Born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, as Margraetha Geertruida Zelle, the woman known to history as Mata Hari began life in quite ordinary circumstances. her father, a hatter, was a wealthy businessman, and she prepared for a career as a teacher.
Margaretha moved to Paris in 1903 and began to support herself as an exotic dancer. First she used the name Lady Macleod, then changed it to Mata Hari, Malay for “Eye of the Dawn” or “Eye of the Day.” Linking her dancing to Hindu religion, she danced in a museum of Asian art that resembled a temple.
By 1905 or 1907, she seems to have been passing information to the Germans. During World War I, Mata Hari traveled as a dancer between The Hague and Paris. In occupied Belgium, she may have used her contacts to pick up secrets and pass them along to the French. They became suspicious and arrested Mata Hari on February 13, 1917, on charges of spying.
The French tried Mata Hari in a military court and sentenced her to die by firing squad. She was executed five months after her arrest.
Today, it is widely believed that the French allegations were considerably exaggerated.
By Jone Johnson Lewis, About.com Guide