In the early hours of Oct. 15, 1917, Mata Hari — one of the most famous spies of the 20th century — was shaken awake in her prison cell. Her time had come.

Given a pen, ink, paper and envelopes, Mata Hari was allowed to write two letters, according to an account by journalist Henry G. Wales, a correspondent for the International News Service. She hastily scribbled the notes before donning her black stockings, high heels and a velvet cloak lined at the bottom with fur.

“I am ready,” she said.

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She was driven from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to an old fort on the outskirts of Paris. It was just past 5:30 a.m. when she faced her firing squad: 12 French officers with their rifles at ease. Offered a white cloth to wear as a blindfold, Mata Hari refused, saying: “Must I wear that?”

Legend has it that as the officers drew their weapons, Mata Hari, 41, blew a kiss to her executioners.

Then they fired.

For the past 100 years, Mata Hari has been revered as the ultimate femme fatale — the seductive, glamorous exotic dancer who spied for the Germans during World War I and caused the deaths of thousands of Allied soldiers. She captured the imaginations of people around the world long after she met her fate.


Greta Garbo portrayed the glamorous Mata Hari in the 1931 film about her. (Associated Press)

This influence on popular culture was fueled  by Greta Garbo’s portrayal of her in the 1931 film, “Mata Hari,” which was repeatedly censored for its risqué scenes.

Historians are now debunking many of the myths about Mata Hari that have endured for decades. Earlier this year, trial archives kept confidential by the French were released to the public. And a cache of Mata Hari’s personal and family letters were recently published. Taken together, the documents recast the Great War’s most notorious spy as a mother who left an abusive marriage, and as a scapegoat for war-torn France looking to distract from heavy casualties on the front lines.

“We wanted to try to get a grip of her life, not only as a big star but also as a mother, as a child, as someone who is not only the dancer or the beauty queen, but the complete picture,” said Hans Groeneweg. Groeneweg is the curator of a museum exhibit, which opened Saturday, on Mata Hari at the Museum of Friesland in her hometown of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle to a prosperous family in 1876. When Margaretha was a teenager, her father, a hat seller, lost his fortune and left the family. Then her mother died when Margaretha was 15, and she was sent away to live with relatives.

At 18, Margaretha met and soon married Rudolph John MacLeod, an officer in the East Indies Army who was almost twice her age. The couple left for the Dutch East Indies where they lived for four years in military garrisons.

But the marriage was troubled at best, and abusive at worst. In one of her letters, Margaretha wrote that MacLeod “came close to murdering me with the bread knife. I owe my life to a chair that fell over and which gave me time to find the door and get help.”

The couple also lost a son and nearly lost a daughter after both were widely rumored to have been poisoned by a nanny, though it’s unclear whether the story is true.

Margaretha and MacLeod eventually returned to Holland and separated, but MacLeod refused to pay alimony to help Margaretha raise her daughter. Margaretha ultimately went to Paris and left her daughter with her ex-husband. 

“She had to make a choice: go to France and get a life for herself, or be poor and live in poverty and try to raise her child,” Groeneweg said. “She chose to go to France and build up a career, but she always missed her girl.” 


Mata Hari at the racetrack in 1911. (Museum of Friesland Collection, Leeuwarden)

In another letter, Margaretha wrote that she had secured a job with a theater company but was also sleeping with men for pay. “Don’t think that I’m bad at heart,” she wrote to her ex-husband’s cousin, who had been acting as an intermediary. “I have done it only out of poverty.”

It was in her acting and dancing roles that Margaretha took on the name that would outlive her: Mata Hari.

Perhaps the most significant plot twist to Mata Hari’s legacy is that she did not divulge any information of consequence to the Germans. Shamed in the international press as a traitor, she was accused of revealing closely kept secrets about Allied tanks, leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers. Her relationships with German and French officers put her under special scrutiny, as did her travels crisscrossing through Europe during the war.

Mata Hari’s lifestyle certainly didn’t help her case.

“She had always been used to talking with officers, going out with them, dancing with them, living with them,” Groeneweg said. “In a totally different surrounding, in wartime, those officers that she loved so much were against her. It must have been very difficult for her to get a grip of that time.”

Groeneweg said that Mata Hari was a “big catch” for the French, who were eager to jail anyone suspected of spying. Even so, Groeneweg said the French feared what Mata Hari could reveal about her dalliances with their own officers, including a high-ranking general.


Police photo of Mata Hari  in 1917, before her execution as a spy at the age of 41. (Museum of Friesland Collection, Leeuwarden)

In piecing together the complete picture of Mata Hari, Groeneweg said much of her famed legacy is legend, and nothing more. 

It is true, for example, that in her final moments, Mata Hari denied a blindfold and stared steadfastly at her firing squad as a priest, nuns, and her lawyer backed away.

She did not, however, blow a final kiss. Rather, according to Wales’s account, “she did not move a muscle.”

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