Mata Hari's Cordial
Mata Hari was the ultimate real-life femme fatale. An exotic dancer who used her charms to seduce powerful men, she was ultimately fatal only to herself, since she was shot as a spy during WWI. Her reputation as a disreputable, decadent woman of loose morals played a role in her downfall.
She was born Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in Holland to a family of means, but disaster struck during her teenage years. Her father went bankrupt in 1889, her mother died in 1891, her father remarried, and Margaretha was sent to live with a godfather. To escape her unhappy situation, she became a mail order bride, answering an ad placed by an Indonesia-based Dutch army captain with aristocratic antecedents, Rudolf MacLeod.
The couple moved to Java in 1897, where Margaretha studied Indonesian culture and dance, and took the performance name Mata Hari, meaning "sun" in the local language (literally "the eye of day"). The marriage was not a success: MacLeod was abusive, and Margaretha contracted syphilis (possibly from her husband who kept a local mistress), which was passed on to their two children (one died in infancy, the other two decades later). The MacLeods returned to the Netherlands and separated in 1902.
Needing to earn a living, Margaretha moved to Paris in 1903 and worked as a circus horse rider and artist's model before finding success as an exotic dancer. As part of her act, she presented herself as a Javanese princess of Hindu birth, but many people believed this act was real. She became the mistress of Emile Guimet, founder of the musée Guimet, and was also part of Natalie Barney's circle (Barney knew many courtesans through her ex-lover Liane de Pougy).
Mata Hari's success as a courtesan placed her in the circles of an international elite of powerful men, and when war broke out in 1914 she was recruited as a spy for France. The details of her espionage are complex and still debated, but it appears that French authorities sold her out and she was arrested as a double agent in 1917 and used as a scapegoat for French military failures.
She was tried and sentenced to death by firing squad, an execution carried out in October, 1917, and described by eye witnesses. Her body was not claimed, so it was used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, where it disappeared (possibly as early as 1954).
Her life inspired many stories and cultural references, beginning shortly after her death and continuing to this day. Perhaps the most iconic is her portrayal by Greta Garbo in the Hollywood film "Mata Hari" in 1931.