She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876, and seems to have decided early on to use her beauty as her coin to buy herself a future. In 1895, she became a mail-order bride, after answering an ad inserted by Rudolf MacLeod, a military captain in the Duch East Indies. He was 21 years older than her 19.
Their marriage was disastrous. He drank heavily and she enjoyed the attention she received from other officers. After nine years, her husband took their daughter and left, and Mata Hari moved to Paris.
There, she became the mistress of a diplomat and an exotic dancer. She billed herself as a Hindu artist, and drew on cultural and religious symbolism from the East Indies to create her own form of ‘temple dance’.
As she grew older, she took lovers to supplement her income. In 1916, nearing 40 and plump, her dancing days behind her, she accepted an assignment to spy for France.
Was she a double-agent for the Germans? The Germans claimed she was, in a letter that was intercepted by the French. At her trial, she said: “A courtesan; I admit it. A spy, never! I always lived for love and pleasure.”
She was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.