A postmasters daughter who moved to Paris and became a famous dancer. She became involved in motor sport and became a very competent Bugatti driver. Denounced as a Gestapo agent by Louis Chiron after the Second World War she died in abject poverty in Nice in 1984.
Born Mariette Hélène Delangle in Aunay-sous-Auneau, Eure-et-Loir, she was the daughter of Alexandrine Bouillie and her husband Léon Delangle. Her father worked as the local postman in their small village, a place 47 miles southwest from the center of the city of Paris, where Delangle headed at the age of sixteen. Once in Paris, she found work in some of the city's music halls and within a few years 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 to perform 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.
At the time, the Paris area was one of the principal centres of the French car industry and there were numerous competitions for auto enthusiasts. Hellé Nice loved the thrill of driving fast cars and as such she jumped at the opportunity to compete in a racing event at the annual fair organized by fellow performers from the Paris entertainment world. An athletic woman, she was also an avid downhill skier but an accident on the slopes severely damaged her knee and ended her dancing career. Perhaps inspired by Charlotte Versigny who had competed in a Talbot racer in the 1927 Grand Prix de la Baule, Hellé Nice decided to try her hand at professional auto racing. In 1929, driving an Omega-Six, she won an all-female Grand Prix race at the racetrack in Montlhéry in the process setting 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.
A short time after returning from America, at a café on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, Philippe de Rothschild introduced himself. 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 Hellé 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 T35C in five major Grand Prix races in France as well as in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Italy. 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, she 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, amongst others. Like most race drivers, Hellé Nice competed not only in Grand Prix races but also took part in hill climb events and road rallies all over Europe including the famous Monte Carlo Rally. On September 10, 1933, she was a competitor in one of the most tragic races in history. During the Italian Grand Prix at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, Giuseppe Campari, Baconin "Mario Umberto" Borzacchini and the Polish count Stanislas Czaikowski, three of the leading race drivers of the day, were killed.
In addition to her fast cars, Hellé Nice lived a fast life. Her fame meant there was no shortage of suitors and she had numerous relationships with a variety of men. Some were brief affairs, 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.
In 1936, she traveled to Brazil to compete in two Grand Prix races. During the São Paulo Grand Prix, she was in second place behind the Brazilian champion Manuel de Teffé when a freak accident occurred that resulted in her nearly being killed. Reports on the matter vary, but a bale of straw was tossed onto the track by hooligans and Hellé Nice slammed into it at more than 100mph causing her to lose control. Her Alfa Romeo somersaulted through the air and crashed into the grandstand, killing four race fans and injuring more than thirty others. Hellé Nice was thrown from the car and landed on a soldier who absorbed the full impact of her body, saving her life. The force of the impact killed the soldier and because she lay unconscious, she too was thought to be dead. However, taken to hospital, she awoke from a coma three days later and after two months convalescing was discharged from the hospital. The tragedy turned her into a national hero amongst the Brazilian population. A large number of families even began naming their children Hellé Nice after her. Today, a Portuguese language Google search on the Internet reveals a number of women with that name in Brazil. Although Hellé Nice never spoke about it publicly, the Brazilian race accident had a profound impact and the memory of the events haunted her for the rest of her life.
In 1937, she attempted a racing comeback, hoping to compete in the Mille Miglia in Italy 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, Hellé 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.
In 1949 the first Monte Carlo Rally after the war took place in nearby Monaco and Hellé Nice was there to take part in the rally. At a large party organized to celebrate the return to racing, Louis Chiron, a multiple Grand Prix champion and Monacos favorite son, suddenly strode across the room and in a loud voice laced into Hellé Nice, accusing her of being a Gestapo agent during the war. 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 Nice's racing career. Dropped by her sponsors, she never raced again and because of the accusation, her name and great accomplishments were virtually obliterated from the annals of racing history. Ostracized by friends and acquaintances, her lover soon abandoned her. With him went a great deal of her money and quickly the meager funds she had left deteriorated to the point where she was forced to accept charity from a Paris organization that had been established to give a bit of help to former theatre performers who had fallen on hard times.
One of the 20th century's 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, Hellé Nice is not mentioned on the family's cemetery memorial.
No facts on Louis Chiron's accusation ever came to light and recent research by Miranda Seymour, author of Nice's biography published in 2004, could find nothing to substantiate such a charge. A respected biographer, Seymour went so far as to check the official records in Berlin and was advised by the German authorities that Hellé Nice had never been an agent. Ironically, Chiron himself, led by the lure of a superior car, had driven for the Mercedes Benz team, which the Nazis were using as an object of propaganda for their philosophy of racial superiority, at a time when his Jewish colleague and rival René Dreyfus could not.