The Rise and Fall of a Racetrack Queen
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because 80 years ago, she beat the boys at their own game.
By Mike McDowall
Meet the badass women that history forgot — but we didn’t. Check out the rest of this OZY series here.
The fearless beauty was battling for second place in São Paulo’s 1936 Grand Prix when disaster struck at 90 mph: Hellé Nice’s car hit a hay bale and flipped into the crowd, killing six and injuring more than 30. It was the beginning of the end of a glorious career that lifted her out of poverty to become one of the world’s most famous racing drivers.
She was born Mariette Hélène Delangle in 1900 in Aunay-sous-Auneau, a village southwest of Paris, and her postmaster father died when she was just 3. In her early 20s, having taken the name Hellé Nice (pronounced Ellay Neese), she worked as a striptease dancer and modeled for dirty photos, which paid for formal ballet training and ultimately led to more serious work. Among her lovers were Henri de Courcelles and Marcel Mongin, both amateur racers who cultivated her enthusiasm for speed and danger. As her desire for adventure grew, so did her status. In 1927, her performance alongside megastar Maurice Chevalier in the hit show Les Ailes de Paris brought her both fame and fortune.
By the time a skiing accident ended her dancing career a few years later, she had embraced another line of work, thanks to Henri and Marcel. She hit the racetrack and captivated spectators with her courage and skill, quickly acquiring sponsors. In June 1929, behind the wheel of an Oméga-Six, Nice won the inaugural Grand Prix Féminin at the Montlhéry circuit, making her an overnight success and prompting famed auto designer Jean Bugatti to offer her a Type 43A — the car of every schoolboy’s dreams. When she raced it the next week, Nice not only won but also set a new speed record, the first time ever by a female driver. A string of successes followed, and for several years she competed at motorsports’ highest level, taking part, among other events, in 78 Grand Prix — then, as now, the highest-profile and arguably most dangerous race.
A neighbor remembered seeing an elderly Nice “taking the milk out of the cats’ saucers because she had nothing to eat or drink.”
Nice preferred to live her personal life in the fast lane too. She partied hard and had a slew of lovers, including several aristocrats — most notably Baron Philippe de Rothschild — who frequented the motorsports circuit. She also became the face of Lucky Strike cigarettes and Esso gasoline, using her earnings to buy a luxurious Hispano-Suiza car and 22-meter yacht. But for all the coquetry and glamour, Nice was also extremely tough and ambitious in the face of entrenched gender discrimination. “It’s all I ever ask for, just to show what I can do, without a handicap, against men,” she told L’Intransigeant in 1930. “She had to fight for her place in a very masculine world, and she did so with hubris, wit and charm,” says Miranda Seymour, author of Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend.
But, in 1936, beginning with the crash in Brazil, things veered off track. No manufacturer would hire a driver who’d suffered serious head injuries. Three years later, Jean Bugatti, her lover and benefactor, was killed while testing a prototype car. Then came World War II and the horrors of the Nazi occupation. After the war, Nice planned to relaunch her career at the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally. But the night before the race, Monegasque driver Louis Chiron, perhaps envious of Nice’s fame, publicly denounced her as a former Gestapo spy. She vigorously denied the charge, but the damage had been done, and finding a sponsor became impossible. Seymour investigated the spurious claim and found nothing to implicate her subject. “The whole thing stank,” she tells OZY. “Had she been a collaborator, her name would have been recorded, [but] there was nothing.”
In 1960, Nice’s much younger lover left her for another woman. By then she’d sold her possessions to pay the rent and was relying on handouts from La Roue Tourne, a charity for destitute music hall performers. At 75, she moved into a dingy attic in a run-down section of Nice. Seymour visited one of her neighbors, who remembered seeing the old woman “taking the milk out of the cats’ saucers because she had nothing to eat or drink.”
The iconoclast, pioneer for gender equality and holder of eight world speed records died penniless in 1984. Because of her unorthodox lifestyle, she’d been disinherited by her mother and disowned by her sister. Largely forgotten, she was buried in an unmarked grave in north-central France. The Hellé Nice Foundation, established 24 years later, installed a memorial plaque beside her grave and is working to restore her reputation, with plans to award corporate-sponsored grants to women planning a career in motorsports.
- Mike McDowall Contact Mike McDowall