As Mata Hari originated from the Netherlands, her whereabouts have been studied thoroughly over there. Cutting away the legend, these efforts have reduced Mata Hari to a normal female of flesh and blood.
Margaretha Zelle (a very Dutch name, by the way) was born in the Dutch provincial town of Leeuwarden, in 1876. Her father was a well-doing merchant in hats and head-wear. Consequently young Margaretha was raised in luxury, and sent to the best schools. There she learned how to move in the upper layers of society, a quality that served her very well later on.
In 1889-'91 things took a bad turn: Margaretha's father bankrupted and her mother died. Her family split up, and Margaretha was sent to several relatives. One of them placed the 15-year old girl in a school for child-care. Margaretha's education there ended abruptly, though, when she was caught sitting half-naked on the school director's lap. Characteristic for the morals of those days, Margaretha was expelled while the director kept his job.
Oriental influences entered Margaretha's life when she met an officer of the Dutch colonial army. After having known each other for four months, they married in 1895. Two years later the couple sailed for the Dutch East Indes (= nowadays' Indonesia). The monotonuous life over there soon bored Margaretha, and in 1902 she forcefully persuaded her husband to return to the Netherlands.
By that time their marriage was on the rocks, and in 1903 Margaretha arrived in Paris. Legend tells that she was discovered in a pub in Montmartre (= the Paris' artists district), performing a snake-dance in the nude. Reality states that Mata Hari's breakthrough came in March 1905, when she performed 'Oriental' dances for a Paris jet-set audience. Her dancing included the dropping of one veil after another, ending up naked.
Back in 1905 'Oriental' was in full fashion, and Mata Hari fabulously adapted to popular taste. She lives on for this, which is all the more impressive as we are only left with a few photographs. Back then there was no television, video, or sound-taping!
Mata Hari danced on, in 1913 even performing in the renowned Scala-opera house in Milano, Italy. However, this highlight was followed by a cold shower. She was rudely turned down, not to say humiliated, by 'Les Ballets Russes'. This was a high-quality Russian ballet ensemble, featuring celebrities like Diaghilev and Nijinski.
In her private life Margaretha changed from lover to lover, displaying a distinct preference for the glitter of military uniforms. In those days it was a gentleman's honor to support a lady in distress, and Margaretha surely knew how to exploit this. Settling down in an expensive hotel without any money, she made her lover pay the bill the day after.
When in 1914 Worldwar I broke out, Margaretha showed herself not in the least interested in its political and military course. She only was annoyed that she couldn't travel freely through Europe anymore. The war also reduced her financial means.
Neglecting any danger, Margaretha kept on having affairs with officers of different nationalities. Including those of the warring enemies France and Germany. Her need of money supposedly forced her to accept German payment to spy on France. It doesn't matter if this is true, for Margaretha surely would have messed up.
In 1917, when France's military position was almost desperate, the French army arrested Mata Hari. After a trial she was shot on October 15. Up to this day her court-documents are secured in the French army archives; they will be released in 2017.
Apart from her great ability to suit popular taste, Mata Hari's tragic fate also symbolizes that of Europe. After decades of idle glitter and shine, in 1914 this continent went down into a devastating war, never to fully recover again.
Today there is not much left of Mata Hari. After her death her scarce possessions were auctioned off. Her personal servant for years, Dutch girl Anna Lintjens, only preserved a few of her documents. And, most important, two albums containing cards of Margaretha's many lovers and beneficiairies. They are exhibited in the Frisian museum in Leeuwarden, in a special Mata Hari-room. Her native town still helds Margaretha Zelle in high esteem, ignoring that in essence she was no more than a common prostitute.