Born Mariette Hélène Delangle in a small town near Chartres in December 1900, at the age of 16 Hellé Nice was lured to the bright lights of Paris where she became a celebrated dancer performing with Maurice Chevalier at the Casino de Paris.
In 1927, Nice was invited to take part in the Actors’ Championship, a celebrity race that used prominent figures in the performing arts to promote grand prix-style racing. She leapt at the chance, and won the race. While her interest in racing was piqued, her competitive appetite was not satisfied, and Nice became determined to race at a higher level.
In 1929, Nice entered an all-female grand prix at Paris’ Montlhery circuit. Driving an Omega Six, she not only won the race, but set a new landspeed record for women in the process. That win was the impetus she needed to take racing seriously as a career. Using her celebrity connections Hellé Nice was able to convince Jean Bugatti to lend her a Type 35 Bugatti to further her racing career.
But Bugatti’s help hardly seemed necessary. Off the back of her Montlhery success, Nice was invited to the United States as an exhibition driver, where she was – I believe – the only woman of the 1930s to take on America’s speedways and ovals.
The American tour was a short one, and once back in Europe Nice concentrated on a grand prix career, where she was probably the pre-eminent woman of her era. Nice was determined to race against men without a handicap, and while she never managed to beat them at their own game, she competed ably against the likes of Robert Benoist, Rudolf Caracciola, Louis Chiron, Luigi Fagioli, Tazio Nuvolari, Bernd Rosemeyer, and Jean-Pierre Wimille.
While many of her racing achievements have been lost to the mists of time, it is known that Hellé Nice took part in – and finished – the notorious 1933 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, which saw the deaths of three competitors: Baconin Borzacchini, Giuseppe Campari, and Count Stanislas Czaikowsk.
Between 1931 and 1936 it is known that Nice competed in a host of grands prix across Europe, but her results are hard to pin down. In 1931, she entered the Grands Prix of Dieppe and Comminges and an unnamed race at the Circuit du Dauphine. In 1932, she competed in hillclimbs and Italy’s Grand Prix d'Oranie. The following year saw her take part in the Italian Grand Prix mentioned above, the Marseilles Grand Prix, the Pescara 24 Hour Race, and the Coupe Internationale des Alpes, a famous rally. She entered six grands prix in 1934, and five in 1935. A return to rallying in 1936 earned her the Coupe des Dames at the Monte Carlo Rally, but the year would end in tragedy.
Hellé Nice’s circuit racing career came to an end in 1936, when she travelled to Brazil to compete in two grands prix. The first, at Rio’s Gavea circuit, was unremarkable. She started well, but retired before the chequered flag fell. I have been unable to track down the cause of her retirement.
The second, a street race in Sao Paulo, saw Nice in the running for P3 in the final stages, when the excited crowd surged onto the track. A hay bale was knocked into the path of her Alfa Romeo Monza, and she lost control of the car. Nice swerved into the crowd before she was thrown out of the car. She knocked heads with a spectator, killing him, and was in a coma for the next three days. At least four people were killed and thirty injured.
While Sao Paulo marked the end of Hellé Nice’s grand prix career, she continued to take part in record attempts, hill climbs, and rallies. But the advent of the Second World War brought her racing activities to a halt, and she moved to Nice, using the proceeds of her racing career to live out the war in comfort.
In 1949, Hellé Nice was persuaded to take part in the Monte Carlo Rally. But at a pre-event ball, fellow grand prix driver Louis Chiron denounced her as a Nazi collaborator. No proof was given, and the accusation was never publicly repeated, but the damage had been done. Shunned by the racing community, Hellé Nice spent the rest of her days living in poverty and obscurity in Nice, funded by a charity for actors who had fallen on hard times.
Research conducted by biographer Miranda Seymour in Germany’s Gestapo archives did not show any link between Hellé Nice and the Nazi Party. The German government has denied that Hellé Nice collaborated with the Gestapo.
Hellé Nice died in 1984, and was buried in an unmarked grave. But in September 2010, the Hellé Nice Foundation held a ceremony at her graveside and placed a marker at her final resting place.
Kate Walker is F1 Editor of girlracer and Assistant Editor of GP Week. Follow her on Twitter @F1Kate, or read more of her writing at www.f1katewalker.com.