Warning: This story does not end well for our heroine. Mata Hari, the Dutch-born wife, mother, escort and dancer who revolutionized the way erotic dance was viewed in the art world, died by firing squad during World War I for being a double-crossing French and German spy.
She was most likely neither.
Deliciously dramatic, no?
But let’s start from the beginning.
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle in the Netherlands to an affluent family. Her father had a hat company and rolled his spare cash into oil investments which initially grew like wildfire. He was able to give Margaretha and her three brothers an educated, privileged upbringing with the best education money could buy. But at age 13 a series of events folded: the catastrophic loss of her father’s fortune, her parents’ divorce and the subsequent death of her mother sent Margaretha into an interesting spiral. She first lived with her godfather and was on a path to being a kindergarten teacher. But the sexual advancements of the headmaster towards Margaretha so shocked her godfather the he removed her from the program. She was then sent to live with an uncle in The Hague, a further region of the Netherlands.
Alone and somewhat desperate, at 18 she answered a newspaper advertisement posting for a young wife, and soon after married a man twenty years her senior. Born in Scotland but a Captain in the Dutch Army, Rudolph MacLeod was the son of a baron, a wealthy member of the Dutch upper class. This promotion of her status should have guaranteed her a happy marriage along with a healthy bank account. But Captain MacLeod was an alcoholic who often took his rage out on his young wife. They moved to the East Indies.
And this is where the forlorn Margaretha would get the kind of education that she needed.
During this time their relationship was publicly unsteady. She immediately bore two children, but within a few years her son would die of syphilis (her daughter would die of the same illness in her twenties). They each blamed the other for this contraction, as well as MacLeod believing that their servants were against them and had tried to poison them all.
With their home life shaky, MacLeod kept a native concubine as well as his young wife, and Margaretha temporarily moved in with another officer when she decided that she could no longer stand her husband. At his urging she returned. For a while.
While in the East Indies, Margaretha balanced out her unhappiness by observing the local culture. She was fascinated by how the women moved their bodies, and joined a local dance company. There she learned the “exotic” arts, skills that would prove to be extremely useful.
We forget now, with international travel, television and the internet, that there was a time not too long ago when someone’s world could easily be the 10 blocks of their neighborhood, or the 3 miles they walked to town and back. A child living in Brooklyn might never see Manhattan; someone living in Paris might never see the sea.
So when Margaretha and Captain MacLeod returned to the Netherlands and divorced, Margaretha applied what she learned out East and played on the exotic aspect no western performer had yet to cash in on: Mata Hari was born.
Mata Hari moved to Paris in 1903 (then performing under her former husband’s last name, much to the annoyance of his family). While trying her hand as a dancer atop horses in the circus, she began to pose naked for artists. Perhaps it is there that she became comfortable with her naked body, and with displaying it, another tool that would prove extremely useful in helping her to propel to infamy.
Paris greeted Mata Hari warmly. She was working on her form of dance, a kind obviously highly influenced from India. During this time other dancers, in fact the art world in general in Europe, were looking to the more “exotic” cultures of Egypt, India and Asia for artistic inspiration. Mata Hari, who now claimed to be born in India to a royal Hindu family, used the erotic arts she had learned since childhood’ to charm her audience while she danced.
Awesome side note—she would later be put in the same artistic circle as Isadora Duncan, who is credited with creating modern dance.
But it was not just her fabricated foreign origin and how she could move her body like a muscular snake that made her first solo show at the Musee Guimet in Paris sell out and bring her immediate success. It was how comfortable she had gotten with showing off her body, and her confidence in being flirtatious and fun. She was much more revealing than other dancers at the time—in one part of her act she’d dance as she took off her clothing, until she was wearing nothing but a bejeweled bra and necklaces. She’d play and flirt with her audiences, but in a way that was much more graceful and controlled than dancers before her. She combined dance with seduction.
The dance world credits Mata Hari with transferring erotic dance to exotic dance; from something one might see at a seedier club to an art form that could be viewed by both sexes on a grand stage. It was the steady, exotic version of what we may think of as burlesque—a true form of art as well as a sexually charged one.
During this period, naturally, Mata Hari’s sexual lifestyle also became public, and questioned. She became the lover of the owner of the Musee Guimet, a man she would live with and who would support her for several years.
