Mata Hari birthplace destroyed by fire

Artefacts of famous spy lost in blaze that left one person dead

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle or “M’greet” in the terraced house in Leeuwarden, 140km north of Amsterdam.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle or “M’greet” in the terraced house in Leeuwarden, 140km north of Amsterdam.

 

It was eerily fitting that all that remained yesterday of the Dutch birthplace of the infamous first World War spy, Mata Hari, after a weekend fire, was a bronze statue in the street outside depicting her as the muse who captivated Paris at the turn of the 20th century – a persona she herself created.

She was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle or “M’greet” in the terraced house in Leeuwarden, 140km north of Amsterdam.

It had more recently become the Mata Hari Hairdressing Salon and was destroyed at the weekend in a fire that ripped through several properties and left one person dead.

M’greet was born to Adam Zelle, a comfortably off milliner, and his Javanese wife, Antje van der Meulen, at 33 Kelders Street on August 7th, 1876.

But after her father went bankrupt and her parents divorced, she began a life of travel and intrigue in which her origins were quickly discarded.

She found fame as an exotic dancer in the Paris of the early 1900s where she was a contemporary of Isadora Duncan, becoming known for a string of liaisons with politicians, high-ranking military officers and industrialists, in whose company she frequently crossed international borders.

With provincial Leeuwarden but a distant memory, she posed as a Javanese princess from a priestly Hindu background, who had been immersed in the art of sacred dance since childhood.

She was arrested and interrogated by the British on suspicion of espionage in 1916 when her steamer called at Falmouth – showing typical abandon by taking a room at the Savoy Hotel in London on her release.

The following year, however, she was arrested in Paris, accused of being the German spy codenamed “H-21”.

She was charged with causing the deaths of at least 50,000 French soldiers.

She was executed by firing squad in 1917, aged 41, after a short trial – though her guilt has long been disputed.

The name Mata Hari has since become synonymous with the archetypal femme fatale, and she was played in the movies by actresses including Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Sylvia Kristel.

But it wasn’t just her birthplace that was destroyed at the weekend – so were some of the few remaining artefacts giving an insight into the woman behind the legend.

Dozens of photographs of her childhood kept on display in the Mata Hari hairdressing salon were also burned – as was her first school report.