Mata Hari and the Belle Epoque

For my historical research project, I have decided to link it in with my previous project based on Mata Hari.

Life of Mata Hari

She was born Margeretha Geertruida Zelle on 7th August 1876 in Leeuwardan and had 3 younger brothers. Margeretha was spoilt by her father who gave her extravagant gifts and told her that she was his favourite. Her father was a very vain man which led him to recieving the nickname of 'the Baron' because of his pretentiousness and posing. In the Fries museum, there is a painting of Adam Zelle that he had specially commissioned and donated to the museum. The painting depicts himself on horseback and full military regalia. In 1883 Adam's business was doing well and he sent his daughter to learn elegant manners, singing, piano, handwriting and French at a private school.

In 1889, Margeretha's father declared bankrupcy and left home to find work, leaving the family crowded into a small upstairs apartment. After he returned things were no better and he and his wife divorced. Shortly after, she died. The boys were sent to her father and his new woman but Margeretha was not. She was instead sent to her Uncle. It was likely that the new woman did not want to look after a spoilt 15 year old who liked to be the centre of attention. Within weeks of her moving, her uncle and aunt had told her that she was unlikely to ever have a husband as she was not as beautiful as she always thought, she had no dowry and her family name had been disgraced. They also told her that French, piano playing and good handwriting was not going to get her a good career so using some money that her grandparents had left after her mothers death, they sent her to a boarding school in Leiden where she was to train to become a primary school teacher.

In 1893, she was sent home from school in shame for having an affair with the headmaster who was 51 and married whilst she was only 16. After she was sent home, her uncle didn't take her back in, she was instead sent to more relatives in 'The Hague'. This is where she met her future husband, Rudolf McLeod, a soldier 20 years her senior.

"Though the Indies Army recongnised a senior officer's need for a wife, he was still required to obtain permission before marrying, a regulation apparently intended to ensure that the wife of a senior officer had a suitable social background and was presentable in society. Lower-class wives, such as enlisted men or NCOs might wed, were viewed by the high command with a sort of disgust" (Shipman, Femme Fatale, pg.40)

He was a heavy drinker, womaniser with poor health and it was suspected that he had syphillis. A friend put an add in the newspaper looking for a wife and several people responded including Margeretha who also included a photo of herself. They continued correspondance and eventually met. 6 days later they were engaged. In the Netherlands in the 19th century, a formal engagement legally bound them together meaning if Rudolf backed out he would be liable for breach of contract. She signed all her letters with 'your future little wife'. She also often talked about her 'chemise of rose silk'.  It is unclear whether Rudolf applied to the army for approval to marry Greta (his nickname for her) and there is no record to indicate such.

They were married in a civil ceremony at the city hall in Amsterdam on July 11, 1895. Rudolf was in his full military regalia and Greta in a glorious silk gown with a long train and a floor length veil. Instead of white she wore vibrant yellow silk.

Margaretha and Rudolf on their wedding day, 1895

When they got back from their honeymoon, the only place they could afford to live was with Rudolf's sister Louise. They were struggling financially due to Rudolf's debts from the East Indies and his heavy drinking and lavish lifestyle. Rudolf was also jealous of the attention Greta was getting from other men. Two weeks after their honeymoon, Rudolf started seeing other women. Adam Zelle wrote that moneylenders came to their door regularly and Rudolf's response was to suggest his wife sleep with them in exchange. In 1896, they managed to move into their own home and attend several social engagements at the Royal Palace finally restoring their social standing in the community. Shortly after, Greta was pregnant and their son, Norman John, was born in Jan 1879. That May they all set off to the east Indies as Rudolf returned to service.

Greta far left, Rudolf Second left. Norman not pictured

In the indies, she was the wife of a very important man and they lived in luxury with a big house and multiple servants. They were expected to keep up with social etiquette and treat the servants as though they were invisible so Greta had to learn to conduct herself as superior. However, due to her very dark hair and eyes she was often mistaken for a native. This meant that she was often subjected to snide comments as it was deeply frowned upon for an officer to marry a native. Tineke Hellwig writes that "Indos had an image of being indolent, unreliable, oversubmissive... incredibly recklass. The women were known to be sensual, coquettish and seductive." (Pg.67)

In May 1898, Greta gave birth to their second child, daughter Jeanne Louise. To celebrate the crowning of Queen Wilhelmina, they attended several balls and dinners. During these dinners Greta wore yellow silk costume embroidered with camellias and an extremely low cut gown in purple velvet decorated with pearls (see photo above). She drew every mans eye and every woman's envy. This led to accusations that she had cheated on Rudolf. By early 1899 she wrote to her father and said that she no longer wanted to be in the Indies and wanted to return to the Netherlands.

In May 1899, both Norman and Louise fell ill and were taken to hospital with vomiting. In June, Norman died and Rudolf (who favoured his son) abandoned his daughter and took his son into his office to watch over the body until the funeral. It was suspected as a poisoning by his mercury treatment from syphillis passed to him from his parents.

