February 25, 2012


With many thanks to my sister-in-law, Gina Martin, who stumbled upon this amazing story, and thought it would make a good BHM Blog post. She was right!

The Formula One (F1) Season kicks off next month in MelbourneAustralia; and many of you know that this excites me because I love watching the sport. It’s fun, fast, glamorous and sexy.  My favorite team is the British team, McLaren; and I route for one of its drivers, Lewis Hamilton, who is the first Black driver to race in F1 (African-American, Willy T. Ribbs, did test an F1 car in 1986, but never raced). The Formula One series actually originated from the European Grand Prix Motor Racing of the 1920s and 1930s.

McLaren 2012 Car
Lewis Hamilton
Willy T. Ribbs

Auto Racing is a predominantly male and White sport; but there are a couple of African-American women, who are making history and earning the respect of fellow drivers and fans, alike, in NASCAR and Drag Racing: Tia Norfleet was the first African-American female NASCAR driver; and Nicole Lyons also Drag Races and is a NASCAR driver.

Tia Norfleet
Nicole Lyons

But, the woman who blazed a trail for those Black women was Hellé (pronounced el-lay) Nice (pronounced the same as ‘niece’, in English) – model, dancer, European Grand Prix Motor Racing driver – and fearless in all aspects of her life.

Hellé Nice

Hellé was born Mariette Hélène Delangle in December, 1900, in a small village almost 50 miles South West of Paris. Her Black mother was housewife, and her White father was the postman in their small village.

Mariette went to Paris at age 16, where she found work in some of the city's music halls. She became a very successful dancer under the stage name Hélène Nice, which eventually became Hellé Nice. She was also a trapeze artist and a co-star of Maurice Chevalier. However, Hellé was able to build a solid reputation as a dancing solo act, but in 1926, decided to partner with Robert Lisset, and performed at cabarets around Europe. The money that she earned from dancing as well as modeling – including tasteful nudes – was substantial enough that she could afford to purchase a home and her own yacht.

Hellé was also a daredevil and a thrillseeker. At the time, Paris was one of the principal centers of the French car industry, and there were numerous competitions for auto enthusiasts. Hellé 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.

An athletic woman, Hellé was also an avid downhill skier, but in 1927, she had an accident on the slopes, which damaged her knee and ended her dancing career. So she turned full time to racing. In 1929, Hellé decided to become a professional auto racing driver. Driving an Omega-Six, she won an all-female Grand Prix, when she clocked 118 miles per hour during the 10-mile race, at Autodrome de Montlhéry, and set a new world land speed record for women. Capitalizing on her fame, the following year she toured the United States, racing at a variety of tracks in an American-made Miller racing car, sponsored by talent agency, William Morris.

Hellé Setting Her Records in 1929

In 1930, shortly after returning to France from her U.S. tour, Philippe de Rothschild introduced himself to Hellé. 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.

Philippe de Rothschild

The two became lovers, and Philippe introduced Hellé to Italian-French, high-perfomance 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 Hellé 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. Hellé always wanted to be seen as being on equal terms as the men on the circuit.

Ettore Bugatti

Hellé Racing Her Bugatti 600

In 1931, Hellé 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. Hellé did not win any of the Grands 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, Hellé 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 hillclimbs 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.

Jean Bugatti

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, Hellé 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, Hellé had much bigger crash. She had traveled to Brazil to compete in two Grands Prix. During the São Paulo Grand Prix, she was in second place behind Brazilian champion, Manuel de Teffé, 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 cartwheeled through the air and crashed into the grandstand, instantly killing three fans and injuring more than thirty others. Hellé 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 Hellé was in a coma for three days. 

Hellé's 1936 São Paulo Crash

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 Hellé 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, Hellé 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 Montlhéry racetrack in France, where she had begun her racing career. There, alternating with four other women, Hellé 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.

In 1943, in the middle of the German occupation of France, she moved to the warm climate of the French Riviera and acquired a home in the city of Nice where she lived with one of her lovers for the remainder of the war.

