From cabaret dancer to Grand Prix racing driver, Hellé Nice was one of the most inspiring female pioneers of the 20th century, and one the most successful female racing drivers of her time: competing in the highest echelon of motorsport with some of the best drivers in the history of racing. On top of that, she was basically indestructible, although her career, unfortunately, was not.
Born Mariette Hélène Delangle on 15 December 1900 in a village 50 miles from Paris, she moved to the city aged 16 where she would then work as a dancer. She became very successful under the name Hellé Nice and built a solid reputation as a solo act. However, in 1926 she decided to partner with Robert Lisset and travelled Europe performing cabaret acts. The income she earned during this period of dancing and modelling (she was the face of Lucky Strike cigarettes), allowed her to purchase her own house and yacht and provided the funds to pursue her passion of racing fast cars.
Her first taste of racing victory came in 1929, when she won an all-female Grand Prix at the Autodrome de Montlhéry in her Oméga-Six race car, breaking the female land-speed record in the process. Capitalising on her fame following the race, she travelled to the United States, where she competed in a Miller race car all over the country. Shortly after her return, she met Bugatti Grand Prix driver and wine farmer, Philippe de Rothschild, who became her lover. Other notable lovers or hers included Henri de Courcelles, winner of the 1925 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jean Bugatti, son of Ettore Bugatti, and Count Bruno d’Harcourt, another Grand Prix driver and member of the French nobility. He introduced her to Ettore Bugatti, who decided she would be an ideal addition to the all-male roster of Bugatti racing drivers at the time.
1931 saw the beginning of her career racing Bugattis, driving a Type 35C Bugatti in five Grands Prix in France that year. The crowds loved her and her bright blue Type 35, helping her to accrue a number of product endorsements. In the following years she competed in numerous hill climbs, rallies, including the Monte Carlo Rally, and Grand Prix races as the only female driver on the circuit, often beating many of the best male drivers of the time, but sadly never winning a Grand Prix. She was even present at 1933 Monza Grand Prix, which would later be known as Black Sunday after Giuseppe Campari, Baconin Borzacchini and Stanislaw Czaykowski, three top drivers at the time, where killed in two separate accidents on the steep south banking of the high speed loop, an event which spelled the end for Monza’s original format.
Unfortunately, tragedy would follow Hellé Nice to the 1936 São Paolo Grand Prix in Brazil. She was in second place behind Brazilian champ Manuel de Teffé when a freak accident launched her Alfa Romeo into the air, somersaulting into the grandstand and killing four spectators and injuring more than 30 others. Nice was thrown from the car, landing on a soldier whose body absorbed the force of the impact, killing him in the process. Fortunately, she survived, proving that men are softer than women and turning her into a hero in the eyes of the Brazilian population.
In 1937 she looked to make a comeback, and after failing to secure the necessary backing to race in the Mille Miglia as she had hoped, she instead entered the Yacco endurance trails for women. There, alternating along with four other women, Nice drove for ten days and ten nights, breaking a whopping ten records that still stand to this day. Nice continued to race for the next two years, hoping to rejoin the Bugatti team. However, it wasn’t meant to be, as in August 1939 her dear friend and lover Jean Bugatti died testing a prototype vehicle, and a few months later racing in Europe ground to a halt with the onset of World War II.
In 1949 Nice was in Monte Carlo to take part in the first Monte Carlo Rally following the end of the war. It was here that her reputation was ruined after multiple Grand Prix Champion, Louis Chiron falsely accused her of being a spy for the Gestapo. His motives are debatable but it is likely he saw her talents as a threat to his own career. As a result, one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century died alone in a small apartment located in a run-down part of Nice, impoverished and largely forgotten.