Library Record

  • Email This Page
  • Send Feedback
Title The Bugatti queen : in search of a French racing legend / by Miranda Seymour.
Date of Publication 2004
Object Name Book
Author Seymour, Miranda, 1948-.
Author added entry
Summary Includes bibliographical references and index.

Publisher description for Bugatti Queen : In Search of a Racing Legend:
"Counter Literary Review, 'Miranda Seymour’s biography of the daring female driver Hellé Nice will have you riveted to your seat.' Indeed, the story of this record-shattering woman–known as 'Hellish Nice' to her fans and 'Hell on Ice' to her rivals–provides a fascinating and unexpected view of Europe and America in the years between the wars.
Transcending her provincial background, and taking the name 'Hellé Nice,' Hélène Delangle made her way into the Parisian demimonde of the 1920s as a nude model, ballerina, and cabaret dancer. But it was on the racetrack, thrilled by the combination of machinery and speed, that Nice would realize her destiny, becoming the 'fastest woman in the world.' Catching the attention of the formidable Ettore Bugatti, designer of the world’s most desirable cars, Nice gained admission to the exclusive male club of drivers. Her readiness to pose for the camera with seductively half-closed eyes and a radiant smile, coupled with her willingness to risk her life for a record or a win, made Hellé Nice an irresistible commodity for Bugatti’s marque. Impenitently promiscuous, her many lovers ranged from engineers and mechanics to aristocrats of the racing world such as Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Count Bruno d’Harcourt.
A racer of thrilling audacity, Hellé Nice competed in numerous Grand Prix, was the only woman to drive the treacherous American dirt tracks and speedbowls in the 1930s, and set new land-speed records until a notorious accident in Brazil nearly ended her racing career. Her comeback impeded by the war, she lived out the Occupation in the South of France. In 1949, she was mysteriously denounced by a hostile fellow driver as a Gestapo agent. Eventually, Hellé Nice would die in obscurity, the shadow on her reputation causing her name to be written out of racing history.
Drawn from a remarkable cache of newly discovered papers, Miranda Seymour’s Bugatti Queen sheds new light on both the treacherous world of international racing and life in Occupied France, while revealing the story of a fearless and passionate woman who lived for challenge.

Publisher-supplied biographical information about Miranda Seymour:
MIRANDA SEYMOUR is the author of acclaimed biographies of Mary Shelley, Ottoline Morrell, Robert Graves, and Henry James. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Society of Arts, and a visiting professor at the Nottingham Trent University, Seymour lives next to what used to be England's most celebrated racing circuit.

Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission:

Chapter One

BEGINNINGS

In my end is my beginning.

—Mary Queen of Scots
(allegedly)

NICE, WINTER 1975

She had kept the gloves because they reminded her of the way in which one of her most charming lovers, Philippe de Rothschild, had introduced himself to her. She had been sitting at a café table in Paris, chatting to a friend, when she first noticed that a man, strongly built, well dressed, bronze-faced, had stopped as he walked past. He hadn’t moved for about a minute. He was looking directly at her. She wondered if he was after an autograph; he didn’t look like a journalist. Good eyes; nice mouth. She gave a wide bold smile and watched him come toward the table. He spoke her name and asked how long she had been back from her American tour, indicating familiarity with her career. She said she seemed to know his face too and burst out laughing when he identified himself. A racer himself, and of Bugattis: no wonder that he had such a familiar look. She introduced her friend, a girl she had met when they were both dancers at the casino, and gave her a quick, significant glance. Diana took the hint, remembered an appointment, smiled at them both, and moved out of the yellow shade of the awning into the hard afternoon light of the Champs-Elysées. That was when Philippe de Rothschild lifted her left hand from the table and, correctly, identified the name of her glovemaker. Turning her hand over, he undid the four tiny pearl buttons that held the molded kid tight against her wrist, smooth on her flesh as a second skin. Her bare arms were sunburnt; here, at the pulse point, the skin was white as a baby’s. Smiling, he lifted her hand to his mouth and, looking into her eyes, touched the tiny area of revealed skin with his mouth and, very lightly, the tip of his tongue. It was the most delicate of gestures. She knew at once that the experience of being made love to by this man would give her pleasure.

Sitting on the edge of her bed at four in the morning, she lifted the gloves to her face, as if to bring back some scent of the past. Nothing remained but the softness of the kid. As for Philippe de Rothschild, she didn’t even know whether he was alive or dead. Sighing, she stretched out her toes, feeling for her slippers before she knelt to pull the precious trunk from its hiding place—she trusted nobody—beneath the iron bed frame. Wincing at the effort, she levered back the heavy lid.

There they were, her hoard of treasures, the tarnished racing cups, the silver commemorative plate from Brazil, the book of stamps collected from her travels: all were safe. She lifted the plate aside to reach the sheaves of yellow clippings. Two envelopes of photographs and a handful of letters were taken out, ready for the day’s work.

