The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a Motor Racing Legend.
By Miranda Seymour. Simon &Schuster; 301 pages; £15.99.
To be published in America by Random House in December ‘04
IN THIS SPINE-TINGLING BIOGRAPHY OF A FORGOTTEN FRENCH MOTOR-RACING PIONEER, Miranda Seymour uncovers the life of one of the 20th century’s most daring women, Hélène Delangle, born into a humble family in 1900, left her dusty village in her late teens for the glamour of theatrical Paris where she worked as a nude model, a cabaret dancer and performed a high- wire act.
Hellé Nice, as she called herself, went down a storm in the Paris music halls with her heart-stopping smile and svelte figure—often unclothed. A skiing accident ended her stage career in 1929 but her fascination with cars and her iron determination turned her to motor-racing; a perfect sport for a woman who said, “The thing I
like best in the world is adventure.”
In 1929, driving an Omega Six at France’s steeply banked Montlhéry circuit, Hellé Nice won the first grand prix for women. Her achievement and charisma then caught the eye of Ettore Bugatti who offered Hellé the use of a supercharged Bugatti 35C , “the world’s most beautiful sports car”, as it was called at the time, for an attempt on the world speed record. On December 18th 1929, she became the fastest woman driver in the world, averaging 120.5mph (194 kph) over ten miles—48 seconds a lap—at Montlhéry. The author describes it thus: “Far below her, hurtling into the second lap, Hélène caught a glimpse of upturned faces, a ring of startled moons. The rev counter showed 5500: good. Keep it steady. Her ankle throbbed as she clamped the rubber sole of her shoe, to the throttle, gluing it down; the tyres swivelled on loose grit, bringing a shriek of rubber into the roar of the wind.”
The next seven years were Hellé’s finest. She raced Bugattis and Alfa Rom-eos against the best male drivers of the day on Europe’s toughest circuits, took part in rallies and hill climbs, and spent a year racing on lethal dirt tracks and all speed bowls in the United States. Her skill behind the wheel and her showgirl’s sense of spectacle gave her world fame.
It was not to last. A horrific crash in the 1936 São Paulo grand prix nearly killed her and, after convalescing in France, she drove in only a few more events before the ensuing war put a stop to racing. In 1949, Hellé’s attempt to restart her career was destroyed when a fellow driver accused her of having been a Gestapo agent.
Despite a fight to clear her name, the accusation ruined her. She plunged from her riches to poverty. Her lover left and by 1959, “the most audacious woman driver of her time”, who had owned a yacht, lived in a villa on the Riviera and for whom the Marseillaise was played whenever she drove on to a track, was penniless. She died alone in Nice at the age of 84. Her grave remains unmarked. “The Bugatti Queen” superbly brings alive the dirty, lethal, glamorous world of 1930s motor-racing but what shines most strongly from its pages is the vividness of Hellé Nice’s personality; her joie de vivre, her determination, her spirit and her sheer nerve . In writing this enthralling book, Miss Seymour has given the forgotten “chantpionne du monde automobile” the tribute she has so long deserved. •
The ECONOMIST Magazine
February 28th, 2004.
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