The Story of Mata Hari
You might be wondering who the elegant woman is in the header of this week’s Swungover. Her name is Mata Hari, and she is a powerful force in the history of exotic dancing as an art form. And, she had, hands down, one of the most fascinating life stories I’ve ever heard. It all sounds like it’d make a great Russian novel, for some reason.
Mata Hari* was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida “Grietje” Zelle MacLeod (why would she want a stage name?). She was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland,** which sounds like a made-up European country, but is actually a part of the Netherlands.
She had a relatively normal childhood, what with a wealthy father who sent her to only the best schools until his bankruptcy and divorce broke up her family and sent her to different god parents and relatives, and an incident where a flirtatious schoolmaster apparently bedded her when she was 16. All perfectly normal.
At 18, she answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper by a man looking for a wife, and soon said “I do,” or whatever they say in Dutch. The man was a colonel in the Dutch army, and they moved to the East Indies, where she had two children. Shockingly, the marriage was a disappointment. The Colonel, who mostly only showed affection to his wife via alcoholic beatings, also kept a native wife in addition to a concubine. She soon left him and moved in with another officer, and began studying the native culture, part of which involved learning the Indonesian dances. She created a new name for herself, Mata Hari, which was Indonesian for “eye of the day” (the sun). She soon moved back in with her husband, and during this time, one of her sons died for possibly one of three reasons:
(1) He died while getting a mercury treatment for the genital syphilis he contracted from his father (ew), which Mata Hari also contracted from her husband.
(2) He was poisoned by a servant.
(3) He was poisoned by one of the many enemies Mata Hari’s husband apparently had, despite him being such a great guy.
The couple finally moved back to the Netherlands and divorced at the turn of the century. In 1903, she moved to Paris.
There, Mata Hari began her life in show business. First, as a circus horse rider. It failed to pay the bills and the owner of the circus recommended she try dancing, which he noticed she was very good at. She followed his advice and then some. She invented a new background for herself and told people she was a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth. She called what she did “sacred dances” which tied together the Indonesian dances she had learned with religion, spirituality, and taking off her clothes. (She often undressed down to nothing but a bra and ornate arm and head jewelry. Even as an exotic strip dancer, she rarely removed her bra for shows or photographs, supposedly because she was self-conscious of having small breasts. Historians think she might have also worn a body stocking in her dance performances, as no navel or genitals could be seen in photos of her shows.) Some descriptions of her dancing bring to mind slow, writhing hip movements, others fast, rhythmic ones: it sounds like a jingle-less form of belly dance.
She was promiscuous, flirtatious, and an overnight sensation. Her act was some of the first exotic dancing to be seen as highly respectable. Parisian society viewed it as part of the bohemian performance explosion that Paris would become known for (like the film Moulin Rouge! kinda-sorta tried to portray.) She also around this time became a first class courtesan, and was soon the lover of royalty, millionaires, politicians, and high-ranking officers of many different European countries. Before the Great War, she was seen as a free spirit and artist. However, as European powers began to collide, people in high places began to be suspicious of the kind of power a seductress of her caliber could have.
Suspicions were not helped when Mata Hari spent a great deal of the war traveling around Europe, making the rounds of her high-profile clients. She also took large amounts of money from men to fund her lifestyle, regardless of the fact some were German politicians. At one point she admitted to being a spy for the French government, but the French government never acknowledged it. (But, that’s not saying much, as governments don’t tend to admit “Yup, that’s one of our spies you got there.”) However, Mata Hari’s “spy admission” could have simply been yet another lie to make her sound intriguing and exotic.
Soon after, however, the French intercepted a message about a German spy codenamed H-21. This spy, the French declared, was Mata Hari. She was executed by firing squad on October 15th, 1917. She reportedly refused the normal actions of being tied to a stake and blindfolded, and faced the squad standing proudly.
Ever since, researchers have found almost every aspect of the conviction of Mata Hari suspicious. For instance, the intercepted German message reportedly used a code the Germans knew the French had already broken at the time they sent it. Much of the evidence pointed to a cover up of some sort, or, at the least, a simple anti-spy frenzy. Alas, the French government sealed the files up for 100 years following the trial. However, in 1985, a biographer apparently convinced the government to open the file early and found the truth: Mata Hari was innocent.
*—Since she’s an incredible dancing personality very few people currently know about, I think this will serve as a great unofficial introduction to a series on incredible-swing-dance-followers-no-one-knows-about. I doubt, however, that any of the original jitterbug followers had such an unbelievable life story. I will therefore be forced to concentrate instead on their swivels.
**— It actually reminds of “Svenborgia,” the name of a European country that only rich people know about, from the TV show 30 Rock.
***—Today’s article was mainly just an edited version of the Wikipedia article on Mata Hari, an article by Tony Rennell, and a few occasional additions thrown in. So, not really original today. Poof. “Plagiarism” has now magically turned into “cited research.”