived deception.

me – How do you know that?

Mata – Because the messages from Germany were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French. The messages were false and meant to be deciphered to protect the identity of the real spy.

Last Act

Mata Hari was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. She was found guilty and executed by firing squad on October 14, 1917. She was 41.

Was Mata Hari a dangerous spy? Or did the French use circumstantial and manufactured evidence to use her capture as a propaganda boost?

Was she the unfortunate victim of a hysterical section of the French press and the public who were determined to discover evidence of a non-existent enemy within? A convenient scapegoat attractive as much for her prurient profession as for her crimes?

Final Note: The official case documents regarding her execution were sealed for 100 years. In 1985, biographer Russell Warren Howe managed to convince the French Minister of National Defense to break open the file. It was revealed that Mata Hari was innocent of the charges of espionage.

© Copyright BJ Rakow 2011. All rights reserved.

Sources: Howe, Russell Warren. Mata Hari: The True Story, Dodd, Mead & Company, NY. 1986. Martini, Teri. The Secret Is Out: True Spy Stories, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1990. Ostrovsky. Erika, Eye of Dawn: The Rise and Fall of Mata Hari, Macmillan Publishing, Co., NY, 1978.

B. J. Rakow, Ph.D., Author, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So." Enlightening information about interviewing, networking, writing resumes and cover letters and negotiating. But fun to read.



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