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73359_gettyimages-89869315The Bugatti Queen

A neighbour remembered seeing an elderly Hell? Nice ?taking the milk out of the cats? saucers because she had nothing to eat or drink?

The sad old lady made her painful way up the steep stairs to her tiny, squalid apartment. Although it was the summer, she was cold; she was always cold.

She doubted that she had long for this world, she’d been born with the century.

Everything she owned, mostly mementos from the past, was kept in a battered tin trunk. She lived on charity now but once she had been wealthy and the most famous woman in France. Now, no-one knew her name.

Oh, the fabulous parties she’d attended. The acclaim. The newspaper reports and the trophies outlining her success. The celebrities she’d mingled with. Her beautiful homes and furniture, fabulous cars, furs and jewels, her yacht.

Oh, the fascinating lovers, the charming men, the passionate affairs…

Hell? Nice was born as Mariette Helene Delangle near Chartres as daughter of a postmaster, moved to Paris as teenager, posed for naughty photographs sold to tourists, and soon became one of the most popular and best known dancing acts in Paris in the mid 1920s.?Hell? was a dancer, nude model, dancer, acrobat,?accomplished skier and mountain climber, fearless racing driver, champion of women’s rights and allegedly, a Gestapo agent.

Her looks, and the ballet training that she seems to have picked up along the way, landed her a spot in a chorus line, which paid for her first car, a Citroen that she bought in 1920 and nicknamed Maisie.

Mariette Helene Delangle, born on 15th December 1900 was the youngest of five children of Alexandrine Bouillie and Leon Delangle – the village postmaster at Aunay-sous-Auneau near Chartres. Sadly all three of her brothers died before the age of 16, and her only sister, Solange Andree, harboured intense bitterness and jealousy towards her sister, who excelled at everything she did ? singing, drawing, reading and poetry, together with a love of history and geography as well as a keen interest in stamp collecting. In later years she became fluent in both English and Italian. Helene’s passion and enthusiasm for learning shone through, dazzling everyone she met, young and old and who were entranced by her beaming smile and ‘joie de vie.’

Soon after World War I Helene went to Paris, determined to make a new life for herself. The artist Rene Carrere, known for his saucy drawings that were published on postcards for tourists advertising music hall revues had no hesitation in using Helene as his model. He also advised her to have formal ballet lessons, where she showed her love of dance and movement, leading her to dance for the Casino de Paris. Helene then changed her name to Helle Nice, using this as her stage name.

She became a very successful dancer and built a solid reputation as a solo act but in 1926 decided to partner with Robert Lisset and performed at cabarets around Europe. Her income from dancing as well as modelling became such that she could afford to purchase a home and her own yacht.

She was loved for her lithe figure, her flashing?smile, her sense of showmanship and her devil-may-care attitude towards life. She was bold and fearless, willing to risk her life to achieve thrills and ?ultimately?became known as ‘the fastest woman in?the world’ due to her speed on the racetrack – this in a time when racing drivers were killed with appalling regularity.

She had?no hesitation in taking lovers, not necessarily single men and?not necessarily one at a time.

Among her lovers were Henri de Courcelles and Marcel Mongin, both amateur racers who cultivated her enthusiasm for speed and danger. As her desire for adventure grew, so did her status. In 1927, her performance alongside megastar Maurice Chevalier in the hit show?Les Ailes de Paris?brought her both fame and fortune.

Hell? Nice: She started racing through contacts with members of the French motorsport world, like Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and Le Mans winner Henri de Courcelles. Hell? Nice successfully competed in Grand Prix and set multiple speed records in the 1930s in Bugatti?s and Alfa Romeo?s.

Hell? Nice: She started racing through contacts with members of the French motorsport world, like Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and Le Mans winner Henri de Courcelles. Hell? Nice successfully competed in Grand Prix and set multiple speed records in the 1930s in Bugatti?s and Alfa Romeo?s.

In 1929, after suffering a dance-dooming knee injury while skiing away from an avalanche, Hell? Nice switched m?tiers, trading dance slippers for driving gloves.

At the time, Paris was one of the principal centers of the French car industry, and there were numerous competitions for auto enthusiasts. Hell? grabbed the chance to perform in the racing event at the annual fair organized by fellow performers from the Paris entertainment world. She fell in love with the power of being behind the wheel and driving so fast.

Hell? embraced racing, thanks to Henri and Marcel and she hit the racetrack and captivated spectators with her courage and skill, quickly acquiring sponsors.

She soon won the Grand Prix F?minin and exulted to the press about the thrill of having a “great roaring racecar in your hands that wants only to go faster.” That early victory secured her a sleek Bugatti and the nickname “The Queen of Speed.”

For most of the next decade, Hell? more than earned her title as she hurtled through men and motorcars, setting records and appearing in rallies, races, exhibitions and grands prix from Paris, Monte Carlo and Morocco to Woodbridge, N.J., and Winston-Salem, N.C.


