Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. She was the second child of four born to Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen. Her father owned a hat store and was also invested in the oil industry, therefore he was wealthy enough to send his children to upper class schools until he went bankrupt in 1889. After the bankruptcy, her parents divorced and her mother died two years later in 1891. Mata Hari moved in with her godfather, Heer Visser, who lived in Sneek. She decided to study teaching in Leiden, but her godfather pulled her out of the school after the headmaster started flirting with her.

A few months later, she moved to the Hague to live with her uncle. At age eighteen, she found an ad in a newspaper placed by Rudolf John MacLeod, who was in search of a wife. She decided to marry him in Amsterdam, but they had to move to the island of Java, now part of Indonesia, since he was an officer in the Dutch Colonial Army. There, they had two children, Jeanne-Louise and Norman.

Unfortunately, their marriage did not go very well. MacLeod was a raging alcoholic and often took his frustrations out on her. He also cheated on her with a native wife and a concubine. She decided to move out and live with a man named Van Rheedes, another Dutch officer. Over the next several months she studied Indonesian culture and joined a local dance company. In 1897, she adopted the stage name Mata Hari, which is Malaysian for "eye of the day".

She decided to move back in with MacLeod, but their son died in 1899 and MacLeod continued to abuse her. The circumstances of the child's death were unusual, with some attributing it to syphilis contracted from his parents, while others believe that he may have been poisoned by enemies of the family. The couple moved back to the Netherlands in 1903, where they divorced and Rudolf took custody of their daughter, Jeanne-Louise. Jeanne-Louise also died at age 21.

In 1903, Mata Hari moved to Paris and became a horse rider in a circus, working on the side as a model for artists. She also started working as an exotic dancer, looking to Asian culture for inspiration in her dance style and costumes. The debut exotic dancing performance was at the Musee Guimet on March 13, 1905 and it made her an overnight success. She continued performing around the city and actively sought attention by having photographs taken of her in revealing costumes and sending them to local newspapers. To impress readers, she spun stories about growing up in India and learning the Indian style of dancing from childhood. She also hired a man named Gabriel Astruc as a booking agent.

Her work caught the eye of Emile Etienne Guimet, the founder of the Musee Guimet, who was also a millionaire industrialist. She became his mistress, but continued performing as an exotic dancer and publishing nude and semi-nude photographs of herself. Some of the pictures were even used by her former husband, MacLeod, to justify his keeping custody of their daughter.

During a typical performance, she would begin the act in Eastern-style dress and jewelry, gradually shedding clothing until she wore only a jeweled bra and some jewelry on her arms and head. She rarely went topless since she was self-conscious about the size of her breasts. Her exotic dancing was incredibly popular in France and helped to make it a more respected art. Many believed her stories about growing up in India and it helped reinforce her exotic and seductive image. By 1910, several imitators also began performing in the same style in an attempt to gain the same level of popularity. She also engaged in numerous short-lived relationships with military officers, politicians, and businessmen from a variety of countries.

When World War I broke out, the Netherlands remained neutral and, as a Dutch citizen, Mata Hari was able to continue moving freely between countries to perform. Most of her performances took place in France, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands. Her relationships with military officers caught the attention of British intelligence, who interrogated her. She confessed to working as an agent for France, but since the British were allied with France, they did not press charges.

In January of 1917, German officials in Madrid transmitted messages over radio to Berlin describing the assistance of a spy code-named H-21. French intelligence intercepted the transmissions and used the information to determine that Mata Hari was the person being referred to as H-21. An interesting point is that the Germans were using code that they knew had been broken by the French and it was unclear if the information had been made-up to distract French intelligence. Regardless, Mata Hari was arrested by French authorities on February 13, 1917 in Paris.

Mata Hari's execution by the French

The French put her on trial with charges of spying for Germany and aiding in the deaths of French soldiers. She was found guilty and sent to prison to await execution by firing squad on October 15, 1917 at the age of 41. Much speculation abounds about whether she was actually a spy for the Germans. Some believe that she was used as a scapegoat by the man who had recruited her, Georges Ladoux, who was later arrested for working as a double agent for Germany. Following her death, Mata Hari's head was embalmed and placed in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. More details about Mata Hari's past will be available after the French Army releases sealed court documents in 2017. In 1931, a film called "Mata Hari" was made, with Greta Garbo in the leading role. The plot was based on real events, but most of it was fictional to make it more appealing to movie-goers.