Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen (2016)
Mata Hari (1876-1917) was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle to Dutch parents in the Netherlands. From a young age, she knew the power of her feminine sexuality and used it to parlay her way into exotic adventures when she answered a lonely hearts ad by a Dutch captain looking for a wife. They married when she was nineteen; he was twenty-two years older than she, and she wore a bright yellow gown instead of a traditional white dress. They lived in the East Indies, where they had two kids and carried on multiple affairs with other people—leading to a bitter divorce.
When they returned to Holland, her ex-husband ran a newspaper ad warning shops not to give her credit, which left her in dire straits. So she moved to Paris and used her talents to become the world’s most famous exotic dancer and courtesan. In the early 1900s, the French were obsessed with Orientalism, so she adopted the name “Mata Hari”—Indonesian for “eye of the day”—and invented an exotic origin story of being raised in the jungle. She created an East Indies-influenced striptease involving strategically placed scarves and a bejeweled bustier. She mingled with aristocracy, taking many wealthy lovers.
When World War I broke out, she still moved freely between borders because of her Dutch citizenship. Before long, however, French secret agents followed her and hired her to spy on the Germans—based on a suspicion that she was already spying for the Germans. It’s possible that she worked as a double agent, with her true allegiance only to large sums of money. There was no solid evidence of her guilt (perhaps the sign of a truly skilled spy), but the French intelligence service prosecuted her anyway, and she was executed by firing squad. She wore a tailored suit and tricorn hat and refused to be bound or blindfolded as she faced the firing squad. In death, just as in life, she boldly stared down her fate.