Camille Du Gast, the first woman to achieve fame as a racing driver, also excelled at ballooning, fencing, parachuting, tobogganing, shooting with rifle and pistol and mountaineering. She was also an excellent horsewoman and later, when racing was banned to women, she raced powerboats. She became president of the French Anti-Cruelty to Animals Society and campaigned against bullfighting and also worked with the poor, establishing centres for orphans and impoverished women.
In Paris there is a street which bears the name Rue Crespin du Gast. Born Marie Marthe Camille Desinge du Gast. du Gast was in fact her maiden name which she retained in her various sporting adventures. Green eyed, fair haired, buxom and stunningly attractive, Camille had a great sense of humour and a magnetic smile that most men found irresistible.
She was determined to get her way and do what she wanted, regardless of convention or authority. She married the manager and major shareholder of the huge Dufayel store in Paris (Jules Crespin) in 1890 and he gave her the means that permitted her to indulge her many interests. She first captured the public's imagination around 1895 as a balloonist, an interest she shared with her husband. He owned two gas balloons which were launched at fêtes and other public events to publicise his business. When Camille decided to go ballooning in 1895 with the well known aeronaut Louis Capazza, she came to an agreement with her husband that she would use her maiden name to avoid any suggestion that her exploits were undertaken to publicise the store.
Her sporting interests also embraced fencing, parachuting, tobogganing, shooting with rifle and pistol and mountaineering. She excelled at all these activities, as well as being an excellent horsewoman.
In 1900 she witnessed the start of the Paris-Lyon road race. Around the same time her husband bought a Peugeot and a Panhard-Levassor which she soon acquired a real skill in handling. At a time when it was socially unacceptable that a woman should replace her chauffeur as the driver, this was just what Camille du Gast did.
Then in June 1901 she entered the great Paris-Berlin motor race. Her riding mechanic was the Prince du Sagan, whom one Paris newspaper described rather bitchily as 'a dandy lured by the smell of oil and petrol.' It was far more likely that he was attracted by the charms of Camille du Gast. She drove cautiously and was rewarded with 19th place in the heavy class and 33rd overall out of 47 finishers.
Camille went with her husband on an extended cruise in 1902 and returned to the sport in 1903 entering the ill fated Paris-Madrid race. This time she had the benefit of a proper racing car - a 30hp de Dietrich. Out of a field of 275 cars du Gast started 29th. Once again she delighted the French public, although The Autocar remarked: "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.
Camille made excellent progress. In the first 120 kms she had made up nine places. Outside Libourne she had climbed to 8th place when she came upon the crashed de Dietrich of Phil Stead. She stopped and tended the seriously injured Englishman and, despite his urgings to continue, she stayed with him until medical help arrived.
Later Charles Jarrott, one of the great drivers of the age, who finished fourth overall with his de Dietrich, asserted that if Camille had not stopped to aid Stead, he would surely have died. She then continued, finishing 45th overall at the finish of the shortened race.
By then it was becoming clear to all those who had taken part that the race had become a tragedy. The horror of what had occurred galvanised the authorities into action. 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. The total number of fatalities has never been recorded. From then on open road racing was banned. 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 Madame du Gast published a protest letter in L'Auto. But nobody had doubts about her driving skills. The reason for the ban were the Paris-Madrid accidents in general. The ACF could not take the risk that a woman would sustain any injuries in a race accident. In the case of such an accident, less than one year after the Madrid tragedies, Paris would immediately have banned the sport as a whole.
So Camille turned her attention to motorboat racing and in 1905 she started races in Monaco in her boat called "Turquoise". In the same year, she was famously lucky to survive the Alger-Toulon motorboat race across the Mediterranean when the field was decimated by a violent storm. Six 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 escaped. She was declared the winner as the contestant who had come closest to reaching the finish at Toulon. She continue her sporting adventures until 1910 when family troubles forced her to retire.
In later life she worked at the refuge for stray and injured dogs that 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 in 1942.