If you think of racing drivers down the ages, they are invariably male. Fangio, Moss, Clark, Senna, Schumacher are names that spring to mind, but perhaps one of the most scintillating drivers of the 20th century was a French lady by the name of Hellé Nice. While Nice was a very successful racing driver, her extraordinary life covered much more than just pushing herself to the limit in a Bugatti, and the story of this illustrious woman’s life reads like the most colourful of stories.

Born to Be a Celebrity

Mariette Hélène Delangle was born in a small village outside Paris in 1900. She changed her name to Hellé Nice at the age of sixteen when she moved to the city and made a living selling saucy photographs to tourists. It didn’t take long for Hellé to move on to the theatre and by 1920 she was one of the best known acts in Paris. She partnered a renowned male dancer called Robert Lisset and her dancing career bloomed, bringing her a substantial income and a celebrity lifestyle.

It was while she was a celebrity dancer that she really got the motor racing bug. Hellé had loved the sport ever since her father had taken her to meetings as a girl of three, and she found the thrill of racing intoxicating. As a household name, Hellé had friends who helped introduce her to the racing world and she embraced it with an aggressive vitality.

A Racing Certainty

While still a celebrated dancer, she started entering celebrity races, which were popular in France at that time. The “Championnat des Artistes“, held every year at Parc des Princes, was the biggest of these and attracted celebrities. Hellé entered and found a new thrill to pursue. She had her first experience in mainstream motorsport in 1928, when she entered the Journée Féminine de l’Automobile at Montlhéry, driving a Citroen, and soon moved on to Bugattis and Alfa Romeos.

That lifestyle also brought her to the attention of European nobility, including the Rothschild family. Hellé famously had an affair with Philippe de Rothschild and, unmarried and essentially a free spirit, she made the most of life by taking a string of lovers. Whether her lovers were married or not didn’t concern her; it was all about fun and the thrill of the chase! At the onset of war, she moved to the South for France and enjoyed life as much as she could under occupation.

Decline and Fall

Her downfall was abrupt, and may well have been centered on jealousy at her luxurious wartime lifestyle from those in her extensive social group, but probably also driven by the fear that some in the racing world had for her enviable skills behind the wheel. In 1949, fellow racing driver, Louis Chiron, publicly accused her of being a wartime Nazi collaborator and possible even a Gestapo agent and, though now considered unfounded, it effectively destroyed her career. Disgraced, she spent the next few years of her life destitute and living under an assumed name in a charity-provided flat in the southern city of Nice. She died, penniless and without friends in 1984, forgotten by her former lovers and peers, a shadow of the woman who had so much zest for life.

Hellé Nice led an extraordinary life, but made it all the more remarkable by the fact that she didn’t necessarily covet fame and fortune; she simply existed in her own interminable way and fame and fortune sought her out. With a personality larger than the glittering life she led, Hellé Nice was a true force in the extravagant world she was part of, and an intrepid venturer into men’s realm. Unlike the girls from today’s Pirelli Calendar, she more than looked well next to a car: she had a power over it. Her figure still inspires women today and provides an excellent counter argument in the biased discussion on the superiority of male driving. The conviction that men are more skilled drivers than women have been present in the public awareness for decades. Hellé Nice was definitely one of these women who prove how wrong this stereotype is.

About The Author

Giles Kirkland is a car tyres expert at Oponeo, as well as a motorization fan and a committed writer. He is also interested in the problems of masculinity and femininity, and in gender studies. He enjoys sharing his views with Internet readers.