Women to remember – Hellé Nice (1900 -1984)

What a thrilling and also tragic lifestyle of a true heroine of her age. Hellé Nice was born under the name of Hélène Mariette Delangle, a dauntless and fascinating woman who revelled in danger. Born in 1900 in a French village, she became quite a famous burlesque dancer in the nightclubs of Paris. So no wonder that she caught the eye of the numerous jet set members of the 1920s.

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Hellé loved the spotlight and she sure loved to be in the centre of attention, well I´d be the last to blame her for that. And I won´t blame her either for loving the company of – many – men. “The list of lovers, aristocrat and otherwise, who became involved with Hellé Nice during the 1930’s is almost as long as the list of races in which she took part,” her biographer Miranda Seymour observes. “Fortunately for us,” she adds, “she had the helpful habit of marking their names with an X in her new black address book.”

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A skiing accident in 1927 ended her dancing career and also prevented her from skiing, another past-time she loved. Looking for alternatives, she started racing cars, and in 1929 won an all-women race and in so doing set the world land-speed record for a woman.

In 1930 she was introduced to Ettore Bugatti by Philippe de Rothschild, at the time her lover, and he lent her a vehicle which she bought a year later. She wanted nothing more than to take on the men on equal terms. In 1931 she drove a bright blue Bugatti in the French and Italian Grand Prix, thrilling the crowds and reaping the rewards of huge commercial spin-offs. While she did not win, she finished ahead of a number of her (male) rivals.

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In the years that followed she raced regularly, in grand prix and also in all different kind of races all across Europe.A career unthinkable of today. Imagine a former strip tease dancer becoming a succesful Formula 1 driver at the age of 30. This is exactly what she acoomplished. In 1936 she was involved in a major crash in Brazil when she piled into a straw bale at speed. Her Alfa Romeo cartwheeled through the air and plunged into the crowd, killing four spectators. Hellé was thrown clear and landed on a soldier who cushioned the impact and quite probably saved her life; he died, she was in a coma for two days and in hospital for two months.

Having become quite a well off woman, she spent most the second world war in her home at the French Riviera. After the war she was preparing to return to professional race car driving. But then during a bis party just before 1949 Monte Carlo rallye she was accused in public to have worked as a Gestapo agent by a succesful and popular Monegasque Grand Prix driver whom I will not name here.  The libeller later lived a succesful and unchallenged live to die as a respected gentleman in Monaco in 1979.

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Quite different was the live and fate of poor Hellé after this public assault. Despite the fact that the allegations against her were never substantiated let alone proved to be true, this defamation completely destroyed Hellé´s reputation and social life.  Having become a “persona non grata” she had no other choice but to disappear from the life in public. Her then lover soon betrayed and left her and with him went most of her money. She then lived in desparate isolation in a run down quarter of Nice. Hellé had to live her last years in abject poverty, forgotten by the world, cared for just by a charity fund dedicated to the support of impoverished former artists. The woman who had been one of the most successful, beautiful and bold Females of the early 20th century lived her life in a rat invested dump, forgotten and alone. What a tragedy… or rather once more an example of the disastrous effects of male brazeness on the life of a wonderful woman … Oh, I wished I had the chance to get the slanderer and her disloyal lover in front of My most devastating snake whip …