Why Mata Hari Wasn't a Cunning Spy After All

Executed 100 years ago, the exotic dancer broke the rules in the early 20th century. But did that cost her her life?

Even at the very beginning of her life, it was clear that Margaretha Zelle would become someone extraordinary. From the early days of her childhood in northern Holland, she stood out: flamboyant, striking in appearance, bold, bright, and gifted in languages. One schoolmate compared her to an orchid among dandelions, contrasting her dark exotic looks with the fair skin and blond hair of most other Dutch children.

Born in 1876, she learned as a young girl that she could get what she wanted by pleasing men, starting with her doting father, Adam Zelle. Margaretha was her father’s overwhelming favorite, and he showered her with extravagant gifts. In 1889, however, Margaretha’s father abandoned the family and ran off with another woman. Her mother, Antje Zelle, died a couple years later, when Margaretha was a teen.

After her mother’s death, Margaretha—thoroughly spoiled and precociously sexual at age 14—was sent away to learn to be a teacher. At 16 she was expelled for having an affair with the married headmaster of the school. From there, she then moved to The Hague, a city full of colonial officials who had returned from service in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia).

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