Sitting at the table under the window, she laid them carefully out. A cat mewed in the darkness and her head jerked up eagerly before she remembered that Minette, her companion over ten years, had been banished from this, the most desolate of her homes, by a landlord who had refused to have pets on the premises. True, he had offered a bottle of champagne in consolation when he saw her distress, but you couldn’t stroke a bottle or talk to it, or please it with a scrap of fish. Beggars couldn’t lay down the law; given the choice between the cat and the room, she let Minette find a new home with the tobacconist at the end of the street. Now the little minx didn’t so much as open her eyes when she hobbled in to buy the week’s supply of cigarettes. Faithless in the end, as all the rest had proved to be.

Brushing a skin of glue over the back of the tiny black-and-white photographs with their images of better times, she began the daily task of sticking them to the pages of the scrapbooks, building up a record of the past, drumming her heels on the floorboards as she tried to remember a date for each one. It was a young interviewer from Radio Monte Carlo who had given her the idea when he had come—five years ago? six?—to ask about the great day in 1929 when she had driven a Bugatti at the Montlhéry circuit near Paris and beaten the world record. He had been a nice boy and a good listener. She had enjoyed talking to him, but she hadn’t been able to make him understand the joy of driving that car. He ought to drive one himself, she had told him; that was the only way to do it. She had showed him her trophy cups, watched his eyes widen in respect. He hadn’t, he said, realized how much she had achieved. Before he left, he had urged her to try to put together a record of her career.

It was something to do, to fill the long night hours when sleep refused to come. (The years when she had slept as soundly as a child had ended for good in 1936, when a crash had nearly robbed her of more than the comfort of peaceful nights.) Now the scrapbooks had become her solace, taking her back to another life. Another person, she sometimes thought, looking down at a news item about her American tour of 1930 that proclaimed the first-ever appearance of a woman racing driver on the most dangerous board track in New Jersey, where she had been expected to set a new speed record.

The landlord was too mean to provide her with more than a single-bar heater for the two rooms she occupied at the top of the house. Shivering, she dragged a blanket off the bed and wrapped it tightly around her as she sat down again at the table. The photograph before her now was yellow, the images faint with age. A lace-smothered baby perched on the lap of a countrywoman wearing a long, heavy skirt and wooden sabots. “Mother and me, 1902, at Sainte-Mesme,” she wrote on the back. No, that couldn’t be right; in 1902, they had been living at Aunay-sous-Auneau, outside Chartres. Was this a photograph of herself or of Solange, her sister? That was the trouble with babies: swathed in bonnets and shawls, they all looked alike. It could very well be Solange, in which case the photograph was going back in the trunk. Where it would stay. Her family was going to have no place in her record of triumph.

BOISSY-LE-SEC, 1898

Boissy-le-Sec was a dead end of a village between Paris and Chartres, buried in the cornfields that stretched from one horizon to another. The women and their daughters wound the water up with an iron wheel that took four hands to turn it, from a well so deep that you could drop stones all day and never hear a sound come back. Léon Delangle and his wife blamed the icy water of Boissy for the deaths of their oldest boy, Maurice, who had died there in 1897, aged only three, and the youngest, Gabriel, whom they had buried in the same summer. Lucien, the middle child, cursed with long pale cheeks and a croupy cough, had survived. Alexandrine Delangle was expecting again when a welcome offer came to leave the village.

Léon Aristide Delangle was a postmaster, a government appointment that gave him a thousand francs a year (see conversion table on page xxiii) and a roof over his head and which licensed him to look down on his blacksmith cousin at Boissy. They had both married Alexandrines; it was all they or their wives had in common.

Alexandrine Estelle Bouillie was a gaunt girl of nineteen when she married the thirty-year-old postmaster. Her own family was of simple origins, and Alexandrine was intensely aware of her new and superior standing; it pleased her that Léon and she shared a big four-poster bed while his cousin the blacksmith’s wife lay in a humble tester. It was also gratifying to know that she and her husband had the only telephone in the village.* As the facteur-receveur, Léon Delangle was the local banker; sacks of coins were placed in his care. He was an educated man, able to read and write without difficulty; Alexandrine drew further satisfaction from the knowledge that the Boissy schoolmaster, who had never shared a table with the blacksmith’s family, had been to dinner with her husband and herself twice during their first year in the village.

The postmaster Delangles made annual voyages to the coast, alternating between Deauville and Dieppe. They had been to Paris twice, and had stayed in hotels. The blacksmith Delangles took pride in the fact that they never traveled beyond Rambouillet, once the forest of kings, lying on the northern edge of the great Beauce plain. Here the green woods rustled with the wings of chaffinches, nightingales, turtledoves, and larks. With a smithy full of guns to use on Rambouillet’s wildlife, there seemed no point in traveling twice as far to catch cold on an Atlantic beach. The postmaster was, in the opinion of his cousins, altogether too ambitious in his ways. Boissy had always been good enough for them. A man came to no harm by knowing the landmarks of his own horizon.

