“She needed exercises to strengthen her torso, waist and shoulders for full control of the wheel, to harden her thighs and calves for the braking, and to toughen her palms. Strenuous though the training was, she relished the sensations of a body growing daily more powerful.”Miranda Seymour
Mariette Hélène Delangle, a postmaster’s daughter from the tiny village of Aunay-sous-Aneau, France, wanted to change more than her body and mental acuity. She was ready to trade her dancing slippers for the wheel of a racing car and a new lease on life.
Delangle called herself Hellè Nice, after rising to fame as an exotic dancer in Paris. On the second day of June in 1929, Hellè was nervous about driving in her first Women’s Grand Prix race. She had memorized every twist and turn, defying what society considered a woman’s place in the world. Women were expected to grace the passenger seat of a car or to be admired as car hood ornaments; like the celebrated Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament.
To everyone’s surprise, Hellè crossed the finish line first in her inaugural race. When finished, Hellè unwrapped the red scarf from her neck, popped her slim body from the car and darted towards the medical post to pierce the blisters on her fingers with a hot needle. This less-than graceful scene was a testament to Hellè’s mental grit and determination to make this business her future.
Of course, the newspapers had a field day with her. She was an attractive, famed dancer, who had driven with the “elegance and sport of a modern woman.” In the final lap, she dramatically surged ahead of a more practiced Ferrand Amilca. Hellè who would race in a total of 78 Grand Prix races and break 10 world speed records.
In life, Hellè left nothing to chance. She shaped her own story and performances. She even tried to control her birth records by suggesting she was born in 1905; five years later. At 14 years of age, Hellè made her way to Paris and survived by modeling nude for Rene Carrere, who drew titillating caricatures of her for music hall audiences.
Following Carrere’s advice, Helle studied ballet and eventually won a spot with a dancing chorus line. Audience-goers fell in love with her graceful, risqué dances and she fraternized with the wealthy line of lovers who were entranced by her spirited independence. These wealthy patrons invited Hellè to vacation with them, and it was on these driving jaunts to the countryside that she developed a love for speeding cars. Two especially close friends, Marcel Mongin and Henri de Courcelles, would be instrumental supporters for Hellè.
They introduced her to the carefree life of travel and skiing, and Hellè challenged them to racing competitions and physical feats. In 1920, after Hellè purchased a Citroën car with money from her stage performances, she wanted to follow Courcelles who started to compete in more racing circuits. Because women were forbidden from racing against men, Hellè continued to prove her fearless nature in other ways like climbing Mount Blanc, twice (1925).
When Courcelles entered the first formula contest from Paris to Deauville in 1927, Hellè was glued to the track. Sadly, she was there when Courcelle’s car skidded off the road, killing him instantly. You might think this would have deterred Hellè’s racing dreams, especially having heard the deadly smack of Courcelle’s body as it flew from the car and hit a tree. But she never spoke of his death and kept her eyes on building her own future.
Hellè continued living a grand life and enjoyed living in the fashionable Paris area of the 17th Arrondissement (district). She was earning enough money to indulge in expensive travels to the Riviera and the beach resort of Le Tourquet. It was there, in 1929, that Hellè tore her cartilage in a skiing accident trying to escape an oncoming avalanche. The injury ended her dance career and made her more determined than ever to start car racing.
With the Women’s Grand Prix win under her belt, Hellè caught the attention of the Bugatti family and their dynasty of luxury cars. They invited her to the Bugatti show room in Paris, believing her beauty and appeal would help to boost their car sales. Jean Bugatti himself, the heir apparent, convinced her to drive their T43A and courted Hellè despite being married. When Hellè won her next women’s race a few months later in December of 1929 at Monte Carlo, she set a record speed of 197 kph for an average lap speed of 194 kph.
Reporters went wild with this second feat and Hellè became the new darling. She was thrilled with what she called the greatest feeling in the world, and spent the next six years racing in exotic places like Reims, Monza, Oran, Casablanca and Marseille. She clocked her best results in the early 1930s, placing third in the next Women’s Grand Prix. While glad, Hellè was beginning to resent having to compete with only women. But the Depression hit, forcing her to take time off until she received an offer to travel to America.
The Miller races in New Jersey gave her exactly what she was yearning for – to compete against men. But the tracks were dangerous driving for Hellè, who was inexperienced and unaware of the road differences in America. Driving was harrowing and she was treated horribly. Hellè was also paid much less than the other male drivers and race organizers refused to pay for her accommodations and travel.
On the bright side, Hellè was the first female racing car driver to compete in New Jersey and the American Tour made her a salaried “exhibition driver”. In all, she completed in 18 speed demonstrations and earned advertising deals with Esso and Lucky cigarettes, despite her status as an exhibition driver.
Hellè was soon dubbed the Bugatti Queen for her unparalleled titles, beauty and daring, When she returned to Europe, she was finally allowed to enter the Grand Prix race with male drivers and came fourth in the competition; which included the best male drivers in the world like Phillippe Etancelin and Louis Chiron. She earned fees for racing and won the Women’s Grand Prix title once again. By this time, Hellè had garnered a huge following around the world, often stealing the limelight from many of the men including a driver named Chiron. His name would resurface later in her career and ultimately cause her ruin.
In 1933, at the Monza Grand Prix in 1933, Hellè switched car companies and raced in an Alpha Romeo. She earned third place in her heat but nothing beyond that until her racing in Sao Paulo, three years later. In front of an adoring crowd, Helle lost control of her car and crashed into the stands, killing six people. Hellè was in a coma for three days, fighting to and somehow miraculously recovered. But car companies were nervous now about her head injuries and refused to take a chance on her, despite her monumental run at the Yacco endurance trials later that year. She was one in a group of female drivers at Montihery who drove for 10 straight days and nights, breaking ten records that still stand today.
The world interrupted Hellè’s plans once again with the advent of WWII. All car racing was put on hold. But in 1949, Hellè planned her comeback at the Monte Carlo rally until one of the male formula drivers, a jealous competitor named Chiron, suggested she had been a Gestapo spy during the War. The false rumor destroyed her reputation and she drove for the last time in 1951. She spent her savings trying to clear her name but died in poverty. Hellè’s family refused to help her in the end, and even omitted her name from their family burial ground.
It’s strange to think that so many women who compete against man and succeed are often rebuked by society. We’ve made progress and Hellè’s legacy is accepted today as one of the greatest female drivers of all time. In 2010, a foundation recognizing her contributions to women’s progress began retracing her history and preserving her legacy. Other racers have followed in her footsteps, including Italian Maria Teresa de Fillipis, who was the first woman to ever compete in the coveted Formula One race.
While the number of women on the speed track is still relatively few, it’s likely it will take another 100 years before we see a female driver as capable or as successful as Hellè Nice. She remains a testament to what women can achieve in their drive for success and change.
Editor’s note: Many of these vignettes about Hélène Detangle’s life come from a 2018 BBC article and Miranda Seymour’s book, The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a Motor Racing Legend. Seymour’s book is, without a doubt, the definitive biography of Hellè Nice. It’s a great read for those who wish to learn more about her story.