One of the most intriguing figures in the history is Mata Hari, Dutch courtesan/dancer turned spy in World War I. Triggered by uncomplete/false information I saw at National Geography Indonesia’s website I decided to write this. To make it easier to follow I cut Mata Hari story in three parts. Here is the first one.
Mata Hari was born as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle at 7 August 1876 in Leeuwaarden, North of The Netherlands. She was the only daughter in the Zelle family. Her father, Adam Zelle, run a succesful hat boutique. The family (father, mother, 3 sons and 1 daughter) lived above the boutique. Margaretha learnt French, English and German in her younger years. It was said she often rode a chariot through the street in Leeuwaarden. In 1889 Adam went bankrupt and left his family behind with no money. Margaretha’s mother, Antje van der Meulen asked shortly for a divorce. Antje passed away in 1891 so that Adam, at that time remarried, took care of the children. He sent Margaretha when was she almost fifteen, to an uncle in Sneek. She didn’t stay that long in Sneek and moved to Leiden where she started as a student in a training college (Kweekschool in Dutch: where young girls were trained to be a good wife. The lessons consisted of cooking, sewing and taking care of the household).
At that time Margaretha was truly aware of her appearance. She got men’s attention. Especially that of the college’s director, Wiebe Haanstra. He was attracted to her but she ignored him. One day he called her to his room. Apparently they got something going but somebody came in and saw Margaretha partly undressed. She was expelled from school immediately but strangely the director stayed.
Note from me: another version I read is that Margaretha was quite flirty at school and she was the one who seduced the director.
Margaretha came back to her father who lived in Den Haag (The Hague) by then. She was 17 years old when she saw an advert in the newspaper Nieuws van de Dag: “Officer on home leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet girl of pleasant character object matrimony”. Rudolph MacLeod was a KNIL – Captain. For some of you who wonder why a Dutch captain had a Scottish name: his family settled in The Netherlands in the 17th century. Rudolph was born in 1 March 1856 in Heukelum. His mother was a baroness. When he was 21 years old he was sent to Dutch East Indies as a lieutenant. He fought in Aceh war in 1873 which delivered him the Atjeh-cross (an award). Due to his rheumatism and diabetes Rudolph was seriously weakened and decided to come back to The Netherlands on a sick leave. It was then when his friend encouraged him to put the advert.
Fascinated by men in uniform Margaretha once said: “I am never interested in men who are not in the army. The officer is in my eyes a higher being, a hero, always willing to defy all kinds of hazards and to live the adventure”.
Margaretha reacted to the advert. Their first meeting was in March 1895 at the Rijksmuseum. Despite the age difference of 20 years, they were smitten. Six days later they were engaged. 11 July 1895 Margaretha and Rudolph got married in Amsterdam. The pair became parents of a son, Norman John (born in 30 January 1897).
In May 1887 the MacLeod family parted for Dutch East Indie. In 2 May 1898 their daughter, Louise Jeanne was born in Malang, East – Java. The marriage was soon filled with arguments on daily basis. Rudolph’s drinking was also one of the problems occurred in their relationship. In the summer of 1899 Norman died due to unclear circumstances. Rumors said he died of poisoning, perhaps by one of the housemaids, this was never proven though. Eventually Margaretha and Rudolph had experienced the age and character differences during their whirlwind romance. He wanted to live an easy live after his retirement in 1900 by moving to quiet Sindanglaya (a remote little town in West – Java) but Margaretha wanted to explore the world. She literally said “Leave, I want to leave at any price. I want to explore my life. I don’t want to burry my youth in a cemetery like SIndanglaya. I wish to enjoy life”. Rudolph gave in to his wife’s wish so that the family came back to The Netherlands in March 1902. 5 months later, in August 1902 their separation of bed and board was spoken by the court in Amsterdam.
Divorced and no money
As a divorcée, Margaretha was determined to make it. She had custody of her daughter Non. Rudolph was not always on time in sending her the alimony and she couldn’t hold a job. This and her urge to explore the world brought her to Paris. She took Non to Rudolph and started her adventure in Paris. The story about her time in Paris, transformation to Mata Hari the dancer and her lovers comes in part II of this chain post.
Read also: Mata Hari: part II A Dancer A Lover
Fries Museum: Mata Hari exposition
Mata Hari De levende legende by Marijke Huisman
De tranen van Mata Hari by Tomas Ross