Mata Hari Uncovered

August 30, 2017

Dancer, courtesan, spy: on the centenary of her execution, how much do we really know about the woman behind the legend?

Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer and convicted spy, once told a journalist why she left Holland for Paris in 1902: ‘I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris.’ In another version of this transformative moment, she arrived at the Gare du Nord, with half a franc in her pocket, and went straight to the Grand Hotel on fashionable rue Scribe.

Neither recollection of these events was true, strictly speaking; yet in interviews, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod would glide seamlessly from the harsh and mundane reality of her abusive marriage straight to performing at the best venues across Europe. While Mata Hari’s story has always attracted media attention for the light it sheds on the intelligence services during the First World War, its enduring appeal lies in its significance for feminist historians.

Gretha (as she was known before her fame) could have easily followed the trajectory of the fallen angel, so beloved of Victorian writers, slipping from bourgeois respectability into prostitution and an ignominious early death. But as an expert at self-fashioning, she transformed herself into an ‘Oriental’ exotic – taking the stage name Mata Hari: eye of the day, the dawn in Malay – whose fluid moves and revealing costumes were considered by contemporary critics to be the height of modernist expression. Mata Hari defied expectations, and yet the angel did fall from that brief moment of grace when she trespassed into the male sphere of espionage, unaware that this was more than just another performance.

The story of Mata Hari, the double-agent executed by the French military on espionage charges in a suburb of Paris on a damp October morning in 1917, belongs to the history of the intelligence services; but it is also a story of female defiance. The metamorphosis of the hat-maker’s daughter from Leeuwarden in the Dutch province of Friesland into a ‘star of dance’, then ‘the greatest spy of the century’, reveals much about the social roles (and limitations) placed upon even bourgeois women in the fin de siècle. Women such as Gretha needed to be tactical to gain financial independence from their husbands and fashion their own identities, to hide shameful or abusive pasts. In Mata Hari’s case, her self-invention as a stage performer coincided with the cross-currents of modernist art, the burgeoning of haute couture and the opening up of female spaces within the theatre. Mata Hari was at this febrile epicentre.

Not only were her performances on stage in demand, but she enjoyed favourable critical comparisons with the modernist dancers Isadora Duncan and Maud Allan, and was courted by haute-couture designers as well. In 1908, she was photographed ‘in a sensational clinging robe of antique blue chiffon-velvet trimmed with chinchilla’ at the Grand Prix d’Automne at the Longchamp races.

The same year, the designer Paul Poiret accompanied three of his mannequins in identical Hellenistic gowns to the races, where their dresses, side-split to the knee to reveal coloured stockings, caused outraged comment in the press. Like Poiret, Mata Hari engaged in a cross-media campaign, promoting her skills by appearing at fashionable venues that included the Bois de Boulogne, where she would lease a house in 1911.

This year’s centenary of Mata Hari’s death comes at a moment when the Dutch are beginning to reclaim their compatriot after long being ashamed of her reputation as a tawdry peddler of sex and espionage. A major new exhibition of her life, ‘Mata Hari: The Myth and the Maiden’, will open at the Fries Museum in her hometown of Leeuwarden this October, while the Dutch National Ballet last year debuted a production based on her life and choreographed by Ted Brandsen. Both encourage a more sympathetic view of Mata Hari as a woman who rose above her difficult circumstances to enjoy international celebrity, before she was scapegoated by the French at the end of the war, her life cruelly taken as a symbolic vanquishment of female enemies of the state.

The psychological and historical forces that brought Gretha to the execution grounds of Vincennes have their roots in the sleepy northern Dutch provincial capital of Leeuwarden. Born in 1876 to Adam and Antje Zelle, Gretha briefly enjoyed an indulged childhood. But before she turned 15 her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced, and her mother died. Gretha lived with relatives before enrolling in a teacher-training college in Leiden, where the 51-year-old headmaster could well have abused her, and she left under a cloud of sexual scandal.

In 1895, with marriage her only prospect of respectability, she answered a lonely hearts ad in an Amsterdam newspaper, and four months later she married Colonel Rudolph MacLeod, known as ‘Johnny’. She was 18, he 39 – a battle-weary, hard-drinking officer in the East Indies Army, regarded as the black sheep of his aristocratic family.

After their son Norman was born in 1897, the MacLeods set sail for Java, where their daughter Non was born the following year. In the five years that Gretha lived in these islands, she evolved the persona that would become Mata Hari. She appeared in soos (European am-dram societies), dressing up in fantastic costumes and enacting Orientalist tableaux, and observed traditional Javanese court dancers whose precise and fluid movements she would later imitate.

Such moments of splendour, however, were rare as their marriage was marked by Johnny’s proclivity for whoring, drunkenness and debt. Then, in 1899, Norman died of an undiagnosed illness. Later, Gretha confessed her fears that Johnny had infected the boy with syphilis. The mercury treatment he received could have caused his death.

The couple separated soon after returning to the Netherlands in 1902. Gretha was awarded legal custody of Non, but with Johnny withholding financial support she struggled to keep her. After losing a battle with the Dutch government for a share of Johnny’s military pension, Gretha headed for Paris, leaving Non with family friends. There she explored her options as a lady’s companion and a teacher of German conversation and the piano. She took rooms, not at the Grand Hotel, but at an English guesthouse in the 14th arrondissement which she found ‘really rather awfully austere’.

Aspiring to work as a ‘house mannequin’ (the precursor of fashion models), she applied to the House of Worth, famous for its sumptuous crinoline gowns and winning Empress Eugenie’s patronage. She also left her details with Redfern and Sons, a British tailoring firm credited with popularising the high-waisted Grecian style of dress. Gretha was optimistic about her chances because, as she explained in a letter to a family friend: ‘I have an extremely good figure.’ Perhaps she was aware, too, that designers invited female buyers and their husbands to inspect the mannequin’s ‘flesh as well as fabric’, a concept that the society couturière Lady Duff-Gordon was already practising in London.

As an artist’s model, designer’s mannequin or on-stage performer, she understood that her body was a commodity for sale

The rise of haute couture crossed over into the theatre, with popular actresses operating as models, and ‘rather than appearing on stage as women who sold their bodies, they became women who sold elegant attire to society ladies’, as the historian Lenard Berlanstein wrote in Daughters of Eve (2001). Theatres were now more welcoming for female audiences as productions were expected to include scenes in which famous designers paid actresses to advertise their luxurious outfits. But while fees and levels of respect for women working in theatre had risen, ingénues such as Gretha were still expected to trade sexual favours for an entrée into the profession.

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