Mariette Hélène Delangle was the daughter of Alexandrine Bouillie and Léon Delangle, the postman in Aunay-sous-Auneau, Eure-et-Loir, a village 47 miles from Paris. She went to Paris at age 16, initially working as a nude model for artist Rene Carrere, who encouraged her to take up ballet, leading to her becoming 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 and performed at cabarets around Europe. Her income from dancing as well as modelling became such that she could afford to purchase a home and her own yacht. However, her dancing career was cut short in 1929 after she had an accident whilst evading an avalanche while skiing, saving her life but injuring her knee badly.
In addition to the fast cars of her racing career, Nice lived a fast life. Her growing fame meant there was no shortage of suitors. Some of her affairs were brief while 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.
Nice was introduced to motor racing by racing driver de Courcelles. 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. Nice loved the thrill of driving fast cars and so snatched the chance to perform in the racing event at the annual fair organized by fellow performers from the Paris entertainment world. She was an avid downhill skier but an accident on the slopes damaged her knee and ended her dancing career. Hellé Nice decided to try her hand at professional auto racing. In 1929, driving an Oméga-Six, she won an all-female Grand Prix race at Autodrome de Montlhéry in the process setting a new world land speed record for women. Capitalising on her fame, the following year she toured the United States, racing at a variety of tracks in an American-made Miller racing car.
Philippe de Rothschild introduced himself to her shortly after her return from America. 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 Nice would be an ideal person to add to the male drivers of his line of racing vehicles. She achieved her goal and in 1931 and drove a Bugatti Type 35C in five major Grands Prix in France.
Hellé Nice was easily recognizable in her bright-blue race car. She wowed the crowds whenever she raced while adding to her income with a string of product endorsements, including advertising for Esso and Lucky Strike, which saw her featured on thousands of posters, helping her to become one of the most famous people in France. She also earned significant amounts from racing, receiving entry fees worth the equivalent of $100,000 per race when inflation-adjusted to the 2018 value of the dollar. 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, Nice continued to race Bugattis and Alfa Romeos against the greatest drivers of the day. She competed not only in Grand Prix races but also hillclimbs and rallies all over Europe, winning the 1932 Rallye Paris - Saint-Raphaël Féminin, and also appearing in the famous Monte Carlo Rally.
On 10 September 1933, she was a competitor at one of the most tragic races in history. During the 1933 Monza 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 (see "La Rivista di Monza", 1933, settembre p. 21-25). Nice finished third in one of the race's heats.
In 1936, she travelled to Brazil to compete in two Grand Prix races. During the São Paulo Grand Prix, she was in third place behind Brazilian champion Manuel de Teffé when a freak accident resulted in her nearly being killed. Her Alfa Romeo somersaulted through the air and crashed into the grandstand, killing six people and injuring more than thirty others. 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. Taken to hospital, she awoke from a coma three days later and two months later was discharged from the hospital. The tragedy turned her into a national hero among the Brazilian population.
In 1937, she attempted a racing comeback, hoping to compete in the Mille Miglia 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, Nice drove for ten days and ten nights breaking ten records and setting records that still stand.
World War 2
For the next two years, she competed in rallying 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, during the German occupation of France, she moved to the French Riviera and acquired a home in Nice, where she lived for the remainder of the war.
Accusations of collaboration
In 1949 fellow driver Louis Chiron accused her at a party in Monaco to celebrate the first postwar Monte Carlo Rally of "collaborating with the Nazis". However, her biographer Miranda Seymour is "circumspect on Nice’s guilt". Although Nice was accused of being a "Gestapo agent", despite there being no definitive evidence, it left her "unemployable". In 2018, an article about how Helle Nice got through World War Two during the occupation of France offered no evidence that she colluded with the Germans. It concluded that Chiron's accusation that Nice was a spy for the Gestapo was untrue. Nevertheless it was enough to deter sponsors effectively ending her career.
Final years and death
One of the 20th century's most colourful and illustrious pioneering women who had successfully competed in more than 70 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. Neighbours recalled Nice "taking the milk out of the cats' saucers because she had nothing to eat or drink". 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 organisation 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. She is not mentioned on the family's cemetery memorial. In 2008 a memorial plaque was erected on her previously unmarked grave by a foundation established in her name.
- "Helle Nice: The incredible life story of the first Women's Grand Prix winner". bbc.co.uk. 10 October 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
- Neil, Dan (December 8, 2004). "In pursuit of the Queen of Speed". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
- Grimes, William (December 24, 2004). "A Racing Life: Plenty of Men and Fast Cars". The New York Times. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
- Emanuelle Dechelette, La femme la plus rapide du monde. Automobile historique. November/December 2001 - n° 51, pp. 52–56.
- Seymour, Miranda The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend. (2004) Random House, New York; ISBN 1400061687
- Profile, thecnj.co.uk; accessed 11 November 2014.