Mata Hari was born on this date. Yes, on August 7th, 1876. We all know her as the Spy. The Harlot. The Exotic Dancer and Sex Worker, who handed over secrets to the Germans in WWI. We know her as the woman who was found guilty of these things, and shot to death by firing squad, in Paris, France in 1917.
But she didn’t start out this way. Her Father and Mother weren’t Mr. & Mrs. Hari. They were the Zelles. From Leeuwarden, Netherlands. That’s up northeast from Amsterdam. Yes, they were a nice Dutch family. Her birth name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, and she was the oldest of four kids. Margaret Gertrude. She had three younger brothers.
Her father, who was named Ande, owned a hat shop. Dutch hats. He also made successful investments in the oil industry back then. And, as it was, the family was kind of rich, and affluent, which afforded Peggy Gerty ( as I like to call her) a good education. So there she was, a little Dutch girl, who frequented the quiet neighborhoods of Leeuwarden, attended school, played with dolls, and snacked on Stroopwafel or Fried Dumplings. Little brothers running around everywhere.
But, the family went bankrupt. Her Mom & Dad divorced. Then her Mom died shortly thereafter. The family fell apart, and she moved from Amsterdam, eventually landing at an Uncle’s home in the Hague. By this point, she was in her mid-teens.
And this was when she answered an ad in a newspaper. There was a guy, a Dutch Colonial Army Captain, named Rudolf MacLeod. He was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and was looking for a wife. So there she went. She answered that ad, but the marriage was for crap. He was an active Alcoholic, and he beat her. So to “escape” this existence, she began to learn the ways of the Indonesians.
Also during this, Marg and her husband had two kids. A boy and a girl. Norman and Jeanne. In 1899, their children fell violently ill. The family claimed they were poisoned by an irate servant. Jeanne survived, but Norman died. Many sources maintain that one of MacLeod’s enemies may have poisoned a supper to kill both of their children. (The couple eventually divorced in 1906.)
But then she learned her moves. She got her swag. While in the Dutch East Indies, she studied the Indonesian traditions intensively. She did this for several months. And then, Margaret Gertrude joined a local dance company. And boy, did she ever dance. She would write home to her relatives in the Netherlands. And in one letter, in 1897, she revealed her artistic name of Mata Hari, the word for “sun” in the local Malay language (literally, “eye of the day”).
And Mati Hari was officially born.
I’ll stop with the details of her story here. Where she becomes entwined in the world of espionage, and exotic dancing, and sex. But I will tell you, that for that particular time — hell, for any time — she was quite bawdy, exotic, and risque’.
Our lives and how they go.
The rest of her life got tangled.
Zelle has often been portrayed as a femme fatale. She has been tagged as the dangerous, seductive woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men for information, and more. But many others see her differently. Two American historians (Norman Polmer and Thomas Allen) noted that she was “naïve and easily duped”, a victim of men rather than a victimizer.
But it started when she was a little Dutch girl, growing up in a quaint environment, a place of quiet “stability” and “social acceptance” in the midst of a rumbling, moving, wobbling, shaking, and changing world.
And then one day, she was Mati Hari, standing in the middle of Vincennes, Paris, France; facing a firing squad of 12 French officers just before dawn on 15 October 1917.
She was 41.
“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.”
― Margaret Mitchell
“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
― François Rabelais
“The more I see, the less I know for sure.”
― John Lennon