This is the first in a two part expose of the much maligned Mata Hari, a woman far ahead of her time in staking her independence and upholding her ideals.
She was the only girl born into a family of four boys. Her destiny was to indulge in games of piracy and adventure with her brothers that would lead to her inevitable fascination with the world of espionage. Her name was Margaretha Zelle and Leeuwarden, Holland was her first home. She was the second child of Adam Zelle and Antje van der Meulen.
Her father was extremely indulgent of his vivacious, brilliant daughter, with her sparkling black eyes and lustrous hair. He called her an “orchid among buttercups” and encouraged her flair for the melodramatic and natural impetuosity. She wove convoluted, mysterious plots of her ancestry, often telling schoolmates that her cradle stood “in Caminghastate”. This was a mansion in Leeuwarden and the seat of a noble family. Her tales and outlandish behavior won her many admirers, enthralled by her personal magnetism.
When Margaretha turned 13 her father went bankrupt. His flourishing hat business had fallen like a house of cards due to his ill-advised forays into the stock market. The family had no choice but to sell off their elaborate furnishings and home and relocate to a shabby corner on “the other side of the tracks.” Adam Zelle left his family to try his luck in Amsterdam. Antj became depressed upon her husband’s desertion and died when her daughter was a mere fifteen.
Adam Zelle attended the funeral but could not, or would not, take his children. His offspring were summarily distributed amongst their relatives. M’greet, as she was called, went to live with her godfather in Sneek. She was immediately made to feel both an outsider and a charity case. Her height of 5-10 did not help matters in the least because she towered over almost everyone she encountered. At a distinct disadvantage in acquiring suitors her godfather, Heer Visser, suggested that she entertain the notion of becoming a kindergarten teacher. She realized that she would have to find a livelihood and entered a school for teachers run by Heer Wybrandus Hannstra in Leyde.
The school emphasized strict disciplinarianism and M’greet tended to treat her charges as kindred spirits. Struggling with the effort to keep her sympathetic tendencies under control she was swamped by indecision when the school’s proprietor, Heer Wybrandus, confessed that she infatuated him. What he suggested was far from respectable and M’greet bore the brunt of the social disgrace and scandal that ensued.
She sought refuge in the home of her uncle, Heer Taconis. She performed various domestic chores in an effort to ingratiate herself to the family good enough to take her in. She turned eighteen and began considering the matrimonial state. Her prospects were minimal because of her height and small cleavage – she cut a regal figure among her voluptuous, more easily approached cousins.
One evening, as she was browsing the paper, and advertisement caught her eye. It was placed in the personal section of the newspaper without the knowledge of its supposed solicitor. The ad read, – Officer on home leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet girl of pleasant character “object matrimony.” This officer was Rudolf MacLeod, an aging officer whose heavy drinking had only exacerbated his health problems. He had returned to Holland out of necessity and was in desperate need of a caretaker, whether or not he admitted it. Margarethe was immediately captivated by the advertisement, and viewed it as an escape from her present demeaning situation.
The two met, and despite the vast difference of two decades in their ages, were soon professing their love for one another. Because she was only eighteen M’greet had to obtain the permission of her father to wed she secured this blessing and they were wed a scant three months later. There was much gossip as to the cause of such a hastily made arrangement – but the gossip was not borne out. M’greet gave birth to a son, John Norman, more than a year later.
The bright bubble of her newly found happiness soon dissolved. Mr. Macleod was a dissolute womanizer who had no compunction whatsoever about indulging in his vices of gambling and drinking. He was seldom home and his presence was one of stifling abuse and insult. He began to use violence against his wife as a means of control and domination. When her husband informed her that they would be moving to Java she was overjoyed. She looked forward to a change in scenery and habit.
Java was everything she had imagined it would be. The friendly people, lush vegetation and rich culture enchanted her. Unlike the other wives of her circle she embraced the native dress and wore sarongs rather than the assortment of European garments that served as impediments. The marriage deteriorated into a virtual imprisonment in which her husband’s jealous rages often resulted in marital rape. He openly took a concubine and flaunted his ability to do so and her lack of authority in such matters.
Despite Rudolf’s admonitions M’greet learned to speak Malay and became close to the servants. They helped her through the difficulty of her second pregnancy, during the monsoon season. She gave birth to a girl, Jeanne Louise, called by the Malay name Non, by her mother. McLeod was transferred to Sumatra, where he would be commander.
Several months passed before he sent for his family. When he did it became M’greet’s responsibility to give lavish parties. She excelled at this and was able to charm her guests in their native language. MacLeod was proud of her accomplishments and the strain of their marriage eased somewhat.
On June 27, 1889, the world came crashing down about their ears. M’greet was awakened by screaming. She burst into the nursery to find her children writhing in their beds. The room stank of a foul, black vomit. M’greet held the children while Rudolf went in search of a doctor. When they returned Norman was dead. It was widely thought that the children had been poisoned in an act of revenge perpetrated by a mistreated servant.
The marriage fell into its former state. Rudolf drank more heavily and blamed his wife for the death of their son. M’greet fell ill of typhoid and this contributed to her husband’s disgust. Finally realizing that she did not have a liability to remain in a relationship that was so counterproductive to the raising of her daughter, Margarethe filed for divorce.