Mata Hari: Life in Paris
Last week we learned that, after returning to the Netherlands and getting divorced from her army captain husband, Mata Hari escaped to Paris. She began to start dancing and her exotic style made her a palpable hit amongst the Parisian audiences. She debuted her exotic dance act at the Musée Guimet in 1905 and from there, her life in Paris began to hit new heights.
This week we will continue where we left off and follow her rise as an exotic dancer and courtesan. Paris is where Mata Hari really came alive and made it to the upper echelons of European society. However, tragedy will strike at the onset of the First World War and her decline as an exotic dancer would coincide with her descend into a world of war, espionage and tragedy.
A new life
After debuting at the Musée Guimet, Mata Hari met and became the mistress of the millionaire industrialist from Lyon, Émile Étienne Guimet, the founder of the museum. Over the next five years, Mata Hari would become a household name, loved by her audiences, mingling with the social elite and popularising the previously contemptible art of exotic dancing, for which Paris would later become world-renowned.
Mata’s dancing was influenced by Asian and Egyptian styles, and she would cultivate a mysterious, almost oriental image by creating a stage filled with Asian and Egyptian artwork and an air of mysticism. One of her most famous dances saw her slowly shed layers of clothing until she was wearing nothing but a bejewelled breastplate. She paired her image with a fictitious backstory, claiming she was a Javanese princess of Hindu birth and trained in the art of sacred Indian dance from an early age. Her exotic image coupled with her promiscuity and carefree nature made her and her act extremely popular.
Her claims about her childhood and upbringing were largely believed, due to Europeans being unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies, and many saw Mata as exotic. She started to mingle with the social elite and attend events with the wealthy denizens of Paris. Her act was shown across Europe and her popularity skyrocketed.
The end of her career
By 1910, Mata Hari had successfully built the art of exotic dancing into a cultural phenomenon, which by now had also become a staple of the nightlife scene in Paris. Thousands of imitators arose, all trying to follow in the footsteps of the famous, popular and gregarious Mata Hari. Mata continued to attend social events across Europe, however, the popularity of her act, and its adoption into the mainstream, began to garner many critics. They attributed the success of her act to cheap exhibitionism and she was disregarded by serious cultural institutions as a dancer who couldn’t dance.
Mata’s career as an exotic dancer fell into decline after 1912. She performed her last ever show on March 13, 1915. However, she had found a new, successful career as a courtesan. This allowed her to continue mixing in wealthy circles, and she had relationships with many powerful men, including military officers, politicians and other influential people all across Europe.
Throughout her career as a dancer and courtesan, Mata was generally known for being an artist, and a free-spirited bohemian. However, as the First World War drew close and society became more sombre and conservative, Mata started to be seen as unrestrained and even as a dangerous seductress.
The birth of a spy
The First World War broke out on July 28, 1914. As a citizen of the neutral Netherlands, Mata was able to cross national borders freely, allowing her to continue her career as a courtesan while the war was on. She travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain to avoid battlefields and open conflict.
Mata became romantically involved in an intense relationship during the war with the 23-year-old Captain Vadim Maslov, a Russian pilot serving with the French. During the spring of 1916, Maslov was sent to the Western Front with the 50.000 strong Russian Expeditionary Force. That summer, Maslov’s plane was shot down in a dogfight with German pilots and he lost his sight in both eyes. Mata, who was unable to go near the front as a citizen of a neutral country, was desperate to go and see her lover and asked for permission to visit Maslov at the hospital he was being treated at near the front.
Mata’s previous movements at the beginning of the war; as a Dutch citizen who could cross national borders freely, had not gone unnoticed. She was approached by agents from the Deuxième Bureau, France’s external military intelligence agency. She was told that the Bureau would facilitate her trip to the front to see Maslov - but only if she would spy for France.
Next week: Spying on the enemy
Next week we will follow Mata’s incredible journey as a spy for France and the tragic and complex circumstances that lead to her being accused of being a German spy. We will also learn just how incredible and resilient Mata Hari was, and her courage in the face of certain death.
Thumb: Everett Collection via Shutterstock.