Women's History

Mata Hari’s Beautiful Duty

In September 1900, Paris hosted the first International Congress on the Condition and Rights of Women where French feminists met with delegates from across Europe and North America to campaign for women’s rights. Prominent among the masculine behaviours that French feminists defined as harmful were alcoholism, physical violence, pornography, sex trafficking and prostitution. Leading French activist and writer Ghénia Avril de Sainte-Croix  campaigned on government control of the sex trade which, she argued, prioritised protecting men’s health from venereal disease by controlling prostitution. The French state required women in the sex trade to register as prostitutes or face prosecution while brothel owners and their customers, she argued, went unpunished. Sainte-Croix also criticised the moral double standard of legislation, which targeted not male clients, but sex workers who were required to attend regular medical inspections and, if found to have a sexually transmitted disease, incarcerated until symptom-free.

Three years after Sainte-Croix’s speech exposing the hypocrisy of such laws and the lack of economic opportunity that led women into prostitution, a young Dutch woman, Margaretha ‘Gretha’ Zelle MacLeod, arrived in Paris from the Netherlands and seemed destined to follow this trajectory. Despite her middle-class education, Gretha MacLeod’s struggle to secure respectable, well-paid work would draw her into the city’s sex trade. But a straight-forward narrative of victimisation obscures the agency that Gretha, and other women who worked as professional artists’ models and performers, were able to exercise. Further complicating Gretha’s story was her celebrity, first as an Orientalist dancer and later, during the First World War, as an intelligence agent. 

A white woman with her dark hair partially covered by a bridal veil.
Margaretha Zelle at the time of her marriage, 1895. Wikimedia Commons.

The biographical details of Gretha MacLeod, also known as Mata Hari, who was executed on espionage charges in Paris in 1917, offer a fascinating glimpse into an informal sex trade that ran alongside state-sanctioned prostitution. Born in 1876 and married in 1895, she was soon estranged from her husband, John MacLeod, an abusive Dutch East Indies Army Officer, whose refusal to pay a court-ordered allowance for herself and her young daughter left Gretha facing certain poverty. Without familial support, the only available work for an educated woman in the Netherlands was poorly paid, precarious and would ruin her chance of remarrying. Neither would Gretha’s options of housekeeping, teaching, or acting as a ladies’ companion or governess allow her to keep her child.

A group of 17 male and female passengers on the deck of a ship, with two children sitting at the front.
Gretha MacLeod, far left, seated in front of her husband, John MacLeod, on board the Prinses Amalia from the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland on their way to the Dutch East Indies, probably at Southampton. Wikimedia Commons.

With ambitions for the stage, Gretha fled to Paris where she applied to model at the designers House of Worth and Redfern and auditioned at La Theatre de Gaité. But she soon discovered, as she explained in a letter to a relative, these ‘[male employers] want something else of me’. Refusing those offers, she turned to modelling for the Beaux-Arts painter Fernand Cormon, whose pupils included Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, and Vincent Van Gogh, at his Montmartre studio.

Gretha joined Cormon’s coterie of models which included Noemi Amelie Sans, known as Lili Grenier, ‘the face of the belle époque’ and a favourite of Toulouse-Lautrec. Considered professionals, these women could choose their patrons, whether or not to pose in the nude, and whether to protect their reputations through pseudonyms.  When Cormon offered Gretha regular work at a higher rate if she would sit draped only in feathers, she objected. As she explained, ‘I don’t want to if it means getting undressed, and not under my own name . . . [Cormon] could not understand how a woman such as me could have such pretensions and said, “If you like, you can earn money, as much as you want”.’  Although Gretha understood this as an invitation to better paid sex work which might enable her to provide for her daughter, she feared its social consequences. 

Gretha knew her choices were stark: she could either ‘live [in Paris] in the way that is being so dazzlingly offered me’, or ‘be a proper mother’. When she later became the mistress of a wealthy man, she anticipated the world’s disapproval. ‘I am well aware that such a life ends with mishap, but I am beyond that’, she wrote to a friend. ‘Don’t think that I am bad at heart . . . I have done it only out of poverty.’

A white woman lying on the floor on her side, wearing only a jeweled headdress and necklace and a jeweled bikini top.
Gretha MacLeod as Mata Hari, 1906. Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding her body as her most valuable commodity, Gretha soon seized an opportunity for artistic reinvention on her own terms. In 1905, using the name Mata Hari (a poetic Malay phrase meaning dawn) she debuted at the Musée Guimet, which specialised in Asian artifacts, to become the first European artist to embrace Javanese performance. Using her familiarity with Java and Sumatra, acquired when she lived there with John MacLeod, she parlayed her dark colouring, elaborate costumes and willingness to exhibit her body into a display that her French audience read as authentic. Following the lead of scholarly Orientalists, who saw Java as a flower of Indic culture, in press interviews Mata Hari blended British India with the Netherlands Indies, concocting a fantasy Orient that purported to educate audiences about Eastern religious practices while offering sensual glimpses beneath her veils. Despite the colonialist lens through which she portrayed Java, historian Matthew Cohen credits Mata Hari with inspiring a new generation of French Javanese dancers, composers and theatre artists.