Here is where the definitions of the past and our looking at them with modern eyes conflict a bit. Stories claim that Mata Hari was Msr. Giumet’s mistress for several years, but offer no definition of what that meant. Was he married and she kept in the shadows? Were they “dating”, a concept we don’t bat and eye at now, but one that didn’t really exists as a definition at the time?
Similarly, researchers call her a prostitute, but offer no specific circumstances of her receiving cash solely for a sexual act.
What we can conclude, from what we know of the time she spent with several gentlemen over her course of her short life, was the Mata Hari was most likely what we now know of as an escort. She was educated, refined and had spent much time with the upper classes, much like high-end escorts of today who need to carry these traits in order to please their most elite clients. It was often public knowledge that she was seeing a gentleman, that they were spending time together at the theatre, out to dinners, and at public parties. Again, what we would look at as an escort.
So history may attach the words prostitute or mistress onto our Mata Hari, but for the rest of this story we’ll crown her escort or a courtesan—a much more fitting title.
After her initial success in Paris, Mata Hari would go on to live a very beautiful life, both professionally and personally. Her work was regaled—she toured the most revered theatres across Europe. She was the escort to men of the upper class including politicians and royalty from several countries, who would bring her about in the wealthiest of social circles and pay for her extravagant lifestyle.
But this gypsy-like, bohemian, free-spirited lifestyle that we can so admire and be proud of (for Mata Hari was a genuine and proud woman, one who completely owned who she was), was like a ball of string that was slowly unwinding as World War One was building in Europe. And the art and social gaiety that she was once hailed for would transfer into distrust and doubt.
Being of Dutch origin, which was a neutral country amongst the others in Europe, she was free to move across international borders freely. She did so often, both to perform her escort duties in various regions, plus she was still touring. But her frequent travels and her ability to seduce men made several governments a bit suspicious of this unattached, independent woman.
She was first detained in England, while on a steamship headed out from Spain. She was questioned at length, and after hours of interrogation admitted to being a French spy. She was released to the Savoy hotel and not detained. Why? Because evidently it would be a little scandalous for a renowned dancer and escort to be publicly proclaimed a government spy.
And, most likely, she only admitted to the act so that she could get a little public buzz and the hell out of the police station.
A year later, she was again arrested after German intelligence leaked some information about one of their spies that fell into French and British hands. They assumed it was Mata Hari—that she was working for both governments. Years later documents would be revealed showing that there was absolutely no proof that this was true. Yes, during the period she was crossing borders a lot, and her escorting clients included men in the military and politicians. She was paid by them—but for her time, as an escort would be. And surely they spoke to her about what was going on with their campaigns and countries, but nothing that was so scandalous as to call her a spy. For all accounts and purposes this was an innocent woman.
Mata Hari’s execution was quick and undramatic, and a beautiful, proud event that ended her beautiful, proud life. After her quick trial, she was awakened early one morning in the middle of October, and was told that “it is time”. She wrote two quick letters—to whom we’re not sure—and dressed herself fully: stockings, heels, a silk kimono underneath a velvet and fur coat with a trimmed hood. She didn’t protest, or cry or scream, but dressed herself with dignity.
In the dark hours of morning they drove through her beloved Paris to where 12 soldiers were ready with their rifles drawn. None knew which of them was loaded with bullets, and which with the blanks.
She was taken to the spot where she was to be executed and, after prayers, was about to be blind-folded when she protested; could she not wear one? Her wish was granted, and she looked the men who were about to shoot her in the eyes, keeping her chin up with defiance.
She stood, unbound and with her clear eyes open, and didn’t move a muscle as the guns were aimed at her. The shots were fired, and her body collapsed to the ground.
We told you this would not have the happiest of endings.
But what is important to look at with this story is the life of the woman who lived it and the time in which she lived. Mata Hari lived until age 41—a relatively healthy life span for one who could have had a much more impoverished life, and one much longer than her children or many of the day who died from illness.
She lived by her convictions—she loved her body, loved the company she kept and how she could use dance to both earn her living and bring her into the higher social circles that she loved. She revolutionized a form of dance for future generations.
This was a woman to be not pitied, but respected.
Yes, it is rather dramatic that she was accused of spying for two European countries of which she had no particular loyalty. But even that attention was due to the fact that this was a highly intelligent, popular and skilled artist as well as a fiercely independent woman who knew how to make her way around the world on her own.
She was an escort whose life had bounced all over the globe, in and out of relationships and families, to find that the greatest thing she possessed was herself. And while she lived, she really lived.