The many faces of a spy. The death of Mata Hari in French newspapers.

Mata Hari 16 oktober 1917

Mata Hari detail

‘She abused our country’s hospitality for years only to betray us’, Le Petit Parisien, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

On Monday the 15th of October 1917 at six in the morning Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, better known as Mata Hari, faced a firing squad in Vincennes. She was 41 years old. Earlier that year she had been sentenced to death for espionage by French military court. Newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which loved a bit of melodrama, describes how the first shots just wounded her after which a sergeant fired the lethal shot from close range. When her body dropped to the ground ‘her eyes’, according to Le Petit Parisien, ‘seemed to look up to the sky as if asking for forgiveness.’ OK then.

Much has been said and written about the Dutch-Frisian woman who reinvented herself in Paris as a mysterious, Asian dancer/courtesan, who captivated audiences at the Olympia and the Folies-Bergères. Today the consensus is that she was never really the master spy – or double agent – the authorities claimed she was. However, she was a good scapegoat. The execution of an alleged traitor, a foreigner no less, a performance artist with questionable morals, offered a small, symbolic victory at a time when France was facing tremendous losses in the war. This was quite clear in the way her death was reported in most national newspapers on the 16th of October. The papers managed to get her real name more or less right, but she is described as either German or simply ‘foreign’.

Mata Hari fusillée Le Matin 16-10-1917

Le Matin detail Fake Hindu dancer, traitor and ‘choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’, Le Matin, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

Le Petit Journal 16 10 1917

Le Petit Journal 16-10-1917 ‘The dancer of German origin’ according to Le Petit Journal, 16 October 1917. The woman in the photo does not really look like her, but who cares, the spy is dead. Source: BnF/Gallica

Le Journal 16-10-1917

Le Journal, 16 October 1917: ‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’. The newspaper uses a detail of a photo of Mata Hari that had already appeared in fashion magazine Les Modes in February 1908 (see below). Source: BnF/Gallica

Mata Hari Les Modes February 1908

The press did not seem too interested in the actual person behind the myth. No journalist bothered to investigate her background or the facts of her case. Instead the papers regurgitated official press releases and old pictures, showing the many faces – literally – of the glamorous, but treacherous Mata Hari.

Newspaper La Croix cared even less and put the news of Mata Hari’s execution on page 4, next to advertising and the weather.

La Croix p4 16 10 1917

‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in…’ Wait, we’ve seen this sentence before. La Croix, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica


The Not So Belle Époque: personal ads, la zone and La Goulue


Zone inhabitants of Ivry in front of their ‘roulotte’, 1913, press photograph, Agence Rol.

The exhibition Paris 1900, the City of entertainment has opened its doors to the public at Le Petit Palais. An iconic Toulouse-Lautrec image is used as the face of the exhibition. It plays on what many people already think of when they think of Paris 1900: carriages, elegant salons, theatres, cafes, the Moulin Rouge, sumptuous art deco design, the world exhibitions. According to the website the collection on display is ‘an invitation to the public to relive the splendour of the French capital.’ The exhibition aims to show the other side to this as well (prostitution, drugs), already present of course in Toulouse-Lautrec’s images. Yet the focus does appear to be very much on the glamorous and luxurious aspects, on this idea of a cultural bloom before the First World War altered everything. It made me think about the backgrounds of the people in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, about the less glamorous, everyday lives of Parisians at the time. And it made me remember the few glimpses of their lives I have come across in newspapers. Image Such as here in L’Écho de Paris from 31 March 1886 where I was struck by the personal ads on page 4. Click here for the original on Gallica and a better resolution. Most of these are for jobs in service, not surprising considering the paper’s bourgeois audience. Demand for work greatly outnumbers the jobs on offer though and some of these ads are quite a depressing read: a 10 year old boy, a young single woman, an unemployed married man, all looking for a job. There’s a whole life behind these few words. What was their story? Did they get a job in the end? Life in service was not easy. Employers only had to give domestic servants 8 days notice if they wanted to get rid of them.[1] Salaries varied. Valets, coachmen and especially cooks could earn between 60 and 120 francs a month, but a ‘bonne à tout faire’, the general help, often earned little more than 1 franc a day.[2] The ‘fille de cuisine’, the kitchen maid, ‘should preferably never be seen.’ Still, it was better compared to many other options. Le Journal’s Saturday edition also had similar job and personal advertisements. Some are quite dubious. In the edition from 5 October 1895 an individual is advertising his range of ‘plusieures jeunes filles veuves et divorcées’ (several widowed and divorced young women). It is apparently up to the reader to guess what exactly these women were for. In other ads we encounter people who offer their money to make an investment or are seeking money from others to invest. Several are also from women who have fallen on hard times (or claim they have) such as in this one: jeune femme, du meill monde, honorable, tres gênée  moment. Par suite de malheurs, dés. Empr. 300 fr. d’une pers. Sér. Et discr. Rembours ! Ecr. G.K.E. Jnal. young woman, from very good family, honourable, very short of money at the moment, due to misfortunes, seeks to borrow 300 fr. From Serious and discreet person. Will repay! Write G.K.E. Jnal. (Le Journal, Saturday 5 October 1895) I wondered how many reactions she would have received. Was it a scam? Who knows. Either way, what this ad and others show was the continuous quest for some sort of social and economic stability, whether through employment, marriage or slightly more questionable transactions. There was no safety net, no security. One event – a divorce, a family death, a bad investment, redundancy – could plunge anyone into instant poverty. The festive colours of many well-known Belle Époque images also stand in great contrast to contemporary press photographs or Eugen Atget’s  album Zoniers (1913). See the original album here. Paris was expanding rapidly and couldn’t deal with the amount of people arriving in the capital looking for work. Photographers such as Atget and press agencies had begun to document the living conditions of people in the infamous zone, the slums all around the outskirts of the city. For an excellent visual, historical overview of the expansion of ‘la zone’ and Paris see Avant le périph’, la zone et les fortifs’ on the wonderful French blog Orion en aéroplanePhotography made these people visible to newspaper readers. Domestic servants were well off compared to the ‘zoniers’ who earned their money from recycling and selling small goods. One of the zone’s inhabitants was a woman who had once been a celebrated figure in the music-halls of 1890’s Paris. The singer Louise Weber, better known as La Goulue, was depicted at the height of her fame by Toulouse-Lautrec in several of his most famous posters. She went from being a celebrated Moulin Rouge star to spending the last years of her life in a caravan in one of the zones in Saint-Ouen, earning some money from selling snacks in nightclubs. Her obituary in Le Petit Parisien on 31 January 1929 movingly captures her trajectory from celebrity to poverty.