Their marriage worsened greatly and Rudolf expressed his hatred for Greta in his letters home to his sister. He publicly humilated her at parties by calling her bitch and telling her to go to hell. In 1901, he got increasingly violent, striking her with the cat o nine tails and threatening to shoot her with a loaded gun. Eventually she filed for separation in 1902 and was granted custody of Louise. She had to temporarily turn to prostitution to be able to pay her bills. Her father attempted a reconciliation between her and her ex husband and she eventually moved back in with him. Within 2 months she had moved out again and this time left her daughter with Rudolf. After living back with her aunt and uncle for a while she could still not find work. In 1903 she moved to Paris to find work. After months in Paris she returned to Netherlands before once again leaving for Paris in 1904 where she got a job with the equestrian circus.

"She developed a series of sacred dances that she ostensibly learned in the Indies and began to create a mythology about herself. Her style was utterly novel; her ability to create a mood was strong; and her costumes were extremely revealing." (pg145)

"She distinguished herself... by claiming hers [dances] were sacred, holy dances - a form of worship, part of a fusion of sexuality and religion." (Pg145)

March 13 1905 was her debut of Mata Hari. After seeing a photo of her dancing naked at a party, Rudolf filed for divorce and threatened to show the judge the photograph if she tried to get custody of her daughter. She succumbed to his threats and he won custody.

She managed to secure herself an agent Gabriel Astruc who founded the theatre de Champs-Elysees. He booked her into the Olympia Theatre for a performance of La Reve in 1905. This was the first time a large audience could watch her perform earning her 10,000 francs (equivelent to $42,000 in todays money). She travelled to Russia, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna and Monte Carlo to perform. She flitted between several lovers using them to gain further wealth and stability. She frequently wrote to Rudolf and asked to see her daughter but was refused each time.

In 1915, she was living back in 'The Hague' and was visited by Karl Kroemer who was recruiting espionage agents for Germany. She took 20,000 francs from him in exchange for writing to him in invisible ink. Later she recounted that she disliked Germany as they had unfairly confiscated a lot of her furs  and was living under wartime rationing. She stated that she had thrown away her invisible ink with no intention of writing to him again. She returned to Paris to collect her belongings then headed back home. She took a stop of in England and was questioned by the British counterintelligence and espionage unit. She was under suspicion as a extremely wealthy woman travelling alone and being fluent in many other languages. All ports and the French authorities were alerted to watch her movements. They discovered the transfer of money from an agency in Germany and banned her from entering England again. In 1916 when she returned back to Paris she realised that she was being followed wherever she went by two French inspectors.

Wanting to travel to Vittel to a spa required special permission as it was in the middle of the warzone. Mata Hari was insistant on travelling to Vittel and eventually met Captain Ladoux who authorised her papers. At the time she was unaware that this was the man who recieved the warning about her from the British and had authorised the following and searching of her property. Shipman in her book says that it is suspected that Ladoux himself was a spy and was determined to bring Mata Hari down to cover his own suspicious movements. Ladoux offered to enlist Mata Hari as a spy for France in exchange for her pass. She relentlessly pestered the police and local governments for her pass to Vittel. When her new fiance, Vadime, came back from the front line blind in one eye, she decided that she would accept Ladoux's proposal in exchange for enough money that they could live together without her having to be in the company of other men.

Nov 1916 she left paris for Madrid on her first mission. Ladoux had warned them in advance so she could incriminate herself. She was onboard a boat that was headed back to the Netherlands but first docked at Falmouth, UK. The police came aboard and searched all the passengers. Mata Hari was interrogated and searched more thoroughly before the officer produced a photo of a woman who they were looking for who resembled her. She was arrested and taken to London. Neither of the officers in MI5 recognised that it was Mata Hari that they had in custody, even though they had an outstanding warrant for her arrest in UK. After being questioned for 4 days on suspicion of being a spy, she was released but forced to return to Spain instead of carrying on to Holland. The Dutch authorities wrote to inform the Spanish that suspicion was upon her and to be aware.

Back in Spain, she renewed her aquaintance with a Dutch man, Cazeaux, who worked at the consul in Spain. As an ally of the English, Mata Hari hoped to get into his good graces by informing him that the captain of the ship told her that a husband and wife onboard the ship were spying for England and Germany. In response to this, Cazeaux invited Mata Hari to be a spy for the Russians. She neither accepted nor declined the offer. She contacted Ladoux for advice, not knowing that it was him who stopped her entry to Holland, and asked for advice on how to proceed.

With no money and no word from any of her contacts she decided to improvise by contacting a German diplomat she had got the details from a hotel in which she was staying. She made an appointment with him and demanded to know why she had been mistaken for another spy, implying that she knew he was connected to German intelligence. She managed to seduce him and he told her that there was a submarine landing on the coast of Morrocco and she also discovered the head of German intelligence in Barcelona. She relayed the information back to Ladoux but had no reply. The next night she met a man from the French embassy and casually relayed the information to him also in the hope that he would deliver it to Ladoux. He tells her to write it in a letter and send it to his replacement as he was leaving for France. She then found out that the Germans had intercepted the French radio messages as her informant suspects her of leaking the information. Nevertheless, he gives her more information about how they communicate across borders. Once again she writes it down and sends it to the embassy.