Never comfortable together, the two branches of the family separated as easily as oil from water when the postmaster received an offer of a transfer to nearby Aunay-sous-Auneau in June 1898. Alexandrine, while pleased by the opportunity to escape from her husband’s cousins and a village she now associated with death, was anxious about moving at a time when their new baby girl was shedding weight at alarming speed. But word came down from the great Gothic headquarters of the postal service in Chartres that the process must not be delayed; they could take their chance now or stay. So the house at Boissy was stripped of its modest furnishings. Kitchenware, chairs, bed, linen, a wooden chest, and three down-stuffed quilts were roped onto the carrier’s cart and trundled away on the long white ribbon of track to Plessis, Garancières, and Aunay. The family did not look back, and their cousins did not come out of the smithy to wave them off.

Aunay-sous-Auneau, named for the alder trees that are no longer in evidence on its riverbanks, was larger than Boissy and, having at least two big fêtes every summer, a little livelier. It was, nevertheless, another one-street village locked in by the golden carpets of the cornfields around which its existence revolved. Here, too, the landscape was enormous and featureless: size is the only claim the Beauce has ever made to a character. Clambering down from the cart as it halted on the road above the village, Alexandrine Delangle ignored the old church of Saint-Eloi and trained her eyes on the distance, searching the broad yellow ring of the horizon. Beyond it, out of view, loomed the gray spires of Chartres. Overhead, the sky stretched in cloudless calm, blank as the fields beneath.

Their new home, squat and roofed in slate, stood opposite the smart new town hall and school, which, ranged together, dwarfed it. Beyond, standing on the road to Chartres, defended by a high and rose-spattered wall and looking down an avenue of chestnuts, a recently embellished château lent an air of grandeur to the village. The owner, Dr. Poupon, was more admired for his ownership of a touring car that lived in the château stables between a dogcart and a secretive closed sedan, home, in Aunay legends, to every star-crossed relationship the village had ever been sufficiently aware of to prattle about. The car was the village’s equivalent of a royal carriage. Every spring, the machine was ceremoniously unshrouded from dust sheets and towed into the light by two burly cart horses belonging to Charles Foiret, the principal landholder in the village. Dr. Poupon, taking his role seriously, wore goggles, cap, gauntlets, and a yellow coat that served to keep off both rain and the clouds of dust that rose from the Beauce’s unsurfaced roads. His groom, relishing the elevation to mechanic and chauffeur, wore a smart cap that hinted at a military background.

Dr. Poupon had recently been elected the mayor of Aunay, giving him responsibility for the welfare of almost a thousand residents, most of whom were of farming stock. Conscious of ceremony, he was waiting outside the single-story block of the little Maison des Postes et Télégraphes—the sign had just been repainted—when the Delangles arrived on the carrier’s cart. It was Dr. Poupon who unlocked the door and led them hastily through a damp little office into what was, if he might express a view, an unusually comfortable and pleasant bedroom. (Enthusiasm was required: the initial candidate had rejected the job on the grounds that the house was unsatisfactory.) The view from the back of the house was, the mayor indicated with a flourish at a window that looked straight into the side of a thornbush, admirably private. The floors—he thumped his heel—were sound. A new Thierry stove had been installed for their benefit.

The mayor paused, allowing this generous gesture to be appreciated before he delivered the one indisputable disappointment: no authority had been obtained for the provision of a bicycle to the new official, and attempts to secure the services of a deputy postman had not proved successful. Deliveries must, nevertheless, be carried out to homes over a five-mile radius. And there, discomforted by the silence of the Delangles, Dr. Poupon decided to bring his welcome to an end. They would, he said as he turned to the door, enjoy living at Aunay. The schoolmaster, Chopiteau, was a delightful man; Foiret, the principal farmer, was a good chap, always ready to help out with one of his carts if they were planning a trip to Chartres. He left before Madame Delangle, registering from his title that this small and strutting man was a doctor, could seek advice about the sickly baby girl who lay in her arms.

Lucienne Delangle, aged four months, was buried two months later. At the end of August, with a mixture of gratitude and dread, Alexandrine Delangle found herself pregnant once more.

Her luck had turned; no more Delangles would join the row of doll-sized graves at the back of the cemetery. Solange Andrée was born late in the spring of 1899, almost a year after their arrival at Aunay. On December 15, 1900, Alexandrine went into labor once again in the family bed.

They named her Mariette Hélène. M. Julien, the baker, and Charles Foiret, the elderly farmer who had been commended by the mayor, were witnesses to the entry of her birth in the town hall register. Dr. Poupon, who had been distressed by the Delangles’ loss of a baby girl so soon after their arrival at Aunay, volunteered himself as a godfather. He even produced a tiny ivory crucifix that had belonged to his mother, offering it as a baptism gift. The christening itself was modest, not followed by the usual supper and dance; misfortunes had made the parents superstitious. Drawing attention to their remaining children seemed imprudent; the less fuss, the better.
Subjects Nice, Hellé, 1900-1984.
Hélène Delangle, 1900-1984.
Automobile racing drivers--France--Biography.
Women automobile racing drivers--France--Biography.
Publisher Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.,
Call# GV1032.N53 S49 2004
Collection Lang Library
LCCN 2004042783
ISBN 9780743478595