Mata Hari was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida (Grietje) Zelle (7 August 1876, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands - 15 October 1917, Vincennes, France), a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was executed by firing squad for alleged espionage during World War I.
Margaretha Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland in the Netherlands, to Adam Zelle, owner of a hat store, and Antje van der Meulen, both born and raised in Friesland . When she was 6, the family moved to Leiden. In 1891 her mother died and her father went bankrupt. At 18 Margaretha married a Dutch naval officer named Rudolf MacLeod in Amsterdam. They moved to Java and had two children. Their son died in 1899 of poisoning, apparently by a disgruntled housekeeper. After moving back to the Netherlands, the couple divorced in 1903, with Rudolf retaining custody of her daughter. She remarried to a man named Theodore Wattson and had a daughter named Flora. She later got divorced with him and lost her daughter to an unknown disease.
That year, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider and went by the name Lady MacLeod. Struggling to earn a living, she also worked as an artist's model.
In 1905, she began to win fame as an exotic Oriental-style dancer. It was then that she adopted the stage name Mata Hari, a term referring to the Sun in Malay and Indonesian (literally meaning "Eye of the Day").
Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body with a mystique that captivated both her audiences and the public, Mata Hari was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905. She posed as a princess from Java of priestly Indian birth, pretending to have been initiated into the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. In those days it was quite easy for someone possessing a flamboyant personality to invent a character, and present it as fact with a good chance of success due to the limits on telecommunications available at the time. She was photographed numerous times during this point in her career in either scant clothing, or nude. She brought this carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which led to wide acclaim.
Although the explanations and claims made by her about her origins were total fiction, the 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 willingness to wear or perform in exotic and sexually explicit clothing. She posed for provocative photos, and mingled in wealthy circles.
Mata Hari was also a successful courtesan, and had relationships with many high-ranking military officers, politicians and others in influential positions in many countries, including France, Russia and Germany. She was not known for being remarkably beautiful, but her spirit was overflowing with eroticism.
In happier times prior to World War I, she had been generally viewed as an artist, a free-spirited bohemian, but as the times grew more grim she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress. Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men took her across international borders frequently, which eventually would lead to her downfall.
Alleged double agent
During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Margaretha Zelle was thus able to cross national borders freely. To avoid the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, and her movements inevitably attracted attention. She was courtesan to many high-ranking allied military officers during this time. On one occasion, when interviewed by British intelligence officers, she admitted to work as an agent for French military intelligence, although the latter would not confirm her story. It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way, but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.
In January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, were able to identify H-21 as Mata Hari. Remarkably, the messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leaving historians to suspect that the messages were contrived so that, if she was in fact working for the French, they would be able to unmask her as a double agent and effectively neutralize her.
Mata Hari after her arrest.On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her Paris hotel room. At the time of her arrest, France was at a low point in the war. Morale was down, there was seemingly no end in sight, hundreds of thousands of both Central Powers and Triple Entente forces had died, and there was a hunger for a scapegoat. The now-famous Dutchwoman seemed to fit the role. Mata Hari was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers. Although it has since been speculated that there was no concrete evidence, she was nevertheless found guilty and was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41.
Disappearance and rumours
Mata Hari's body was not claimed by any family members and was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but in 2000, archivists discovered that the head had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, when the museum had been relocated. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body but none of the remains could later be accounted for.
The fact that a former exotic dancer had been executed as a spy immediately provoked many rumours. One is that she blew a kiss to her executioners, although it is more likely that she blew a kiss to her lawyer, who was a witness to the execution and a former lover of hers. Her dying words were purported to be "Merci, monsieur". Another rumour claims that, in an attempt to distract her executioners, she flung open her coat and exposed her naked body. "Harlot, yes, but traitor, never," she is reported to have said. A 1934 New Yorker article, however, reported that at her execution she actually wore "a neat Amazonian tailored suit, specially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves." A third rumour had it that Mata Hari was unusually composed at the execution, refusing to be tied or blindfolded - and that this is because the firing squad was to be bribed to use blanks for a fake execution, but the plan failed.
Legend and popular culture
Popular imagination was fired by the idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent, using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers. This image has made Mata Hari an enduring archetype of the femme fatale.
Much of the enduring popularity is owed to the film entitled Mata Hari (1931) and starring Greta Garbo in the leading role. While based on real events in the life of Margaretha Zelle, the plot was largely fictional, appealing to the public appetite for fantasy at the expense of historical fact. Immensely successful as a form of entertainment, the exciting and romantic character in this film inspired subsequent generations of storytellers. Eventually, Mata Hari featured in more films, television series, the anime series Read or Die, and in video games - but increasingly, it is only the use of Margaretha Zelle's famous stage name that bears any resemblance to the real character. Many books have been written about Mata Hari, some of them serious historical and biographical accounts, but many of them highly speculative.
Movies and television
Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko, in an espisode containing a skit about a female spy in the Spanish American War, refers to her as Mata Lopez.
Doris Day portrays Mata Hari in the film The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) during a daydream sequence.
In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the fictional character Mata Bond was the daughter of Mata Hari and James Bond.
In the 1968 Spanish comedy Operación Mata-Hari, Mata Hari (Carmen de Lirio) settles and leaves her dangerous life. Her Spanish maid (Gracita Morales) is then mistaken as her.
In the OVA adaptation of the novel and manga series R.O.D, the character Nancy Maruhaki is said to be a clone of Mata Hari.
Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (1970-72) was an ABC television series sendup of espionage drama. The cast of characters (played by chimpanzees with human voice-overs) included a female spy named Mata Hairi.
A 1985 movie starring Sylvia Kristel. 
The Sex Life of Mata Hari (1989), an adult version or parody of the 1985 movie. 
In The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode "Demons of Deception" (1993), the 22 year old Indiana Jones meets and falls in love with Mata Hari in Paris during military leave from the front, and loses his virginity to her.
A first-season episode of the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple was entitled "The Codebook of Mata Hari." In the legend told about Mata Hari in the episode, it was said that on the day of her execution, Mata Hari refused the blindfold and instead blew kisses to her firing squad.
Mata Hari, Mythe et Réalité d'une Espionne, a 1998 documentary film by Françoise Levie will Jill Brett and Julie Wheelwright, 56 minutes, Belgium (poster).
Mata Hari has also been mentioned on the television series Charmed. The character Phoebe becomes possessed by Mata Hari's spirit.
As well Mata Hari is mentioned in the Stephen Frears -movie Mrs. Henderson Presents, where snobbish Lady Conway tells to Mrs. Henderson inflitrate to the Windmill Theatre like a delicious, but overripe Mata Hari when Mrs. Henderson has problems with the manager of theatre.
She was portrayed by Zsa Zsa Gabor in the 1972 Frankie Howerd comedy, Up The Front.