Nice, France

In 1949, the first Monte Carlo Rally after the war took place in nearby Monaco and Nice was there to take part. At a large party organized to celebrate the return to racing, Louis Chiron, a multiple Grand Prix champion and Monaco’s favorite son, suddenly strode across the room, and in a loud voice verbally attacked Hellé, accusing her of being a Gestapo agent during the war. 

Louis Chiron

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 Hellé's racing career. She denied the accusation and demanded an apology, but it was unsuccessful. Hellé 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. 

Did Louis make the unfounded accusation because he was racist? Did he do it because he was a misogynist? Perhaps both? Sadly, we will never know.  No facts on Louis’ accusation ever came to light; and recent research, by Hellé’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 Hellé 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, René Dreyfus, could not.

Tragically, Hellé 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, her lover soon abandoned her. With him, went a great deal of her money; and 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.

How terribly sad that one of the most vivacious, charming
and fearless women of the 20th Century should have to spend her final years in a sordid rat-infested apartment in the back alleys of Nice, living under an assumed name to hide her shame. Estranged from her family, Hellé died penniless, friendless, and completely forgotten by the rich and glamorous crowd involved in Grand Prix motor racing, who had been her 'friends'. Her cremation was paid for by the Parisian charity organization that had helped her in her final years, and the ashes were sent back to her sister, in the village of Sainte-Mesme, near her birthplace and where her parents were buried. But Hellé’s sister only marked her grave as “A Death Forgotten” – thus making it effectively, unmarked. 

Hellé’s biographer, Miranda Seymour, spent a very long time trying to find Hellé’s grave. While researching the 2004 biography, The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a Motor Racing Legend, she did eventually find the grave, but was shocked that it was unmarked. Miranda felt that Hellé “deserved to be remembered, and more than that, celebrated.”

Miranda contacted The Hellé Nice Foundation, Inc., which had been formed by Atlanta, Georgia and sport racing enthusiast, Sheryl Greene, in mid 2008, to honor the female pioneers of auto racing, as well as to provide funding for young women to help offset the costs of getting started in a career in motorsports. Together, they managed to find a living relative who was very interested in the story and in helping to ‘right the wrong’ of Hellé’s unmarked grave (It is worth noting that The Bugatti Queen has never been published in France, thus explaining why many French enthusiasts, including Hellé Nice’s remaining family, were unaware of her full story.)

Together, they were able to raise enough funds, from the Mullin Automobile Museum, the American Bugatti ClubAlfa Romeo enthusiasts, Veloce Today and anonymous donors, to provide a grave marker for Hellé, 26 years after her death. On September 4th, 2010, the ceremony was held to place the marker, which was attended by over 250 people from all over the world.


Finally, the fearless beauty, who was Hellé Nice, can rest in peace.

Nice is a lovely city in the South of France which is especially known for its fresh seafood and vegetable cuisine. Here is a lovely recipe for La Ratatouille Niçoise. Enjoy!

La Ratatouille Niçoise
Adapted from Chez Jacqueline, in the New York Times
Serves 6

  • 5 tablespoons fruity extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 small eggplants (aubergine), about 3/4 pound each, trimmed and diced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 medium zucchini (courgette), trimmed and diced
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
  • 1 medium yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
  • 2 small yellow onions, peeled and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 2 medium ripe tomatoes, diced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 6 basil leaves, minced

Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add the eggplant, and cook over high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes, until the eggplant is very lightly browned and tender and has started to release some of the oil it absorbed back into the pan. Remove the eggplant, season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Add the zucchini, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it is moist and fairly tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the zucchini, season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Add the peppers and 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the peppers have begun to soften. Add the onion, and continue cooking until the onion is tender and golden. Stir in the garlic and tomatoes, and cook about 2 minutes longer. Add the bay leaves, thyme and basil.
Add the eggplant and zucchini to the pan, and cook all the ingredients together, stirring gently, about 5 minutes. Season with additional salt and pepper if needed. Remove from heat, and fold in the remaining olive oil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sources: WikipediaNY Times, ESPN, Hellé Nice Foundation, Google, Bing, You Tube 

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