Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
a study in harlot
Or, the life and times of courtesan-stripper-spy-legend Mata Hari.
And a special hello to the legions of you who are new since our Substack Discover feature the other week! I hope you enjoy the artisanal garbage I have on offer and stick around.
One quick sidebar before we get going: Kirkus Reviews recently did a little writeup of my forthcoming novel Let the Dead Bury the Dead, and they liked it, calling it “a vividly imagined tapestry of turbulent times.” If you’re an author, you know how big a deal this is, as Kirkus is notorious for giving reviews so scathing you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat 30 years later remembering how they insulted you. (I offer this infamously awful Kirkus pan as proof.)
Let the Dead Bury the Dead will be on shelves, e-readers, and headphones in less than two months, so if you want to celebrate the Day Kirkus Smiled on Me, you can always do so by preordering. I’m also planning a little baby book tour for the fall, mostly in the Midwest right now, so if you work at or know of a bookstore or library that does events and might enjoy my nonsense, give me a shout.
Okay! On with the dirtbags. This week’s feature is a suggestion from longtime loyal reader Jenn, who no doubt thinks I’ve forgotten because she put this in the suggestion box like fully a year ago. But I have not forgotten, and today’s the day I introduce you all to…
Mata Hari, the Con-Artist-Stripper-Spy who Tried to Seduce War Secrets out of the German Royal Family!
Mata Hari was born as Margaretha Geertrudia Zelle in 1876 to a rich family in the Netherlands. Readers who’ve been with us since the profile of Lola Montez may be thinking, “huh, how weird that another lady dirtbag ends up with a stage name that bears absolutely no resemblance to her ethnicity.” Actually, there are so many similarities between Lola Montez and Mata Hari that I genuinely wonder whether Lola Montez faked her death and showed up in the Netherlands wearing a bejeweled bra 15 years later. 💃
Margaretha’s father was a hatmaker who made a fortune in the oil industry, but like all men in this story, he was trash. He went bankrupt and left the family when Margaretha was 13. Margaretha went to live with her godfather, where she started training to be a kindergarten teacher. During every event for the remainder of this story, I want you to imagine this woman as a kindergarten teacher.
Brief Cameo by Another Shitty Man
In 1895, when Margaretha was 18, she got married to a Dutch army officer named Rudolf MacLeod, who was stationed on the island of Java. (Today, Java is part of Indonesia, but it was a Dutch colony at the time.) Not only was MacLeod a colonizer, but he was shitty for other reasons as well. Namely, he drank constantly, cheated on and physically abused Margaretha, and came down with an absolutely rancid case of syphilis.
Ugh. There are no good husbands in any of these stories. If you know of a lady dirtbag with a good husband who lovingly enabled her dirtbaggery, please recommend her to me in the comments.
Margaretha tried to distract herself from her absolute dumpster fire of a marriage by taking recreational classes in the art of Javanese dance. Unfortunately, the power of dance did not stop her life from falling apart. She had two children with MacLeod, both of whom died under mysterious circumstances. Sources aren’t sure whether the cause was complications from their dad’s syphilis or a rogue Dutch colonial officer trying to poison MacLeod and missing. Either one seems likely to me. I would have poisoned that man.
Whatever the reason, the marriage eventually fell apart altogether, and thank God. They formally separated in 1902, and by 1903, Margaretha was making plans and putting them in motion. She wasn’t going to sit around in Indonesia waiting for something to happen to her, no sir! She was going to move to Paris and join the circus!
Seriously. That was Plan A.
Hips Lie An Awful Lot In This Case, Actually
Unfortunately for our girl, the circus doesn’t pay that much money, and Margaretha enjoyed being rich. So by 1904, she had moved on to the Plan B we would all turn to when it’s time for a career change: she changed her name and assumed the fake persona of Mata Hari, the exotic dancer slash Javanese princess! Wikipedia tells me that Mata Hari is Malay for “eye of the day” and not, as I assumed “the audacity of this bitch.”
Mata Hari was an overnight sensation in Paris, turning the fancy stripping scene upside-down with her “exotic vibes.” Her signature move was to strip off one piece of clothing at a time until she was wearing nothing but a fancy hat and a breastplate made of gold and jewels—which she reportedly left on because she was self-conscious about having small breasts. Everybody fucking went wild for this, and she packed theaters across Europe for years.
After a while on the scene, though, several artistic critics at the time started to make sniffy little comments about Mata Hari “not actually knowing how to dance” and “probably being just some Dutch girl who saw a Hindu temple once.” Fortunately, by 1912, Mata Hari was extremely well networked, and she didn’t have to give a damn what any of the critics said. She was too busy being the mistress of a long string of millionaires and high-ranking military officers, both in France and across Europe.
