30/5/1868 - 24/4/1942
Record updated 24-Apr-23
Camille du Gast, a truly remarkable woman, green eyed and fair haired, with a great sense of humour and a magnetic smile. She was also determined to do what she wanted, regardless of opinion.
6 minute read.
Marie Marthe Camille Desinge du Gast came from a wealthy family from the north of France. Her father owned a men's workwear factory as well as land and property in Paris. She grew up in Paris during the Belle Epoque, very much a tomboy.
In 1890 she moved in with Jules Crespin, the manager and major shareholder of the huge Le Palais de la Nouveauté (became Les Grands Magasins Dufayel) store in Paris, in a free union and had a daughter, Diane, only marrying in 1894. Sadly Jules died at the end of 1895 leaving her a widow with a young daughter. It also left her an extremely wealthy heiress with the means to indulge her many interests.
She famously said "life was just too boring for women", and set about proving that it didn't apply to her. A keen balloonist, a passion she shared with her late husband, her other sporting interests included parachuting (jumping out of a hot air balloon with a parachute from a height of 2,000 feet in 1895), tobogganing, fencing, shooting (with rifle and pistol), skiing and mountaineering. She excelled at all these activities, as well as being a skilled horsewoman, both riding and training. Oh and was also a concert pianist and singer!
She became a skilled motorist (naturally) driving her late husband’s 20CV Panhard-Levassor, and, at a time when it was socially unacceptable that a woman should replace her chauffeur, which was exactly what she did!
Mme du Gast driving her first car, a Panhard-Levassor. Collection: Marguerite Durand/Roger-Viollet
In 1900 she had witnessed the start of the Paris-Lyon road race and became interested in motor racing (there were also rumours of an affair with Gordon Bennett who later described her as the greatest sportswoman of all time).
du Gast accompanied by Prince du Sagan who looks rather pleased with himself!
In 1901 she entered the Paris-Berlin race with her riding mechanic, Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince du Sagan, whom one Paris newspaper described as "a dandy lured by the smell of oil and petrol." Though it was more likely he was attracted by the charms of Mme du Gast.
Carrying the starting number of 122, Camille du Gast presents her her Panhard to the Automobile Club before the Paris -Berlin Trial.
Starting last of the 122 entrants, she drove her Panhard cautiously and was rewarded with 19th place in the heavy class and 33rd overall out of 47 finishers.
She went on an extended cruise in 1902 and had plans to enter the New York to San Francisco race, but she was refused entry on the grounds that...yes, you guessed it, she was a woman!
She returned to racing in 1903 and entered the ill fated Paris-Madrid race. This time with the benefit of a proper racing car as Adrien de Turckheim had invited her to drive one of his works 5.7-litre de Dietrich cars. Once again she delighted the French public, although The Autocar wrote: "The gallant Frenchmen applauded and raised their hats, but for ourselves we must confess to a feeling of doubt as to whether fierce long-distance racing is quite the thing for ladies."
While all the other drivers crouched low over the steering wheel, Camille had to sit upright, prevented from leaning forward by the corsetry that the fashion of the time demanded. In contrast her diminutive mechanic was able to tuck himself so low beside her that he was almost completely out of the airstream
du Gast pilots her 30 hp De Dietrich with starting number 29 on the Paris-Madrid Trial of 1903. You can clearly see the driving position necessitated by corsetry
Stating 29th, she had made up nine places in the first 120 kms. By Libourne she had climbed to 8th place but when she came upon the crashed de Dietrich of Phil Stead, she stopped to tend to the seriously injured Englishman. Despite his urgings to continue, she stayed with him until medical help arrived.
Later Charles Jarrott, one of the leading drivers at that time, said that if Camille had not stopped to help Stead, he probably would have died. She eventually continued, finishing 45th in the shortened race.
As by then it had become clear that the race had become a tragedy. Overall, half the initial 275 cars had either crashed or retired, and first reports claimed at least twelve people were dead, and over 100 injured, though the actual count was slightly lower, with eight people dead, three spectators and five racers.
The French government stopped the race at Bordeaux. The cars were impounded, towed by horses to the railway station and returned to Paris by train.
Open road racing was banned and, when in 1904, Camille wanted to take part in the French elimination trial for the Gordon Bennett races, the Commission Sportive of the ACF intervened banning women from racing.
In April 1904 she published a letter of protest in L'Auto. But, although there were no doubts about her driving skills, the reason for the ban was that after the Paris-Madrid accidents, the ACF could not take the risk that a woman could be injured or killed in a racing accident. If that had happened, less than one year after the Madrid tragedies, the sport would have been banned completely.
Camille, disappointed by the decision, in 1905 turned her attention to racing boats. She raced a Darracq powered Marsouin at the Juvisy-sur-Orge meeting on the River Seine, just outside Paris and, later in the year, drove her Panhard powered boat 'Turquoise' in Monaco.
She was famously lucky to survive the race across the Mediterranean from Algiers to Toulon, when the field was decimated by a violent storm.
The 43 ft steel hulled powerboat named 'Camille', specifically built for the Algiers to Toulon race by the Pitre Company in Paris
Six (possibly five) of the seven boats which took part in the second stage of the run from Port Mahon, Minorca, to Toulon, were either sunk or disabled, though the crews of all of them survived due in no small part to the face that the organisers had arranged for 'torpedo destroyers' to accompany each of the 7 competing boats.
Driving a 43 ft steel hulled powerboat named 'Camille', specifically built for the event by the Pitre Company in Paris, she was, after a delay of two months, declared the winner as the contestant who had come closest to reaching the finish at Toulon! Camille and her crew were rescued at around half past 5 in the afternoon of the 13th of May 1905 and her boat was taken in tow by the battleship Kléber, unfortunately it broke free and sank. The New York Times reported that Du Gast sent 10,000 Francs to the sailor who jumped into the sea from the cruiser to rescue her.
She continued her sporting adventures until 1910 when she escaped an assassination attempt instigated by her daughter. After numerous attempts to get money from her mother, her daughter resorted to arranging for some friends to break into the house while her mother was sleeping and to murder her so she could inherit her fortune. Hapilly the plan failed as she was not asleep and confronted her attackers who turned tail and fled. Shattered by her daughter's betrayal, she ceased her adventures and devoted herself to the more rewarding task of animal welfare, working at the refuge for stray and injured dogs, that was started in Paris in 1903 by Gordon Bennett. Later she became president of the French Anti-Cruelty to Animals Society (SPA) and campaigned against bullfighting.
She also worked with the poor, establishing centres for orphans and impoverished women. She continued her work even after the German occupation of Paris and continued to live there helping the poor as always until her death at her Parisian home on rue Alfred-Roll on April 24, 1942. She is burried with her husband in the Crespin family vault at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. There is no record if her daughter was mentioned in her will of even if there was one.
In Paris there is a street which bears the name Rue Crespin du Gast.