A white woman in profile in an elaborate jewelled headdress with dangling earrings
Mata Hari in a jewelled headdress, circa 1910. Wikimedia Commons.

At the height of Mata Hari’s fame in 1908, the Welsh artist Albert de Belleroche, for whom she had modelled in Montmartre five years earlier, captured her performance in a lithograph entitled, ‘Danseuse Mystérieuse’, which is currently on display at the Russell-Cotes Gallery, Bournemouth. Belleroche’s Mata Hari is startling in her modesty, her face obscured beneath a white veil, her eyes downcast, a slender leg moving ahead of her body, its shape suggested only through a loosely folded fabric. That Belleroche chose Mata Hari as his subject, long after she had left Cormon’s studios as a jobbing model, hints at an enduring link with the Beaux-Arts painters.

Albert de Belleroche, ‘Danseuse Mystérieuse’, courtesy Liss Llewellyn.

Her success as Mata Hari, however, was short-lived and despite dancing at exclusive venues in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Milan and Rome, she remained, like most female performers of that era, chronically in debt. She relied on sexual transactions for extra income, becoming known as a ‘courtesan’, a kept woman over whom the French police had no jurisdiction because she carried on her affairs in private with influential men: military officers, artists, politicians, and diplomats. When Germany declared war in August 1914, Mata Hari was in Berlin combining these roles, conducting an affair with a wealthy landowner which scandalised polite society and also engaged to perform at the Metropole Theatre. When the theatre closed, her German bank account was frozen and her assets seized which forced her return to the Netherlands.  

A white woman in a broad-brimmed feathered hat and pearl necklace.
Mata Hari circa 1915, after her return to the Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Sometime in 1915, while living in the Hague and supported by a former lover, Mata Hari was approached by a German consular official. As Major Walter Nicolai, head of German intelligence, described in his post-war memoir, Secret Powers, his agency required those with ‘the ability to judge a character and . . . sophistication in personal interaction’. Added to these qualities Mata Hari had extensive international contacts, a passport from a neutral country, and mounting debts. She agreed, for a high fee, to supply German intelligence with information about her French contacts on trips to Paris in 1915 and 1916. Ultimately her German controllers were unhappy with her results, and soon they began to doubt her capabilities. In 1916, she became engaged to a young Russian officer in the French army and would later claim that because of him, she switched her allegiance to France.

In 1916, the French Captain Georges Ladoux employed Mata Hari as a counter-espionage agent, suggesting that as a courtesan she might have access to high-ranking Germans in Belgium. A year earlier, Captain Ladoux had been equally explicit when engaging Marthe Richard about using sexual seduction in the national cause. Richard, a French pilot and widow of a wealthy officer, described in her memoir how Captain Ladoux dismissed her objections by saying ‘Before this beautiful duty, your small moral objections are worth nothing.’

A white woman in a hat, a dark veil, and a heavy dark belted coat.
Gretha MacLeod on the day of her arrest, 13 February 1917. Wikimedia Commons.

Yet before Captain Ladoux’s plans for Mata Hari to perform her ‘beautiful duty’ could be realised, French and British agents were reporting her complicity with German intelligence in Madrid. In early 1917, she was arrested in Paris, where she faced a further humiliation when imprisoned at Saint Lazare, alongside the city’s registered prostitutes. The nuns who ran the prison had a reputation for severity and intolerance, creating an atmosphere that Toulouse-Lautrec captured in paintings of its inmates queuing for their humiliating fortnightly medical examinations, their chemises held above their naked bodies.

A white woman in a fur-necked coat, appearing once in profile and once facing forward.
Police photograph of Gretha MacLeod, shortly before her execution in October 1917. Wikimedia Commons.

When Mata Hari was tried under military law in July 1917, she defended her right to sex work, rejecting the accusation that she had betrayed France with her lovers, or harmed its war effort. French feminists fell silent on Mata Hari’s implicit critique of the very hypocrisy that had so aroused Sainte-Croix’s passion before the war. After her execution in October, only her friend the expatriate American writer Natalie Barney attempted to restore Mata Hari’s dignity. Barney investigated salacious rumours that she had died naked beneath a fur coat, performing one final strip tease before the firing squad. Witnesses told Barney that, instead, her friend was dressed in a plain grey suit and trembling before she was shot, details which appeared in a New Yorker column by Janet Flanner. 

Poster text reads "Garbo as Mata Hari. Temptress of the Secret Service", and shows a white woman in a gold headdress, dangling gold earrings, and gold jewelled dress.
Poster for the film Mata Hari, 1931. Wikimedia Commons.

The decades that followed saw the transformation of Gretha MacLeod, victim of domestic violence, into Mata Hari, the century’s most recognisable femme fatale and an icon of female sexual betrayal. Her story continues to offer feminist historians insight into the complexities of assessing victimhood from a temporal distance.

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