Thinking that she had discovered enough to receive her payment from Ladoux, she prepared to return to Paris. Shortly before she receives a letter from a Senetor in France who was also a former lover saying that French officials have been investigating their relationship. The agent described Mata Hari as a person known to be hostile to the allies. She then returned to France in hope of finding her contact at the French embassy who she told of her discoveries. She eventually tracks him down where he informs her that they have no relationship and has told his superiors of the information but has taken the credit for the discoveries.

After attempting to see Ladoux various times she decided to return to Holland but needed his permission to leave. On Feb 10 1917 a warrant for her arrest was issued relating to the secrets that she obtained from her German diplomat and was accused of being a double agent. She was left to languish in the worst jail in the country and was interrogated many times. Ladoux gave her interrogators telegrams that were sent over the unsecure radio line that the Germans knew the French would read. The telegrams hinted of a secret agent looking for payment for French secrets. These are suspected of being doctored by Ladoux himself. After several more months in prison, Mata Hari had a breakdown. She admitted to meeting the German man who gave her money in exchange for trading secrets. The prosecution still didn't have enough evidence to convict her as they had no proof that she had traded secrets. She then admitted to telling the German diplomat various things that she had read in the papers in exchange for money after Ladoux had abandoned her. This gave the prosecution the evidence they needed to convict her for espionage.

Below is another detailed summary of her life and personality.

An account of Mata Hari dancing - describes the colours as delicate hues
Her costumes were inspired by Javanese dancers
1922 Javanese Dancers
This 1900 Javanese dancer is very similiar to Mata Hari's style of costume
Looking at the Javanese headdress you can see the similarities between the filigree metalwork and tassels
Description of one of Mata Hari's dances and what she wore.
Action shot of Mata Hari dancing one of her first dances.
Liked to a bayadere, Javanese court dancer.
In the modern ballet La Bayadere, you can see the likeness to Mata Hari's costume. The shapes and composition of the costume is the same

Below are some images from the Mata Hari exhibit in the Fries Museum.

One of Mata Hari's breastplates and headpieces at the Fries museum in Netherlands
You can see that the side plates are attached to the headband
The exhibit at the Fries museum. You can see the headdress and breastplates behind the woman
Fries Museum in Leeuwarden
In the background you can see another costume. In the glass cases are the scrapbooks that she used to keep of her performances

These are some extracts from a book describing Mata Hari's image on stage including her costumes

Description of Mata Hari's performance technique
Some of Mata Hari's postcard photographs. Series entitled Danse Indienne.

I found the below article on dancers that were around just before Mata Hari began her debut. She had seen these type of dancers and instead of imitating them, she chose a new style of seductive exotic dance and it made her famous.

I found this interesting pinterest board that someone has put together of dancers that look as though they have copied Mata Hari's style during the period known as 'Belle Epoque' and used it after she was famous.

There are a lot of different photographs of Mata Hari in her dance costumes in different poses and formats. I decided to research photos of her in her normal everyday dress to see what she would look like on a day to day basis. She was known for being a courtesan and having various wealthy men who paid for her expenses in later life. I would like to get an image of her in my head of what sort of woman she was. Although the photos will be staged, it will give me an idea of what she thought was beautiful and what she would have worn at the many events she atten

Mata Hari 1908 Paris during the peak of her dance career in her everyday attire
Mata Hari in Paris in everyday dress
This colourised photo of Mata Hari is interesting as you can see how striking her features were
An elaborate tapelace dress, circa 1900, believed to have belonged to Mata Hari. No evidence was supplied but she has been seen in similar
Signed photo of Mata Hari 1905 in everyday dress
Mata Hari 1910
Mata Hari 1910 dressed in Ermine
An early portrait of Mata Hari
Mata Hari dressed in fur
Mata Hari 1900
Mata Hari in 1913
Mata Hari 1911
Mata Hari in a beautiful Edwardian gown and fur coat
Mata Hari at home in Leeuwardan
Mata Hari dancing in Paris 1910
This is a very strange photo of Mata Hari in drag dressed in one of her companions, Lieutenant Jean Hallaure's military uniform

The below article is an interesting one as it has photos and news articles which I haven't seen before. It also has some more pictures of the costume I chose to make which I have never seen which show her dancing in it.

The below article gives an interesting eye witness account of her final journey to her execution including what she wore on the day.

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest. 13th Feb 1917
Mata Hari on the day of her execution 15th Oct 1917
A news article reporting the arrest of Mata Ha
This incorrect article shows how Mata Hari told elaborate stories of her life and rise to fame in the dancing world
Letter from Captain Ladoux dated April 2, 1917, to the War Council explaining why his office is interested in Mata Hari.
Mata Hari's house in Groote Kerkstraat in Leeuwardan
Statue of Mata Hari in her hometown of Leeuwarden
Waxwork of Mata Hari in the sex museum in Amsterdam
Mata Hari kept a scrapbook of her achievements and publicity
The infamous goat carriage that M'Grete recieved for her 6th birthday from her father
Mata Hari's passport under her name Marguerita Zelle McLeod - Professional listed as artiste

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