For over 100 years, the name Mata Hari has been synonymous with glamour and mystery. Her life ended when she was 41 years old, but those years were crowded with adventure, tragedy, and intrigue.
The woman who would one day become famous all over the world was born into ordinary circumstances in August 1876, in Holland. She was named Margaretha Geertruida Zelle and her parents were relatively prosperous.
When she was old enough, she attended a prestigious teacher’s college in Leiden. At age 16, she had an affair with the principal of the school, but little is known about that relationship. It didn’t appear to have a profound impact on Gretha, apart from giving her some insight into men.
Two years later, Gretha had forgotten the principal. She met her husband, Capt. Rudolph MacLeod, when she responded to a Lonely Hearts advertisement. When they married, she was 18 and he was 38.
Gretha and her new husband did not seem particularly well-suited.
Despite the acrimony in their marriage, 21-year-old Gretha gave birth to a son, Norman, when she was 21. The MacLeods set sail shortly afterwards for the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesian), where they lived in military housing in Java and Sumatra. In 1898, Gretha had another child, a daughter she named Louise Jeanne. The child was nicknamed Non.
Financially speaking, the Gretha’s family was doing well. They had enough money to employ servants. Things were not going well in their marriage, though. MacLeod was known for his heavy drinking and philandering. Gretha was also carrying on with other men. It became monotonous, as well as sordid. They accused each other of infidelity.
The continual bickering between the MacLeods came to a temporary standstill when, without warning, both of their children fell severely ill in 1900. A nanny was suspected of poisoning the children. Norman died soon after, before his third birthday. Non, no less ill than her brother, managed to pull through.
Captain MacLeod was honorably discharged from the army in 1902, and the family departed the Dutch Indies. However, the damage the MacLeod marriage sustained couldn’t be repaired. The couple separated soon after they returned to Holland. Gretha accused MacLeod of cruelty, attacking her with a knife, and giving her syphilis. Many years later, she wrote bitterly, “My own husband has given me a distaste for matters sexual such as I cannot forget.”
Gretha was initially granted custody of Non. However, MacLeod was unwilling to pay child support, and Gretha- unable to make ends meet- was forced to surrender custody to MacLeod.
Now alone, Gretha fled to Paris in 1903. Recently discovered letters showed she missed her daughter a great deal and hoped to find enough work to enable her to support herself and Non. She accepted all types of work: tutoring German, giving piano lessons, and acting. She also worked as an artist’s model and used her first stage name, Lady MacLeod. Even with continual work, she couldn’t make enough money to meet her own needs let alone bear the expense of raising a child.
Gretha spiraled into a severe depression and at times she contemplated suicide. By 1904, she was desperate. To earn enough to survive, she turned to prostitution, or as she called it “the road to perdition”. It seemed as though Gretha was hurtling into an abyss from which she would never emerge.
Then, with startling rapidity, everything changed.