Today is the birthday of that legendary Siren Margaretha Geertruida “M’greet” Zelle MacLeod, better known as Mata Hari (1876-1914). Her career as a spy working for the Germans during World War One has overshadowed her period as an artist, but who can say they regret it? It’s such a cool story! A native of the Netherlands she married an army officer in the Dutch West Indies in 1895 after answering a newspaper advertisement. The marriage was a disaster, but the experience did allow her to study local Indonesian dance (the name “Mata Hari” comes from the Indonesian for “sun”). In 1903 she moved to Paris where she became a circus bareback rider, nude artists’ model, exotic dancer, and, finally, high-priced courtesan. Her act, which involved stripping to near nudity, was both a scandal and the toast of Paris. She enjoyed great success on the stage through about 1912; by 1915 she had quit dancing and was strictly a courtesan, and, yes, a German spy. Her status as a Dutch national (the Netherlands were neutral in the war) allowed her transit throughout Europe, making her invaluable. Unfortunately, she was caught in 1917 and executed by firing squad, although real conclusive evidence of her guilt did not emerge until the 1970s. Since her death she has been the subject of countless books, plays and films.
To find out more about the history of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.