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Wednesday , January 29 2020

Expo seeks to unveil Mata Hari mystery – Legal ballet to end New York prohibition on dancing

LEEUWARDEN, Netherlands, Oct 29, (AFP): She scandalised society by dancing almost naked when women still wore corsets and their dresses long. Yet a century after her death, Mata Hari remains veiled in mystery.

Now a Dutch museum in the Friesian town of her birth is seeking to shed new light on the exotic dancer, bringing together for the first time 150 objects, photos and military archives in the largest-ever exhibition devoted to one of the world’s most famous courtesans and seductresses.

Her story was “a dramatic cocktail of courage and glory, loss and betrayal,” says the museum about the ultimate femme fatale, executed by a French firing squad on charges of being a double agent on Oct 15, 1917.

Giant black-and-white photos of Mata Hari wearing her barely-there, bejewelled costumes hang on the walls of the Fries Museum in northern Leeuwarden, the town where she was born as Margaretha Zelle in 1876.

Never-before-seen scrapbooks, personal belongings, letters, books and jewellery are on display in “Mata Hari: The Myth and the Maiden” running until April 2.

Shown in darkened rooms where videos play of dancers recreating her sensuous choreography, the exhibition is both intimate and surprising.

There are posters of her appearances in such famous theatres as the Folies Bergere, and in one room by an antique child’s crib visitors learn her two-year-old son, Norman, died of syphilis, likely contracted from his mother.

“It is the story of the life of a very famous person who got a lot of attention during her career, got into a lot of trouble, arrested and accused of being a spy,” said museum curator Hans Groeneweg, who has spent several years amassing the collection.

Margaretha married young to an army officer 20 years older than her, who was based in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. They had two children, Norman, and a younger girl, Non.

But in 1903 aged 27, she fled after a nasty divorce to Paris, where, penniless, she became a striptease dancer, taking the name “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “Eye of the Day”.

The objects on display “trace her path from being a young girl, to her life as a mother,… her exotic career as a courtesan and her journey during the war,” Groeneweg said, adding the aim was to give visitors a more “complete” picture of the real woman.

There is a delicate, crown-shaped gold and pearl brooch, which Mata Hari gave a German officer just before her death, asking him to send it to her daughter, letters after her divorce full of despair, and even her death warrant with the word “Mort” (Deceased) starkly handwritten across it in black ink italics.


“I’m tired of fighting life,” Mata Hari wrote in one letter, appealing that Non, who she’d left behind in The Netherlands, be allowed to join her in Paris.

“Either Nonnie lives with me and I behave like a decent mother, or I’m going to enjoy the beautiful life being offered to me here. I know that life ends in tragedy — but I’m over that,” she wrote presciently.

She was a prolific letter writer and there are missives between her and her husband when she was still deeply in love, as well as her son’s baby album lovingly filled in until his sudden death.

“Instead of dancing to the praise of the powerful and famous, I am here, in a hospital room at the bedside of my dying child,” she wrote.

Later there are postcards from across Europe to her daughter some simply signed “Mama” and French army archives recounting her interrogation and trial kept secret until recently.

“I am desperately worried and I cry all the time,” she wrote in April 1917 to the French judge from her Parisian cell, asking for news of her then Russian lover who had abandoned her.

“You cannot imagine my suffering. Please release me, I cannot cope with it any longer.”

Many questions still remain about Mata Hari.

To what extent was she really a spy? Why, after accepting an offer in 1916 from a German diplomat to spy on France if he paid off her debts, did she become a double agent for France? Was she just naive, or desperate, or both?

For Groeneweg there is “always that question: Was she really guilty?”

He believes there is still “not enough proof to say for certain if she was a spy. The French certainly wanted to set an example during a very difficult year in 1917. They used her.”

And despite the exhibition, it seems that in the end, Mata Hari, who reinvented herself as the Javanese princess who rode elephants, took many of her secrets to the grave.


NEW YORK: Dancing is technically illegal in thousands of bars, clubs and restaurants in the city that never sleeps, but New York campaigners are finally in sight of getting the law overturned.

The “cabaret law,” passed in 1926, requires public spaces that sell food and drink to acquire near impossible-to-obtain permits to authorize dancing indoors.

Those without the permit can be fined. Repeat infractions risk bar owners losing their license to sell alcohol, which could in turn lead to bankruptcy.

Yet fewer than 100 of New York’s more than 22,000 bars, restaurants and clubs have the elusive permit, which is granted after mountains of Kafkaesque paperwork and jumping through prohibitively expensive hoops that Brooklyn councilman Rafael Espinal says unfairly discriminate against small business owners.

“It’s just ridiculous,” says the indignant 27-year-old Democrat in his basement office. He wants to repeal the law, which could be put to a vote in the New York City Council as early as December.

“Let’s finally get this law off the books so that we can go after the real problem, whether it be noise, crime, unsafe conditions,” he snorted. “Let’s not go after dancing.”

Espinal and pressure groups such as the Dance Liberation Network say the law has been used historically to crack down on neighborhoods with large minority populations such as African Americans, Latinos and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

Passed initially to assert control during the time of Prohibition, some historians say its true goal was the closure of Harlem jazz bars in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s to stop whites and blacks mixing.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was used to close establishments frequented by the LGBT community as it fought for its rights. In the 1990s, mayor Rudy Giuliani used the law to get tough on clubs in his fight against crime.

Today, it is little used, but detractors say it is invoked as an excuse to shut down premises considered undesirable.

One recent casualty was Andrew Muchmore, a lawyer who owns a bar that hosts live music in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhood.

One night in 2013 when a group of customers were making noise outside, an inspector fined Muchmore $200 under the cabaret law.

When he went to pay, the office couldn’t find the docket. But Muchmore went to court anyway, charging the law violated the “sacred” First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

“I was bothered by the principle that such a law could exist in America and that offended my sensibility as an American,” Muchmore told AFP.

“I did not feel comfortable that that could exist in the 21st century in New York of all places,” he said.

Muchmore complains of a “broader cultural collapse” in New York, alleging that neighborhoods are “ghosts of their former selves” — railing against brutal rent hikes and bureaucracy that suffocates small entrepreneurs.

No longer a “wild, unruly and free place,” the city’s famed nightlife has taken a knocking, he says. It’s a frequent complaint that the onslaught of gentrification has pushed out artists and musicians in a city of millionaires and billionaires.

But the campaign to scrap the cabaret law has won the support of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also acquiesced to another of Espinal’s demands — create a “nightlife mayor” also dubbed “director of nightlife” or DON.

The search is now on for a liaison officer between city hall, residents and New York’s multi-billion-dollar nightlife industry, in order to support a safe nightlife scene that supports 300,000 jobs and attracts tourists far and wide.

De Blasio signed the new position into law at House of YES, a Brooklyn party venue alongside Marky Ramone, the drummer of legendary punk band The Ramones.

“It’s pretty shocking — one in five small businesses have been lost in the last couple of decades in New York City,” the mayor said.

“One of the big reasons was it was hard to navigate the rules and restrictions that in so many cases went too far,” he added.

Muchmore is optimistic about ending the law. “If the city council has not already repealed the law by that time, the court will find the law to be unconstitutional,” he predicts.

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