Hellé Nice

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Hellé Nice : biography

15 December 1900 – 1 October 1984

Philippe de Rothschild introduced himself to her shortly after her return from America. For a time, the two shared a bed and the love of automobile racing. Rothschild had been racing his Bugatti and he introduced her to Ettore Bugatti. The owner of the very successful car company thought Nice would be an ideal person to add to the male drivers of his line of racing vehicles. Having been outspoken in her desire to compete with the men, she achieved her goal and in 1931 and drove a Bugatti Type 35C in five major Grands Prix in France. A master of showmanship, Hellé Nice was easily recognizable in her bright-blue race car. She loved every minute of her life and exploited her femininity, portraying herself as a fearless competitor up against hard-driving men. She wowed the crowds wherever she raced while adding to her income with a string of product endorsements. Although she did not win a Grand Prix race, she was a legitimate competitor, and frequently finished ahead of some of the top male drivers .

Over the next several years, as the only female on the Grand Prix circuit, Nice continued to race Bugattis and 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.

Final years

One of the 20th Century’s most colorful and illustrious pioneering women who had successfully competed in more than seventy events at the highest echelon of automobile racing, spent her final years in a sordid rat-infested apartment in the back alleys of the city of Nice, living under a fictitious name to hide her shame. Estranged from her family for years, she died penniless, friendless, and completely forgotten by the rich and glamorous crowd involved in Grand Prix motor racing. Her cremation was paid for by the Parisian charity organization that had helped her, and the ashes were sent back to her sister in the village of Sainte-Mesme near her birthplace and where her parents were buried. Nevertheless, Nice is not mentioned on the family’s cemetery memorial.

Comeback

In 1937, Nice 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. There, alternating with four other women, Nice drove for ten days and ten nights breaking ten records that 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.

Early life and fast lifestyle

Nice was the daughter of Alexandrine Bouillie and Léon Delangle, the postman in their small village, 47 miles to the south west of Paris. Delangle 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 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 modeling became such that she could afford to purchase a home and her own yacht.

In addition to the fast cars of her racing career, Nice lived a fast life. Her growing fame meant there was no shortage of suitors. Some of her affairs were brief while others were of longer duration that, beyond the wealthy and powerful Philippe de Rothschild, included members of the European nobility and other personalities such as Henri de Courcelles, Jean Bugatti and Count Bruno d’Harcourt.