mort goulue Petit Parisien

Le Petit Parisien, 31/1/1929, Gallica

Often the images we see of the period uphold this myth of a carefree, optimistic, fabulous period in the history of the city of Paris. And that was certainly part of the city’s life. Yet personal ads, photos of ‘la zone’, La Goulue’s personal story also show us the other side of the splendour; the socio-economic insecurity many experienced around 1900. This was also the Belle Époque. Not so ‘belle’ for most people.


Louise Weber in her glory years. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892.

Update 5 May 2014:

Today I took a stroll around the Cimetiére Montmartre where La Goulue is buried. Go left on the roundabout close to the entrance and her grave is almost immediately on your left. It is maintained. And judging from the little bracelet and the fresh flowers left there, she still has admirers today.


Louise Weber’s grave at the Cimetiére Montmartre. Photo taken on 5 May 2014.


[1] Paris-Parisien 1899, Paris, Ollendorff, p. 222.

[2] Ibid., p. 222

Newspapers and Nymphomaniacs


Le Journal publie La Nymphomane (1892). Source: Gallica/BnF

By the end of the nineteenth century most newspapers published feuilletons. Immensely popular and widely advertised, these serial novels were a major tool to bind readers to a paper. Many famous French authors pre-published their novels as serials, but even more feuilletons were written by authors who did not quite make the literary canon. In the first ever issue of newspaper Le Journal on 28 September 1892 we find the first instalment of the serial novel La Nymphomane. Une étude passionnelle (The nymphomaniac.  A passionate study) by Oscar Méténier.  The novel was later published with the slightly more serious sounding subtitle moeurs parisiennes (Parisian customs).  Oscar Méténier (1859-1913) was a well-known playwright/novelist/theatre man, famous for his naturalist plays and stories about the working class and underworld Paris. In one of his novels he introduced a prostitute as the main character, something unheard of at the time. He worked with André Antoine for the Théâtre Libre, an experimental theatre devoted to staging realist plays. So realistic in fact that a play about butchers had to be cancelled after the raw meat used as props started to rot and made the audience vomit. Son of a police officer, Méténier had worked for the police himself in his twenties –one of his tasks was to accompany convicts to their execution. He used this experience for his stories. Writing about crime, prostitution and the misery of life in poverty, Méténier’s intention was to show the hypocrisy of a society that judged the crimes of the disenfranchised differently and more harshly than those of the ruling classes.

Oscar Méténier

But this socio-political message might have been lost at times in the way his novels were advertised in newspapers. Under the guise of a serious, sociological study writers –and newspapers – could get away with writing about all sorts of ‘perversions’. The colourful, alluring poster (see here on Gallica) for Méténier’s La Nymphomane by Le Journal should probably be read as: look at this sexy woman immoral nymphomaniac. Read all about this object of our fantasies sexual deviant in minute detail to see how exciting dangerous she is. Through these sort of colourful, tantalising posters and announcements readers were drawn in with the promise of stories about sex and gore more than anything else.

For another lively example of how newspapers advertised their serial novels also take a look here for a poster by Jules Chéret advertising Méténier’s Zézette. Mœurs foraines (1891) in L’Éclair. Interested? You can read Zézette here. For free!

Women cyclists: if you can’t beat them, sell them cocaine


Cycling was all the rage in fin de siècle Paris. Bold women ventured out in the streets scaring pedestrians with their provocative cycling costumes. Predictably this provoked fears about the end of womankind.
Going through Le Journal I came across a society column of the Comtesse de Tramar. The Comtesse, author of forgotten self-help books and self-appointed police of female propriety and femininity, expresses her horror at seeing the red, puffy faces of these women cyclists, let alone their legs. ‘With her clothing’, she writes, ‘a woman must preserve her grace, her chastity, all of which make up her poetry and elegance, and this is jeopardized by the habit of showing one’s legs during the day and one’s shoulders in the evening’(Le Journal, 3 October 1895).
Le Journal catered to a bourgeois audience so the paper generally preferred to uphold convention. But money seemed to have trumped moral concerns and some of Le Journal‘s advertisements completely contradict the reactionary outrage of its columns. The bicycle was a symbol of (sexual) liberation and even then advertisers knew how to exploit this. The lack of femininity deplored by the Comtesse de Tramar had been used as a marketing strategy to sell products to the new pédaleuses. One advert published in Le Journal several months earlier offered female cyclists the magical tonic wine Mariani, a wine laced with cocaine and one of the first performance enhancing drugs. This drink would give female cyclists a ‘virile firmness, endurance and vigour’ (Le Journal, 27 July 1895). And yes, that sounds as sexually suggestive in translation as it does in the original French.
Just imagine these hordes of gender bending women cyclists on cocaine roaming the streets of Paris. No wonder the Comtesse was so horrified.