dancing for the rich

‘My grandparents were pretty eccentric. They had an alcoholic parrot, who was always given a glass of wine, but it dropped the glass and then they had to be quick to catch it.’

Montino Bourbon racks his brains for more anecdotes about Carlo Bourbon del Monte, a prince of San Faustino, and princess Jane, Montino’s grandparents in Rome. But he doesn’t know much more, because his parents emigrated to America when he was 8, and of course he went with them. He is well aware of Mata Hari’s reputation as a world famous spy and is stunned when he hears that she danced for his grandfather.

The Bourbons are very old nobility and among the most prominent aristocratic families in Europe. Montino is the current prince of San Faustino, but this doesn’t impress Californians much. And him least of all. ‘You can call me “Your Excellency"’, he e-mailed me with a sense of understatement, ‘but I prefer Montino’.

Okay, he's still prince, and his wife and his daughters are princesses, but that’s about it. He donated all his family documents to UCLA. And he makes his own instruments that produce Indian music similar to the type that Mata Hari chose to dance to. That can’t be a coincidence, surely?

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I tracked down Montino on Facebook. I’d researched the San Faustino family tree and wanted to know more about Carlo, because apparently he became besotted with Mata Hari when she danced for him in 1912. In her scrapbook is a picture of the painting that he had made of her in the weeks she was in Rome.

Mata Hari was by now somewhat accustomed to the nobility, because she often danced in Paris and Berlin salons where princes, counts, dukes and their wives came to see her. Not bad for a Frisian child from a middle class family.

She owed it to Madame Kiréevsky, a singer who organised many benefit performances in Parisian society. Margaretha was working as a rider horsewoman in Circus Molier (3), when a French diplomat she had previously met in The Hague arranged her introduction as a dancer at Kiréevsky’s. Two months later after her dream debut in Emile Guimet’s museum, Parisian nobility was in the palm of her hand.

Foto Musée Guimet

There is also a calling card of Princess Leopold Croy, born Countess of Sternberg, in her scrapbook: ‘Dear Lady Macleod, if it is not immodest, I would like to ask you to send another two cards to Countess Andrassy’. So she definitely was connected. While other young women, with a little luck, became the mistress of one or other ordinary citizen, she ended up in the salons – and the bedrooms – of the exceedingly wealthy.

Mata Hari presumably felt like a fish in water. In fact, she was as much a snob as her father, who – after having become rich speculating in shares – frequently sought protection from the wealthiest people in Leeuwarden. She had a crowned monogram embroidered on her napkins, and her business card read: ‘Lady Margaretha Zelle MacLeod’. The story goes that she once applied for a noble title, but without success.

Mata Hari danced no less than three times at the home of the super rich industrialist Baron Henri de Rothschild , a passionate theatre lover and probably just as eccentric as Carlo in Rome, given that he went crocodile hunting in Sudan.

Palazzo Barberini

How things progressed with the enamoured prince Carlo – married to Jane Campbell, an American who hosted enormous parties and could bring Rome to an uproar – is the question. All the sources state that Mata Hari danced for him in Palazzo Barberini where the family lived; in fact, she even wrote that herself on the picture in her scrapbook.

But recently I came across a letter in the files of Sam Waagenaar, the self-appointed biographer of Mata Hari, written by Prince Ranieri, son of Carlo and father of Montino. His father was temporarily not residing in the Palazzo when Mata Hari performed for him. He had his own apartment elsewhere in Rome. ‘We’ve never seen that painting. My mother would never have allowed it to be displayed with us in the Palazzo’, he wrote to Waagenaar on his personal stationary bearing a crown.

So where then did Mata Hari perform for the prince? Is there anyone out there who knows?