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The Bugatti Queen

Author Miranda Seymour
Title The Bugatti Queen
Year 2004
Contributor Wendy

May has been the month of fast cars and fast women, the first at the Monaco Grand Prix, the second at the Cannes Film Festival. It seems particularly appropriate now to look at the life of Helen Delangle who embodied both, earning her the title 'Queen of Speed'.  Helen, who became better known as Hellé Nice had a chequered career, flags included.

Miranda Seymour in her book 'The Bugatti Queen- in search of a motor-racing legend' certainly came up with enough evidence for Hellé to qualify on many counts. From humble beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century, through several  glittering careers to a pauper's death in Nice in 1984, Hellé Nice's  life story reads  at times like a high-octane  journey through the world of dance, film, fashion, and of course perhaps the most glamorous of all, motor racing.

Along her journey, this amazing often fearless woman collected handsome prizes and handsome men.  She was reckless with both.  She was fiercely ambitious, devoted to being in the spotlight, but as opposed to the would be wannabees of today, who seem to be famous for being famous, Hellé put vast amounts of effort into earning,  living and maintaining her fast lifestyle. By the time she won the first Grand Prix for women in 1929 at Monthery, she was already famous as a model, dancer and skier. She fused her love of speed and ranking in a man's racing world with a feminine touch. She posed endlessly, face powder and lipstick freshly applied, gloves covering her bloody and blistered hands (the steering wheel became red-hot at speed).  She was the sexy  face of Bugatti,  breaking many speed records for them.  She also looked death in the face, many friends and colleagues gave their lives in pursuit of speed and indeed, Hellé's hugely successful driving career came to an untimely end with a serious accident in 1936. She was thrown from her car and landed on a soldier who died on impact, her car catapulted into the crowd killing four onlookers and injuring many more. Hellé herself was unconscious for three days and presumed dead.

Like the motor racing world of today, scandal surrounded her; her list of lovers ranged from callow mechanics to a list straight out of 'Who's Who'.  She moved with ease from the footlights of Paris music halls to the arms of millionaires and nobility. Philippe de Rothschild was mesmerised by her.

The phrase the higher you climb, the further you may fall applies to Hellé. At a party in 1949, held in Monaco to celebrate the first Grand Prix after the war, another racing champion crossed the crowded room and loudly accused Hellé of being a Gestapo agent. It was an unfounded allegation and ultimately without proof, but it ruined Hellé. She was dropped like a brick from any business arrangements and friends deserted her quicker than a sinking ship.

With all the pathos of a Greek tragedy or a novel written by Balzac, the rise from obscurity to world acclaim only to return to more gripping poverty, is found in Seymour's book. Dying penniless and friendless in a hovel in a back street in Nice , Helen Delangle's glittering career was forgotten to most.

I enjoyed this book enormously. Hellé Nice was for a long time a Riviera Woman, a kind of female Shelley, 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. She was her own woman, fearless, flirty and by all accounts had the most wonderful smile and engaging manner.  She used all her assets to advantage. Some (male critics) regarded her as a golddigging attention seeker, but I don't. I think she was a strong woman in a man's world.  As Julia Moore's article 'Beautiful Bodywork: One lady owner...' points out there was a heavy price to pay.

I think Hellé, like the Bugattis she drove was alive with all the grace and nervous energy of the Bugatti trademark Arab stallions.

The Bugatti Queen  (2004) Miranda Seymour

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