Mata Hari, an unveiled mystery

She scandalized society by dancing almost naked when women still wore corsets and their dresses long. Yet a century after her death, Mata Hari remains veiled in mystery.

She scandalized society by dancing almost naked when women still wore corsets and their dresses long. Yet a century after her death, Mata Hari remains veiled in mystery.

A Dutch museum in the Friesian town of her birth is seeking to shed new light on the exotic dancer, bringing together for the first time 150 objects, photos and military archives in the largest-ever exhibition devoted to one of the world’s most famous courtesans and seductresses.

Her story was “a dramatic cocktail of courage and glory, loss and betrayal,” says the museum about the ultimate femme fatale, executed by a French firing squad on charges of being a double agent on October 15, 1917.

Giant black-and-white photos of Mata Hari wearing her barely-there, bejewelled costumes hang on the walls of the Fries Museum in northern Leeuwarden, the town where she was born as Margaretha Zelle in 1876.

Never-before-seen scrapbooks, personal belongings, letters, books and jewelry are on display in “Mata Hari: The Myth and the Maiden” running until April 2. The exhibition is both intimate and surprising. There are posters of her appearances in famous theaters such as the Folies Bergere, and in one room by an antique child’s crib visitors learn her 2-year-old son, Norman, died of syphilis, likely contracted from his mother.

“It is the story of the life of a very famous person who got a lot of attention during her career, got into a lot of trouble, arrested and accused of being a spy,” said museum curator Hans Groeneweg.


Dutch dancer and spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known as Mata Hari

Life ends in tragedy

Margaretha married young to an army officer 20 years her senior, who was based in Indonesia. They had two children, Norman and Non, a girl. But in 1903, aged 27, she fled after divorcing, to Paris, where, penniless, she became a striptease dancer, taking the name “Mata Hari,” Indonesian for “Eye of the Day.”

The objects on display trace her path from being a young girl, to her life as a mother, her exotic career as a courtesan and her journey during the war, as well as other priceless pieces.

“I’m tired of fighting life,” Mata Hari wrote in one letter, appealing that Non, who she’d left behind in the Netherlands, be allowed to join her in Paris.

“Either Nonnie lives with me and I behave like a decent mother, or I’m going to enjoy the beautiful life being offered to me here. I know that life ends in tragedy — but I’m over that.” 


The exhibition “Mata Hari: The Myth and the Maiden,” showcasing her never-before-seen scrapbooks, personal belongings, letters, books and jewelry, is on display at a Dutch museum.

She was a prolific letter writer and there are missives between her and her husband when she was still deeply in love, as well as her son’s baby album lovingly filled in until his death.

“Instead of dancing to the praise of the powerful and famous, I am here, in a hospital room at the bedside of my dying child,” she wrote.

Another letter, written in April 1917 and appealing to a French judge, from her Parisian cell, about her Russian lover, said: “I am desperately worried and I cry all the time. You cannot imagine my suffering. Please release me, I cannot cope with it any longer.”

Many still question whether Mata Hari was a spy? Why, after accepting an offer in 1916 from a German diplomat to spy on France if he paid off her debts, did she become a double agent for France? 

Groeneweg says there is not enough proof to say for certain she was a spy. 

And despite the exhibition, it seems, Mata Hari, who reinvented herself as the Javanese princess who rode elephants, took many of her secrets to the grave.

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