Mata Hari (7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, was a Dutch spy and the most iconic example of a Femme Fatale Spy ever.
Born in Leeuwarden, at age fourteen her mother died and her father went bankrupt. She went to an all girls' school and after a still-unclarified incident with her teachernote she was suspended from school. After leaving school she fell in love with a military colonial, Rudolf MacLeod who worked in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. In 1895 they married and moved to Indonesia, which allowed her to receive financial stability and notability among rich military officers, whom she fancied more than other men. Their son and daughter were born in this country, but the son died due to poisoning. Her husband blamed her for not keeping a better eye on the boy and when they moved back to the Netherlands they divorced.
In 1905 she went to Paris and started a new life as an exotic dancer in salons. She called herself Mata Hari (translation: "Eye Of Dawn" in Malay language, and one of many names for The Sun) and combined her so-called Indonesian ritual dances with striptease acts. A long series of performances and affairs with rich officers followed. She became a local celebrity, toured around many European cities but when World War I broke out the bank froze her money because she was a foreigner. As a result she went back to her native country broke, disgraced and unhappy. She moved in with an old lover who had enough money to help her survive. Still she missed her old luxury life and moved back to Paris. She began performing as she did before and having affairs with officers. The French intelligence service thought she might be useful to gain secret information from these officers and thus they asked her to spy for them. She agreed but, contrary to legend, most info she provided them was useless, because they had already found these things out. Many sources describe her as a naïve and gullible woman, living in a self-created fantasy world where she imagined herself to actually be the Indonesian exotic dancer she claimed to be in her acts. She did have Hidden Depths though: she spoke five languages: Dutch, German, French, English and Malay (Bahasa Indonesia wasn't invented yet).
In 1917 she was arrested by the French authorities under suspicion of being a double agent both for them as well as the Germans. There was no proof, except a German officer referring to her under a code name in a letter. It is now thought that the Germans deliberately used her to put the French on the wrong tracknote . She was eventually Court-martialed in a trial with a foregone conclusion. Her defense attorney, veteran international lawyer Edouard Clunet, faced impossible odds: he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly. Thus she was sentenced for high treason and Shot at Dawn. An issue of The New Yorker claimed that she was made to wear "a neat Amazonian tailored suit, especially made for the occasion, and a pair of new white gloves", but another account claimed that she wore the same low-cut blouse and tricorn hat ensemble which had been picked out by her accusers for her to wear at trial. However, neither account is consistent with the photographic evidence, and are likely false, especially considering that another myth claims she blew a kiss to the firing squad before the order to shoot was given. Not to mention the even less believable Urban Legend that she attempted stripping when she was in front of the firing squad for her execution, apparently on the belief that no one could shoot a body like hers. It didn't work, but it's not like she had a better option at that point.
After her death Mata Hari became a legend. Several books, novels, comics, cartoons and films have been devoted to her, many depicting her as a Femme Fatale Spy far more beautiful, intelligent, and seductive than she actually was in Real Life. Her tragic love life and self-created Indonesian origin story have also been subject to a lot of romanticization and Fanservice fantasies. She is one of the most iconic sex symbols of the 20th century and has been portrayed on screen by Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Jeanne Moreau and Sylvia Kristel. Despite all that, her importance (not to mention competence) as a spy was greatly exaggerated. For a more successful Real Life example of this trope, Josephine Baker would be a much better choice. Or as a Spear Counterpart, Roald Dahl.
Her trial has also been the subject of many documentaries trying to uncover whether she was guilty or not. Up until the 1960s many believed the verdict to be true, but new research since then has cast more doubt over these accusations. Whatever the case she will likely remain a Historical Domain Character that will keep on inspiring many more expy Femme Fatale Spy stories to come.
For the film based on her life, see Mata Hari.
Mata Hari in popular culture
- Mata Hari: Greta Garbo plays the titular sexy dancing spy in a Very Loosely Based on a True Story account.
- The Three Stooges: In the film You Nazty Spy! a female spy called "Mattie Herring" appears to try assassinate the Stooges during their tenure as dictators.
- Marta Bond, the illegitimate daughter of Mata Hari and James Bond in the spoofy Casino Royale (1967) is this trope played for maximum silliness. The daughter is played by a 25-year old Joanna Pettet, but she would have to be 50 at least. But then, this movie is not at all logical or linear.