It was a glamour era for racing. In France, the sport was dominated by former flying aces and socially prominent amateurs, the sorts of men who stared death in the face and laughed. They had to. Long-distance races, run on rutted dirt roads, routinely involved multiple fatalities, as drivers lost control and skidded into trees, often taking spectators with them. Regardless, women like Delangle caught the racing fever, too.

It is not at all clear how Delangle picked up her racing skills. Perhaps the ballet training had something to do with her vaunted finesse and control. She was an avid skier and mountain climber, pursuits that may explain her remarkable powers of endurance in grueling long-distance races. Whatever the reason, she made a name for herself in celebrity charity rallies, and Ettore Bugatti, quick to see a promotional opportunity for his automobiles, signed her up as a driver. She repaid his faith by winning race after race, breaking dozens of speed records along the way. Fame and fortune followed.

Delangle loved the spotlight. She also loved the company of men — many men. “The list of lovers, aristocrat and otherwise, who became involved with Hell? Nice during the 1930’s is almost as long as the list of races in which she took part,”

Philippe de Rothschild.

Philippe de Rothschild.

Hell? Nice in Rio de Janeiro leading the field in her Alfa Romeo with No. 2.

Hell? Nice in Rio de Janeiro leading the field in her Alfa Romeo with No. 2.

In 1930, shortly after returning to France from her U.S. tour, Philippe de Rothschild introduced himself to Hell?. A very beautiful woman, he was beguiled by her. Philippe was wealthy, powerful and very handsome. In addition to being a Grand Prix Race driver, he was a member of the Rothschild banking dynasty and eventually went on to become a screenwriter, a playwright, a theatrical producer, a film producer, a poet, and one of the most successful wine growers in the world.

The two became lovers, and Philippe introduced Hell? to Italian-French, high-performance sports car designer and manufacturer, Ettore Bugatti? (Today, the Bugatti name is owned by Volkswagen Group, who has revived it as a builder of limited production exclusive sports cars). Ettore was also charmed by Hell? and lent her one of his cars to race, which she purchased from him one year later, for $1,600/40,000 Francs, and owned for several years. Hell? always wanted to be seen as being on equal terms as the men on the circuit.

In 1931, Hell? drove a bright blue Bugatti in the French and Italian Grands Prix, thrilling the crowds and reaping the rewards of huge commercial endorsements, because, while she was able to compete against the hard-driving men, she was also able to exploit her beauty and femininity. Hell? did not win any of the Grand Prix, but she always finished ahead of a number of her male rivals.

Over the next several years, as the only female on the?Grand Prix?circuit, Hell? continued to race?Bugattis,?as well as?Alfa Romeos,?against the greatest drivers of the day including?Tazio Nuvolari,?Robert Benoist,?Rudolf Caracciola,?Louis Chiron,?Bernd Rosemeyer,?Luigi Fagioli, and?Jean-Pierre Wimille, among others.

Like most race drivers, she competed not only in Grand Prix races but also hill climbs and rallies all over Europe, including the famous Monte Carlo Rally. She also had other suitors, including members of the European nobility and other personalities such as Henri de Courcelles, Jean Bugatti and Count Bruno d’Harcourt.

Hell? Nice after her victory in the 1929 Grand Prix F?minin which secured her a sleek Bugatti and the nickname ''The Speed Queen.''

Hell? Nice after her victory in the 1929 Grand Prix F?minin which secured her a sleek Bugatti and the nickname ”The Speed Queen.”

Even today, Auto Racing is still an extremely dangerous sport; but today?s cars and drivers are much more protected than they were decades ago.? The cars may have been fast and ?modern?, but they were ?primitive? when it came to safety. A single, lap safety belt held the driver in place, meaning that if the car crashed, the driver could easily be critically injured ? if not die. At the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, Hell? skidded on black ice and landed in a canal; and during the 1933 Italian Grand Prix, she clung to ninth place, despite the horror of seeing three fellow drivers die.

In 1936, Hell? had much bigger crash. She had travelled to Brazil to compete in two Grands Prix. During the S?o Paulo Grand Prix, she was in second place behind Brazilian champion, Manuel de Teff?, when a freak accident resulted in her nearly being killed. Reportedly, a bale of straw ended up on the track, and she slammed into it at more than 100 mph causing her to lose control of the car. Her Alfa Romeo cart wheeled through the air and crashed into the grandstand, instantly killing six fans and injuring more than thirty others. Hell? was thrown from the car and landed on a soldier who absorbed the full impact of her body, saving her life. Sadly, the soldier died in hospital a few days later; and Hell? was in a coma for three days.

The car ploughed into the spectators and Helle was thrown out. Many were injured and six people lost their lives.