But while Mata Hari was criss-crossing Europe in the mid-nineteen-teens, another thing was also taking over the continent. Namely, a little thing called World War I. And it was about to fuck up Mata Hari’s elaborate sexy con in a very dramatic way.
By the time war broke out in 1916, Mata Hari was having an affair with the Russian pilot Vadim Maslov, who was fighting in the war on behalf of the French Army. Maslov was wounded in battle, and Mata Hari—who seems genuinely to have loved this guy—immediately went to the front to help nurse him back to health.
But the dickbag French Army, seeing this seductive compulsive liar standing in front of them, agreed on one condition: she could visit her lover if she agreed to become a spy for France.
As far as I can tell, Mata Hari wasn’t thrilled about the idea of turning James Bond. Her whole vibe was like the sassy peacock from Animal Crossing: New Horizons that shows up on Mardi Gras and wants nothing but to express himself through the magic of dance.
But she also wanted to prevent her boyfriend from perishing of war wounds, so Mata Hari agreed to use her Sexy Powers for the war effort.
France-ing with the Stars
The French Army immediately gave Mata Hari a very important mission. She was to infiltrate the highest levels of German society and seduce the Crown Prince Wilhelm: the eldest son of the German Kaiser who was allegedly in charge of the Germans’ battle plans.
Sidebar: What the French army didn’t know was that Crown Prince Wilhelm was too busy getting drunk, having affairs, and inventing the precursor of the Nazi Party to actually know anything about the Germans’ battle plans. So the whole mission was a flop from the start. Whoops.
Newly recruited spy Mata Hari met up with a German military attaché and, in their very first conversation offered to sell French military secrets to the German army. Subtlety: not Mata Hari’s thing.
However, I’m 10,000 percent confident that this was a play on Mata Hari’s part to win the Germans’ trust, rather than actual evidence of her becoming a double agent and betraying the French. How do I know this, you ask? Because Mata Hari did not know any French military secrets. She did not care about war. She cared about ~*dance*~. A baguette lying on the ground next to a tank probably knew more military secrets than she did.
Mata Hari told the Germans what secrets she did know, which was almost entirely sexual scandals about French politicians. Which she knew because she herself had banged most of the Troisième République.
It quickly became obvious to Germany that Mata Hari, while smoking hot, was not giving them any secrets they could actually use. As a result, they started to suspect that she was actually an extremely incompetent French spy. (Which, reminder, she was.)
So to get rid of her, the German army sent a badly coded telegram describing how helpful and wonderful this French traitor Mata Hari had been, and how much she had told them about the new secret French weapon: this newfangled thing called the tank. (Again, for clarity: a thing she did not do. I would bet money Mata Hari had never seen a tank with her human eyeballs.)
The French Army decoded the telegram and immediately leapt to the conclusion the German Army had intended: that Mata Hari had betrayed them and turned double-agent for Germany.
O Harlot My Harlot
Mata Hari was arrested in February 1917 and charged with spying for Germany and causing the death of 50,000 soldiers. Which is an absolutely insane thing to charge her with, as all she had done was sit with German officers over coffee and tell them sexy secrets, like the French Army fucking told her to do.
No one presented any meaningful evidence against Mata Hari at her trial, because there wasn’t any. When she took the stand herself, she delivered what I firmly believe is one of the Top 10 most badass lines ever spoken before a judge:
“A harlot? Yes! But a traitoress? Never!”
I could sit in front of my computer for 20 years and never come up with a line I enjoy as much as that one.
Despite the flimsy case against her, the French government was determined to convict Mata Hari. The war was going badly for France, and she was the perfect immoral femme fatale for them to blame for a series of rough losses on the Western Front. Even Mata Hari’s boyfriend Maslov turned on her and refused to show up at the trial. Which, fuck you, man, this is all your fault. No good men in this story. Zero.
Mata Hari was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917. Just before she was executed, she blew a kiss at the soldiers, because she was a dirtbag and a badass to the end. I don’t care if this is apocryphal, it’s true in my heart.
Mata Hari’s body wasn’t claimed after her execution, so she ended up in a museum somewhere, and her head was lost along the way. Mark “disappearing head” on your dirtbag bingo card. Honestly it should be the free space at this point.
RIP Mata Hari, you dancing queen. I hope you’re telling every man you see in the afterlife to go suck a bag of dicks. None of them deserved you.
That’s all for this time, friends. Until the next issue, be well, and if you are ever falsely accused of something, please stand up and loudly proclaim “Listen I may be a HUGE SLUT but I never did that” in honor of the GOAT,