An Exotic Dancer Became One Of WWI’s Most Notorious Spies

In 1916 Mata Hari was in Madrid, anxiously awaiting a high-risk contact. She’s there to see an officer serving at the German Embassy called Major Arnold Kalle. Hari hoped that Kalle would be able to put her in touch with Germany’s Crown Prince Wilhelm. there was a lot on the line. What’s unclear, though, was whether this exotic woman was spying for the French or the Germans – or if she was simply in the game for money. That lingering question followed the femme fatale all the way to her untimely end.

"Sometimes I lose, sometimes I win"

Hari's legacy is a complicated one. According to most historians, she was a devious secret agent. And according to some, she made a living as a double agent. That allegation is still unconfirmed, though either way, the dancer made more enemies than she could handle.

Hari wasn't afraid to roll the dice when chasing her ambitions, and she once quipped, "I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I lose, sometimes I win."

Respectable roots

Long before Hari developed her dangerous reputation, she was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876 in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden. Zelle was the first-born of Antje van der Meulen and her husband, Adam Zelle, who were both in their mid-30s at the time.

The couple also had three sons, and Adam owned a successful milliner’s store. The family therefore had enough money to give Zelle and her siblings a comfortable early upbringing. Zelle even attended upscale schools.

Losing the family fortune

Her earliest years make it seem impossible that the girl would end up being an exotic dancer and spy. But Zelle’s seemingly idyllic childhood and the lavish gifts with which her father had indulged her came to an abrupt end when she was 13 years old.

That’s because Adam had made unwise investments in the oil industry and subsequently lost his fortune. Then, to make matters even worse, Adam left Antje for a woman he’d been having an affair with.

Out on her own

And to top off this unwelcome disruption, Antje died in 1891, just a couple of years later. At the time, Zelle was only 15 years old. So it seems that for Zelle, family life had more or less disintegrated.

Already, the girl found herself in need of a new world, a new identity. She subsequently went to stay at the home of her godfather, named Mr. Visser, in the Dutch city of Sneek.