By 1936, her lover was also her mechanic, a man called Arnaldo Binelli. Together they went to Brazil so that she could take part in the Grand Prix in Sao Paulo. The crowd favourite was local hero, Manuel de Teff?. As the final lap of the race began, he was in second place but Helle was catching him quickly. The finish line was just twenty yards away. Arnaldo was filming the race and later said that a hay bale, the only real ?protection? that the crowds had from the cars, was pushed forwards onto the track. A policeman tried to retrieve it ? just as Helle?s car came thundering to the scene.The car ploughed into the spectators and Helle was thrown out. Many were injured and six people lost their lives.

Hell?'s 1936 S?o Paulo Crash. The fearless beauty was battling for second place in S?o Paulo?s 1936 Grand Prix when disaster struck at 90 mph: Hell? Nice?s car hit a hay bale and flipped into the crowd, killing six and injuring more than 30. It was the beginning of the end of a glorious career that lifted her out of poverty to become one of the world?s most famous racing drivers.

Hell?’s 1936 S?o Paulo Crash. She swerved the car to avoid the man. The car ploughed into the spectators and Helle was thrown out. Many were injured and six people lost their lives. Helle?s lifeless body was laid amongst them. She was thought to be dead. However, she was in a coma and taken to hospital. The distraught Arnaldo was told that she wouldn?t survive. But Helle was a survivor and a fighter. She received terrible injuries but recovered after a lengthy hospital stay. No-one blamed her for the tragedy- it was unavoidable ? and in fact, the strength she had shown it surviving her injuries meant that she was even more popular with the people of Brazil.

After two months of convalescing, she was discharged from the hospital to find out that she has become a national heroine amongst the Brazilian people because of the tragedy. In fact, a large number of families even began naming their children Helenice or Elenice after her. Although Hell? never spoke about it publicly, the crash had a profound impact;t and quite understandably, the memory of the events haunted her for the rest of her life.

In 1937, Hell? attempted a racing comeback, hoping to compete in the?Mille Miglia?and at the?Tripoli Grand Prix, which offered a very substantial cash prize. However, she was unable to get the necessary backing and instead participated in the “Yacco” endurance trials for female drivers at the?Montlh?ry?racetrack in?France, where she had begun her racing career. There, alternating with four other women, Hell? drove for ten days and ten nights breaking ten records that apparently still stand, to this day. For the next two years, she competed in rally racing while hoping to rejoin the?Bugatti?team. However, in August 1939, her friend Jean Bugatti was killed while testing a company vehicle; and a month later, racing in?Europe?came to a halt with the onset of?World War II.

Helle had returned to France,although during the war years it was occupied by the Germans. With Arnaldo, she lived mostly in Paris but sometimes ventured to her home in Nice. Needless to say, she was still wealthy but the war years cut into her savings enormously. Once the war was over, she resumed her career but it was ?dealt a blow in 1949.

That year,she entered the Monte Carlo Rally. Before the event took place, a huge reception took place in honour of the finest drivers of the day. Helle was invited, naturally. She had entered the rally with a female co-driver, a woman named?Anne Itier,when a man approached them. His name was Louis Chiron, he was a multiple Grand Prix champion and Monaco?s favourite son? Like Helle, he was ?a well known driver and he was on his home turf, Monte Carlo was where he lived.

Loudly, and to the entire crowd,Chiron berated Helle. He claimed that she had been an agent for the Gestapo during the war. He publicly announced that the organisers should ban her from the event for this traitorous behaviour. There was nothing Helle could do. There was only one person who she could appeal to and that was the chief organiser of the rally- himself a Monte Carlo resident and a longtime, close friend of Louis Chiron?s.

She wrote to Chiron asking him to apologise for his remarks ? or to prove them, which he couldn?t, of course ? but her letter was answered by a stranger saying that Chiron was abroad and couldn?t be contacted.

This put an end to her career. She was branded as a traitor to her country in front of her fellow drivers, local dignitaries, celebrities and sponsors. Word soon spread and rumours persisted that she had betrayed her country. Who knows what Chiron?s motives were? Maybe, like many men of the day, he was jealous of Helle because of her success and fame. Maybe he resented it. Or perhaps he was mistaking her for another French female Grand Prix driver, Violette Morris, who was a Gestapo agent.

At the time, such an accusation could be a serious setback for anyone’s career, but coming from someone as powerful as Louis Chiron, even though he provided no proof, it spelled the end of Hell?’s racing career. She denied the accusation and demanded an apology, but it was unsuccessful. Hell? considered suing Louis, but because the accusation was made in?Monaco,?and since Louis was?Monaco’s?national hero, any court action would not have been successful.

