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The Art of Covert Operations: Mata Hari and Josephine Baker

Mata Hari | The Art of Covert Operations
Mata Hari (1876 – 1917)

You’ve probably heard of Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975), the daring dancer with intrepid moves that made men swoon and women jealous. But, did you know that she was a spy and war hero? And, allegedly, so was Mata Hari (1876 – 1917), Baker’s stunning predecessor in dance and seduction. Both women reigned over the stages in Paris, and both were turned into spies at the pinnacle of their success.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. Though her father may have, at times, been cruel and “caddish,” Margaretha and her two brothers enjoyed a happy childhood in the Netherlands. Then, everything changed. When she was fifteen, her father faced financial ruin and fled the country. Her mother died shortly thereafter, leaving Margaretha to live with relatives. She sought freedom by answering a lonely-hearts ad and becoming the wife of Captain Rudolph “John” MacLeod, an officer in the Dutch Colonial Army who was 20 years her senior. They lived in the military garrisons of Java and Sumatra where she observed local dances, which she would use in Paris years later.

Mata Hari | The Art of Covert Operations
Mata Hari in costume

MacLeod was reportedly a hard drinker and an abusive husband. In one letter, Margaretha admitted that she disliked sex because her “own husband has given [her] a distaste for matters sexual such as [she could not] forget.” Though their relationship was troubled, it did produce two, beautiful children. But disaster struck again in 1898, when a nanny poisoned them for unknown reasons. While the girl survived, the boy perished. The incident caused terrible hardship and the couple soon divorced. Margaretha and her daughter relocated to Paris, but openings for respectable jobs for women in the early 1900s were slim. She failed to find employment and was forced to return her daughter to MacLeod. She became a lady’s companion, tried her hand at modeling, and ultimately started sleeping with men for money.

Though many people in the same position would have given up, Margaretha pushed forward. She entered the theatre world and, in 1905, debuted as Mata Hari. She wore a sparkling Javanese-Indian costume that left little to the imagination, and used dance moves that had been simple in Java, but were exotic and ravishing in Paris. She was a sensation, praised for her body, beauty, and ingenuity. And she was regarded as a pioneer, since she was the first performer in Europe to use dances inspired by the Orient. At that time, the idea of "The Orient," or the romanticized and exotic world of Asia, was extremely popular. People lavished Orientalist ideas, customs, art, and styles — and Mata fit right in. Rumors about her origin spread, some even suggesting Hari was an Indian princess, which only added to her appeal.

Hari successfully performed in character for over a decade, and her career was still flourishing when World War I began in 1914. Because she was able to easily travel across borders of divided countries as a performer, she was the ideal candidate to recruit for covert operations. However, there was a great deal of suspicion that she was a double agent, passing messages to both sides of the war effort. After intercepting a coded radio message that alluded to her being a spy, Hari was arrested in Paris. Her prosecutors called her the “greatest woman spy of the century” and claimed that she was responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 soldiers.

Letters of Mata Hari | The Art of Covert Operations
Scrapbook of Mata Hari in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

On October 15th, 1917, she was found guilty and executed by a firing squad. While the French believed in her guilt, Mata Hari insisted that she was not a double spy and never confessed. In 1930, 13 years after her death, the French government finally admitted it believes she was innocent. Recently, a collection of letters from her early days — which many may find revealing — have been released. She may have never wanted to be in the spotlight, but fate had other plans.

Josephine Baker | The Art of Covert Operations
Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975)

In stark contrast, Josephine Baker stepped up to her role with eager feet and a charming grin. But that didn’t mean her beginnings weren’t as rough as Hari’s. Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in poverty-stricken St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a vaudeville drummer who abandoned the family shortly after her birth, leaving her mother to support the child on the wages of a washerwoman. By the age of eight, Freda was also working as a babysitter and cleaning houses for a living.

The same year Hari was executed, Freda witnessed her own atrocities. In July of 1917, white riots swept through St. Louis, forcing 6,000 African Americans out of the city. Freda’s family found safety, but not before she witnessed a pregnant woman being disemboweled and the face of her father’s friend being shot off. In a 1974 interview with The Guardian, she stated, “America was evil then,” and that her life in St. Louis “had a terrible effect” on her. Baker faced extraordinary hardships in her youth, which she fled like Mata Hari.

She was working as a live-in maid for a family that deeply mistreated her. So she ran away at the age of 13 and lived on the streets until she met her first husband, Willie Wells. They soon divorced and she became a waitress at a club, where she dropped the first name Freda and started going by Josephine. She took up dancing and was touring the country with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers by 1919. In 1921, Josephine married once again, this time to Willie Baker. Though they also soon separated, she kept his last name and settled on her identity as Josephine Baker.

Baker made it to Broadway Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandiesher performances were still hampered by segregation, where she performed in the ensembles of . When her mother attended a show, she would have to sit in the balcony even though Josephine would reserve a front row seat. Despite her growing fame and success, it seems Josephine couldn’t escape the injustice of her time. Perhaps that is why she passionately fought for justice later on in her life.

Josephine Baker | The Art of Covert Operations
Josephine Baker in her Banana Skirt Costume

Baker left New York because Europe seemed to promise more money. In 1925, she travelled with La Revue Negre to Paris. There, in the capital of art and culture, she was received well beyond what she expected or could have dreamed of. In the show, she danced in a skirt made of only a few feathers that covered pretty much nothing. The outfit was scandalous, even in the era of rising hems and dipping necklines. Josephine brushed away the critics stating: "I wasn't really naked. I simply didn't have any clothes on."

On stage, her agile body twisted and turned, captivating the audience’s attention until they were locked in the rapture of her movement. The French press compared her to “Nefertiti and the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra.” That first performance, combined with her signature and massively popular banana-skirt dance later on, turned her into a radiant star of Paris. She soon joined an elite crowd of Parisian artists and writers, befriending the likes of Hemingway, Picasso, and E. E. Cummings. For her ability to seduce and captivate, she was nicknamed “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.”

Josephine Baker | The Art of Covert Operations
Josephine Baker in uniform

But Baker was much more than an attractive performer. When World War II broke out in 1939, she enthusiastically joined the war effort. First, she acted as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French air force. Later on, she fought for the French Resistance by engaging in espionage. Like Mata Hari, her ability to cross borders with ease gave her a massive advantage, which allowed her to smuggle intelligence by writing with invisible ink on her sheet music. After the war, Baker continued to fight for equal rights. She later adopted twelve children of different races — an act that was harshly criticized by the masses — but she didn’t care. Always standing up for equality, she believed “man is smart enough to realize… that he can’t survive unless he learns to live with his fellow man.”

If Mata Hari rarely smiled in her photographs, Josephine Baker beamed with an infectious and delicious smile in almost all of her pictures. Perhaps it’s because Baker had more agency than Mata Hari, which enabled her to make her own choices, such as moving to New York and Paris to pursue her dreams of becoming a performer. While the French government doomed Mata Hari, it revered Baker for her “courage, the way she had risked her life and lifted the morale of all around her,” rewarded her with the Croix de Geurre, or Legion of Honor. In either case, both women were known to use the art of dance to survive, and in at least one instance, engage in covert operations.

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