The story of Hellé Nice is one of the truly overlooked chapters in international culture. Nice, born Helene Delangle in a small village forty miles west of Paris, was a pioneer in female auto racing, using her looks and charm to penetrate the then-completely male world of auto-racing. However, a tragic accident and the accusations of a fellow racecar driver led to her downfall and almost complete disappearance from the annals of history.
Miranda Seymour’s lively, absorbing book Bugatti Queen tries to rectify that disservice by telling the story of this provincial girl who worked her way into showbiz as a dancer. A trip to the racetracks then opened up a new passion which she ardently pursued. She was called the “fastest woman in the world” (and, given her list of lovers, that may have been a double entendre), and her skills, beauty and press-friendly demeanor led car designer Ettore Bugatti to add her to his exclusive group of male drivers. Nice’s life included several lovers (many of them fellow drivers who helped to further her career) and professional triumph before she was badly injured in a racing accident in the 1930s. Her legend was further tarnished when a fellow driver denounced her as a Gestapo agent. It’s a sad yet inspiring story, and Seymour’s does it justice.
Bugatti Queen tracks the creation of Hellé Nice from her birth as Helene to her eventual injury and disgrace. According to Seymour, there are huge gaps in Nice’s history, and the author reconstructs them as best she can. How close her approximations come to the truth is unknown, but they certainly make for absorbing reading. Nice’s story has all the makings of great fiction. She is a great character, with her outsize ego and libido seemingly covering up her insecurities and her pain over her distant and neglectful family. Of course, it isn’t fiction, so Seymour neatly avoids speculating on the more sordid details of Nice’s life (such as all of those lovers – including a seemingly long-term three-way romance with two fellow drivers).
It’s compelling reading all the way, even for those who aren’t interested in racing. After all, this isn’t racing history – it’s human history. That there isn’t more on Hellé Nice is a crime. This strange, tragic, courageous woman is fascinating to learn and read about.