No facts on Louis? accusation ever came to light; and recent research, by Hell??s biographer, could find nothing to substantiate such a charge. A respected biographer, she went so far as to check the official records in?Berlin?and was advised by the German authorities that Hell? had never been an agent. Ironically, Louis, himself, led by the lure of a superior car, had driven for the?Mercedes-Benz?team, which the?Nazis?were using, during the war, as an object of propaganda for their philosophy of racial superiority, at a time when his Jewish colleague and rival, Ren? Dreyfus, could not.

Tragically, Hell? was immediately dropped by her sponsors, and she never raced again. Because of the accusation, her name and great accomplishments were virtually obliterated from the annals of racing history. Shunned by friends and family, everyone abandoned her.

More bad luck was to befall Helle. By now she was approaching fifty years old. Her lover, Arnaldo, had been with her for fifteen or so years. But he was younger than her and started to look for pastures new. ?He had relationships with other women and Helle had been useful to him when she?d been rich but now that wealth had dwindled. He told her that he wanted to go into business and needed to borrow funds. Helle gave him what was left of her savings. It will come as no surprise to you to know that he disappeared ? with her money.

Helle was left alone and penniless, which was how she remained,

Her meager funds, that she had left, quickly deteriorated to the point where she was forced to move into squalor and accept charity from a?Paris?organization that had been established to help to former theater performers who had fallen on hard times.

The last twenty years of Helle Nice’s life were spent in a sordid little house on rue Edouard Scoffier in the dark and dingy back streets of Nice… forgotten, abandoned and relying on charity with Janalla her only true friend.

Despite pleas to her mother who had helped her daughter with initial expenses, Madame Delangle refused to store her pieces of furniture and went on to ask Mariette (the name she always referred to her by) when she would be gainfully employed once more? Amongst her few possessions were faded newspaper cuttings, letters, photographs, her cherished stamp collection, trophy cups and a pair of gloves with tiny pearl buttons because they reminded her of him…the charming Philippe de Rothschild who had introduced himself to her at a cafe in Paris, delicately kissing a small patch of soft skin…. some memories are never extinguished.

In 1983 the frail Helle Nice made one last journey to the village of Saint Mesme in a bid to be reconciled with her sister Solange and recover her rightful inheritance; she was told to leave by another member of the family.

At 75, she moved into a dingy attic in a run-down section of Nice. Seymour visited one of her neighbours, who remembered seeing the old woman ?taking the milk out of the cats? saucers because she had nothing to eat or drink.?

The iconoclast, pioneer for gender equality and holder of eight world speed records died penniless. Because of her unorthodox lifestyle, she?d been disinherited by her mother and disowned by her sister. Largely forgotten, she was buried in an unmarked grave in north-central France.

H?l?ne Delangle died in 1984, in a tiny unheated apartment in Nice, the event passed unremarked. The theatrical charity that had supported her in her final years placed a small obituary notice in Le Figaro. The ruthless landlord wasted no time in clearing her flat, sending all the old newspapers cuttings, letters and photographs off as rubbish. Her trophy cups were either given away or sold. And that was that.

It was a sad end to a brilliant life. Few of the neighbours had any idea that the frail old woman with no teeth had once set speed record after speed record driving for Bugatti in the 1930’s. Racing under the name Hell? Nice, she was the world’s undisputed female champion, and a top competitor against the best male drivers of the era.home


The new grave marker. Photo Mary Ann Dickinson

The new grave marker. Photo Mary Ann Dickinson

Hell? Nice came back into the spotlight, thanks to the efforts of an author and a woman who was moved by?the racer?s?life story.

The publication of Miranda Seymour?s book, ?The Bugatti Queen, In Search of a French Racing Legend,? inspired American Sheryl Greene to create the?Hell? Nice Foundation?in 2008. This organization raised funds to hold a Service of Commemoration on September 4, 2010, and to place a bronze plaque at the formerly unmarked resting place of Hell? Nice in Sainte-Mesme, outside Paris. A number of speakers paid homage to Nice.

?Upon reading Ms. Seymour?s biography of Hell? Nice, I was enthralled with her race history and perseverance, and amazed no one had publicly celebrated her life and accomplishments. I decided at that moment to start the foundation with a goal of properly honouring her,? Sheryl said.

A number of speakers paid homage to Ms. Nice, and Other attendees brought their classic cars in?similar homage. A display of Hell? Nice historic images and memorabilia was set up in the?adjoining church.

The Hell? Nice Foundation will continue to assist young women interested in pursuing a career in racing, through grants and direct support.

The Hell? Nice Project

‘Bugatti Queen’: Fast and Loose – The New York Times

Mariette Helene Delangle | Hemmings Daily

Women in Motorsport Blog – Helle Nice| Beaulieu

Hell? Nice | | F1 Driver Profile |

Speed Girls: the Bugatti Queen – Dieselpunks

hell? nice ? fearless beauty behind the wheel – a gastronomic tour …

Hell? Nice, championne de course automobile – APHG Aix Marseille

Hell? Nice – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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