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Mata Hari, the myth behind the myth

No one knows her by her first name; few had contact with her when she was living in Java; but the press, literature and cinema have converted her into a legend after being shot for espionage in France.


Mata Hari - Wikimedia CommonsElsy Fors Garzón


The popular Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho and other authors, immortalised this Dutch beauty with very black hair and oriental features inherited from her mother, who was born in what is now Indonesia and who died in October one hundred years ago.

Coelho put himself in the shoes of his charismatic heroine, at the point of knowing she was condemned to death after being accused of spying for Germany in the First World War, “I want to be remembered as someone who never stopped fighting with bravery and paid the price when it was her turn”.

In his novel “The Spy”, that author describes her as sensual, strong and a contradiction, transforming her into an icon having faced up to the cannons of her era and being an independent and free woman in a convulsive world, a description which adapts well to her origins.

Born in Leeuwarden, Holland, 7th August 1876, as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, of a Dutch father and a mother of Javanese ancestry, her biographers say that she grew up among family disputes and economic difficulties.

Perhaps in order to flee from this environment, she got married at the age of 18 to a Scottish man, Captain Rudolf McLeod, Older than her, who put an advert in the newspaper seeking a girlfriend to marry.

The army was destined for Java and there they had two children, a girl and a boy.

Mata Hari - libro Wikimedia Commons 2The loss of the boy at an early age separated the couple and after this, Margaretha sought her own path, studying the dances of Balinese folklore, customs and rituals that included oriental lovemaking techniques, highly valued in the East.

The husband cited Margaretha’s infidelities and took custody of their daughter in court. Thus with her new identity as and exotic dancer, Mata Hari arrived in bustling Paris in 1906 without a penny.

To her performances and knowledge of oriental culture, she needed to add in a few lies in order to draw attention to herself.

The escapist romantic literature of the end of 19th century had popularised a distant yet yearned for image of oriental culture.

Taking advantage of these circumstances, the star Mata Hari was born, supposed princess of Java working as an exotic dancer, who immediately began to have a certain renown.

Mata Hari - Wikimedia Commons 3In Paris it caused a stir, as it was a struggle to find locations for the front row of their spectacles of erotic dance, as she stripped almost completely, covering only her breasts.

Supported by the myth that had been created, she had many secret romances with numerous officials, members of the military and even politicians of the highest level, not only French but also German and, in general, with high society. These relationships gave her access to information from the State in an era close to and amidst the First World War (1914-1918).

The effervescent Paris of the Belle Epoque and pre-war Berlin were the settings for this woman to defend her dreams.

In the trial that was carried out in Paris they did not present conclusive evidence that confirmed if the Germans had in fact set her up so that French intelligence would suspect her, or if she was in fact a double agent.

They say that throughout the audience would shout: “Whore? Yes! Traitor, never!”.

On the 15th October 1917, the firing squad of 12 soldiers were surprised when Mata Hari let the black tunic that was covering her fall.

At the sound of ‘Fire!’ only 4 shots hit her, one of them in the heart, which killed her instantly.

The mystery followed her further than her execution, since no one claimed her body, it was left for students of medicine to practice anatomy on.

spy espia pixabaySomeone who was keen that the legend of Mata Hari lived on, arranged for her head to be embalmed and placed in the Museum of Criminals in France, but in 1958, they reported its disappearance, supposedly stolen by an admirer.

Literature and cinema since then have depicted multiple versions of Mata Hari’s life, a name that in Malay means “Morning eye”.

In 1931 Great Garbo brought her to life in the film “Mata Hari”, directed by George Fitzmaurice.

Then “Mata Hari, Agent H21” (France, 1964) from director Jean-Louis Richard, had the main role played by Jeanne Moreau. The most recent “Mata Hari” (USA, 1985) was directed by Curtis Harrington, with a performance from Sylvia Kristel as the spy. (PL)

(Translated by Francine Morgan – Email:

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