- Notorious: Alicia Huberman is asked by the US government to seduce (and eventually marry) a Nazi agent in order to have someone with inside access to his house who can look out for the illegal activities the US government suspects are going on in there. When told the nature of her assignment, Alicia mentions Mata Hari, saying "Mata Hari, she makes love for the papers."
- Inglourious Basterds: Bridget von Hammersmark is an Expy of Mata Hari, though relies more on her fame from being a movie star than her sexual charm, though. During a guessing game she plays with the others Mata Hari is one of the answers.
- In Suspiria (1977), Olga refers to herself as Mata Hari in her first scene. It foreshadows that Susie will become a spy into the strange goings on at the academy.
- Played by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Up the Front where she has to seduce Frankie Howerd to retrieve the German army's master plan.
- Played by Betty Marsden in a brief scene in Carry On Regardless.
- In the author's note at the end of The Alice Network, Mata Hari was described as a "sultry untrustworthy harlot."
[F]emale spies were seen either as Madonnas or whores: stainless visions of purity like the martyred Edith Cavell, or sultry untrustworthy harlots like Mata Hari.
- Anno Dracula: She is mentioned to be one of Dracula's vampire brides in the first book. She cameos in the second one, which is set during World War I and she is executed by French soldiers with silver bullets. She was being used as a scapegoat for a failed offensive and she scoffs at the idea, having only found out about it shortly before everyone else did.
- Doctor Who: In a Noodle Incident in "Prequel Pond Life", the Doctor mentions meeting the famed seductress in a Paris hotel room. All we see is that her dress hits the floor and the crumpet the Doctor is toasting rises in response.
- The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Yes, apparently Henry Jones Junior lost his virginity to the Mata Hari in World War I.
- Alias: One of TWOP's favorite nicknames for Irina is "Mama Hari".
- In an episode of Charmed Richard attempts to use a spell to cleanse his karma, but it somehow ends up imbuing Phoebe with Mata Hari's leftover karma — making Phoebe think she is the famous spy.
- Mentioned by name by The Real Roxanne in her Answer Song to UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne".
You said your name was Gary, didn't choose to call you Barry, didn't care if your name was Mother Mata Hari.
- Also mentioned in "As You Turn To Go", a song by Stephin Merrit written for his musical project The 6ths:
I know I'm not supposed to say "I'm sorry"I know you've had more loves than Mata Hari
- Dschinghis Khan wrote a song about her.
- Atomic Fireballs wrote a song about her, indicating she may have had some voodoo abilities(a major theme of the band's music)
- Azerbaijan's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest 2021, "Mata Hari" by Efendi, uses her as its namesake and evokes her historical persona in the lyrics.
- The adventure game Mata Hari is based on her. Reviews have been mixed, but the general consensus is it's So Okay, It's Average.
- Margarete from the original Shadow Hearts game is Mata Hari. In the series' Alternate History she has never been a dancer, and is portrayed as a stereotypical "superspy", complete with ridiculous gadgets for her special skills.
- In Fate/Grand Order, Mata Hari can be summoned as an Assassin class Servant. She is relatively weak, but can paralyze many enemies with lust. Compared to her official pictures, Mata Hari in this game for some reason has huge boobs.
- In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Snake refers to Eva as "a regular Mata Hari", to which she responds, "The least you could do is call me Cynthia."
- In Toontown Online, when fighting the Cashbot Chief Financial Officer, you are greeted by a Monkey Toon named "Mata Hairy", an obvious reference to her, as she guides the toons throughout the fight. She wears a Cashbot disguise that is randomly rolled every time you fight the boss.
- This is taken further in Toontown: Corporate Clash, in which cog disguises use the cog's head rather than your toon head, complete with cog voices and onomatopoeia note . She also plays a larger role in the Story as you have to meet up with her before fighting the CFO for the first time.
- While she doesn't appear in the flesh, Claudia Jerusalem from Dies irae ~Interview with Kaziklu Bey~ really looks up to Mata Hari and is in general a huge fan of hers.
- The Looney Tunes Wartime Cartoon Plane Daffy features a seductive Nazi spy pigeon named Hatta Mari (who, despite the origin of her name, didn't look like her and was said to be a precursor to what Jayne Mansfield would look like in real life).
- Discussed in Tintin and the Lake of Sharks: When Tintin catches ugly old housekeeper Madame Black red-handed, he tells her "Spies have changed a lot since Mata Hari, haven't they?"