History’s Most Famous Exotic Dancers And The Books They’ve Inspired

by  | July 11

Long before Dita von Teese, there was Mata Hari. There was Sally Rand. There was Josephine Baker. These exotic dancers of the 20th centuries are so infamous not merely for their dancing, but for their activism, their intelligence, and their mysterious double lives. Unsurprisingly, these women have inspired countless books and films—fiction and nonfiction alike. And trust me, they are stories worth reading.

Mata Hari (1876-1917)


Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod Zelle is arguably history’s most infamous exotic dancer, known of course by her stage name, Mata Hari. A Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan, Mata Hari was accused and convicted of being a German spy during World War I, supposedly causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Though she wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul in Paris, claiming her innocence, the trial was basically a forgone conclusion—Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad in 1917.

Because of her international travel, widespread fame, salacious love life, and the murky details surrounding her conviction, the legend of Mata Hari has inspired several films, including the 1931 film, Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo. Earlier this year, the Dutch Royal Ballet debuted a ballet based on her life. The latest work of fiction starring Margaretha is Mata Hari’s Last Dance by Michelle Moran (Amazon / B&N / Indiebound), a totally captivating and nuanced portrait of a woman who sought love and adventure in equal measure. Was she truly a spy? You’ll need to read it to find out.

Sally Rand (1904-1979)

sally rand fan dance

Missouri-born Hattie Helen Gould Beck got her big break in the silent films of the 1920s, when filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille bestowed her new name, Sally Rand. Toward the end of the decade she became a dancer, popularizing the “fan dance” at the Paramount Club in Chicago—even performing it at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Like Mata Hari, Sally faced many run-ins with the law, once being arrested four times in a single day for “indecent exposure.” (She was riding a white horse down the streets of Chicago…but the nudity was only an illusion.) By the 1930s, Sally Rand became the owner of The Music Box burlesque hall (later the Great American Music Hall) in San Francisco, cementing her legacy.

Sally has made numerous appearances in American pop culture, from a Tex Avery cartoon to the science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. In Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (Amazon / B&N / Indiebound), he describes Sally Rand fan-dancing for the first American astronauts and other dignitaries. This was also made into a film, with Sally played by Peggy Davis.

Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

josephine baker banana

Exotic dancer. Jazz singer. Civil Rights activist. Spy. These are just a few of the monikers that can be used to describe Josephine Baker. And that’s not even to mention the most important one: muse to Beyonce. (We’ll get there.) Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where she spent her childhood alternately working for—and being abused by—white families, and living on the streets. During that time, Josephine made a living dancing on street corners, and that talent led her to be recruited to a vaudeville troupe at age 15. She became a featured chorus dancer in several major Broadway productions, including Shuffle Along. 

In 1925, she sailed to Paris to open at La Revue Nègre, and her career in exotic dancing took off, featuring her infamous banana dance. When Germany invaded Poland and France declared war in 1939, she was recruited to French military intelligence as an “honorable correspondent,” aka spy. Although based in Paris for most of her life, Baker supported the American Civil Rights movement from abroad, working closely with the NAACP and refusing to perform for segregated audiences. She was the only woman who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by her side.

All this is truly just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the life, career, and activism of Josephine Baker. And unsurprisingly, her story has captivated popular culture time and time again. I mean for Christ’s sake, Diana Ross played her in An Evening with Diana Ross. But if you’re going to read a book about Josephine, make it Jean-Claude Baker’s authoritative biography, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart (Amazon / B&N / Indiebound).

Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970)

gypsy rose lee

Since most are acquainted with the character of Gypsy Rose Lee, “it may be necessary to remind people today that Gypsy wasn’t just a fictional character, the second banana in the musical that bears her name” (NPR). Born in Seattle, Rose Louise Hovick would become the most popular theatrical entertainer of her time—Gypsy Rose Lee. Born into a legendarily dysfunctional family, Rose was put on a stage very early—tap dancing and singing as a child alongside her sister, actress June Havoc. Eventually she made her mark as a striptease artist, using her wit and humor to distinguish her act from other burlesque dancers of the time. Gypsy’s intelligence is well documented. An actress, author, and playwright, her novel The G-String Murders was a bestseller.

And of course, he 1957 memoir, Gypsy, served as the inspiration for the famous musical by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. But if you want to full story of Gypsy’s fascinating, tumultuous life and legacy, go get a copy of American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare — The Life And Times Of Gypsy Rose Lee (Amazon / B&N / Indiebound). Karen Abbott spent three years researching this story, and was the last person to interview June Havoc—it is a captivating portrait of a legendary performer and a must-read for anyone who is interested in the history of American entertainment.