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 to parents in relatively prosperous circumstances.

A very young Gretha, standing on the right

 

 

 

A young Gretha. Photo from friesmuseum.nl

 

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 MacLeod on their wedding day

 

 

 

 

 

Gretha and her new husband did not seem particularly well-suited.

Despite the acrimony in their marriage, Gretha gave birth to a son they named Norman, when she was 21. The MacLeods set sail shortly afterwards for the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), 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.

 

The Dutch East Indies, where the MacLeods moved in 1898

 

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.

Mata Hari’s children: Non (L) and Norman, with his father (R)

 

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 of their daughter to MacLeod.

Gretha and McLeod near the end of their marriage. Gretha’s facial expression is unfathomable.

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 circa 1903

 

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 she was hurtling into an abyss from which she would never emerge.

Then, with startling rapidity, everything changed.

 

 

 

Next: The Javanese Princess

The incredible life of Mata Hari, the beautiful World War I-era dancer and spy, is going to be the subject of an upcoming series on Old Spirituals.

In her day, Mata Hari inspired early film stars. Since then, countless artists, actresses, and models have tried to recreate the mystique that was effortless for the Dutch dancer. She was known for many things, including her elaborate costumes and headdresses.

Countless intriguing figures peopled the 20th century, but Mata Hari still fascinates us over 100 years after her death. These photographs may give you some idea of why!

 

 

 

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