Hellé Nice  France

  • Full name Mariette Hélène Delangle
  • Birth date December 15, 1900
  • Birthplace Aunay-sous-Auneau, Eure-et-Loir, France
  • Date of death October 1, 1984 (83 years 291 days)
  • Place of death Nice, France
driver portrait

From a small village, Mariette Delangle went to Paris as a 16-year-old where she found work as a dancer, using the stage name Hélène Nice which eventually became Hellé Nice. She did so well touring Europe that she was able to buy a yacht and fund a lively career as a racing driver. She was not averse to nude modeling either.

An 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. Allied to her professional reputation, she toured the USA the following year racing.

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.

In the years that followed she raced regularly, not only in grand prix but also hillclimbs and rallies across Europe.

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. Nice 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.

In 1937 she attempted a comeback at the Mille Miglia and the Tripoli Grand Prix but was unable to raise the required backing. She continued to drive against other women while all the time trying to get back into the big time.

After spending the war at a house on the French Riviera, on the eve of an appearance in the Monte Carlo Rally she was publicly accused by racing legend Louis Chiron of having worked for the Gestapo. There was no proof but it was enough for her sponsors to desert her; her friends and lover followed soon after.

Her end was tragic. Within a few years she was living on a meagre income from a Parisian charity for down-on-their-luck theatre performers. She took an assumed name, abandoned even by her family and all but forgotten. Her funeral was paid for by the charity and the final insult came when her sister refused to allow her to be buried in the family grave.
Martin Williamson

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