Mademoiselle Hellé Nice:
grand prix superstar, record-breaker, adventuress, vaudeville princess turned Bugatti Queen.

The Parisian cabaret coquette who traded her nipple tassels in for driving gloves.

A crash survivor, a legendary lover, a tragic heroine who had it all and lost it all. She sounds made up and some of her story probably is, but she was real.

First, the facts: Hellé Nice entered 31 major grands prix between 1931 and 1936, driving either a Bugatti or an Alfa Romeo. Among her best finishes were two fourth places, achieved in the Marne and Picardie races in France. Among her rivals were famous names like Jean-Pierre Wimille and Louis Chiron. She also entered countless other minor races, rallies and hillclimbs.

Mariette Delangle (the name by which Hellé Nice liked to be known personally) was described by SCH Davis as “attractive, intelligent and very French”. Her biggest racing triumphs came at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 8C, despite her reputation as “The Bugatti Queen”.

Hellé Nice’s career could only have begun in France between the wars. Public appetites for both cabaret performance and motor racing were never stronger, and newspapers such as Le Journal combined the two in events like the “Journée Féminine de l’Automobile”, which starred leading female drivers and vaudeville celebrities going wheel-to-wheel at Montlhéry, near Paris. Hellé Nice made her debut during the 1928 Journée, driving a Citroen, and won her first race at the 1929 event in an Omega Six.

Mariette Delangle’s motivation in pushing her motorsport career beyond this is hard to decipher. Certainly, she was coming to the end of her useful life as a raunchy cabaret performer, and injuries sustained in a ski accident did not help. She occasionally claimed that a Paris driver called Charlotte Versigny inspired her to take up racing. The two both competed at the Journée Féminine and possibly did know one another. Maybe her decision to commit to motorsport full-time was simply that she’d tried it and not been able to live without it.

As Hellé Nice, she was much talked about: her lovers, her lifestyle, her Hispano-Suiza road car and her yacht, her retinue of pugs and shih tzus. It isn’t clear where her money came from; she was probably not rich herself, but well-connected, which often gives the same impression. Among her supposed lovers were Jean Bugatti (son of Ettore Bugatti), Philippe de Rothschild and racers Marcel Mongin, Guy Moll and Henri de Courcelles. It has even been suggested that she was married to Mongin briefly, although no official records of this exist.

Helle seems have visited the Bugatti family at their country house, Le Pur Sang. Letters exist between L’Ebe Bugatti, Jean’s sister, and Helle Nice, one of which mentions some particularly good ham that was served. No-one really knows what went on between Helle and Jean, as Jean died shortly afterwards in a testing accident.

Alongside the usual curtain-twitching about her bedtime partners, rumours flew around Helle like scandalous moths round a lightbulb. Her conquests may have included other women; she allegedly smoked opium the night before a race at least once, possibly combined with an orgy for good measure.

Mariette herself was more guarded. In 1932, she gave an interview to a Paris Soir journalist called Geo Villetan, which tells us a little of her own thoughts.

When asked of her plans she answered:

I am going back to race at the Grand Prix of La Baule, where I have had some mechanical trouble with my car. This was a shame, because I had been well-placed to begin with.

(Then) take some days off by the sea, where I can indulge in the pleasures of swimming, then I’m taking the wheel again to go and race at Mont Ventoux at the start of September, then to Monza, where I hope to take my revenge. From there, maybe I’ll take a spin to Austria, since I’ve been invited to take part in an important race meeting.

At the end of the interview, she was asked if she ever took holidays, and remarked:

For me, sport is a passionate thing. Why deprive myself of it for the simple excuse that one should sacrifice some weeks to snobbery every year?

Dancer, actress, lover, ocean swimmer, racer; it is obvious that physical sensation was important to her.

There was more to her than glamour, obviously. In her first year of major competition, she was third in the 1930 Bugatti Grand Prix at Le Mans. According to some sources, she crossed the finish line backwards. The following year, she was fourth in class at the Marne Grand Prix in a Bugatti T35 and did her first international race at Monza.

n 1933, she survived rather than finished the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Giuseppe Campari and Baconin Borzacchini were killed in an accident during a heat and Stanislas Czaykowski perished in a fiery crash in the final. The winner Marcel Lehoux reportedly had a nervous breakdown. Helle was ninth.

Her first trip to Africa was in 1934 when she raced in the Casablanca GP, although it was a disappointment as the rear axle on her car broke.

The 1935 Picardie GP was another highlight; she was fourth, driving the Alfa.

In 1936 she travelled to Brazil to race. In June, she finished the Rio de Janeiro GP in 15th place. Later in the summer, having just lost fourth place on the line in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix to Manuel de Teffé, one of her biggest dramas occurred and her crazy life almost ended. She hit a straw bale thrown on to the track and was catapulted from her car, which ploughed driverless into the crowd. Five people died and she was in hospital for two months.

Her return to motorsport was slow and tentative. Her first comeback event was a speed record trial at Montlhery, driving a huge Matford with a 1700cc diesel engine. She was part of a four-woman team with Claire Descollas, Odette Siko and 27-year-old Simone des Forest. They set a series of speed and endurance over three and eight days, some of which still stand. The trials did not always run smoothly; Claire Descollas dropped out early on and neither she nor the Simone des Forest got on well with Helle. Only Le Mans pioneer Odette Siko found her easy to work with and the two reportedly became friends.

In her “never explain, never apologise” demeanour, we see clever manipulation going on. The varied faces and rarely-given opinions of Hellé Nice only served to create a colourful, but indistinct canvas on which her admirers could paint her any way they wanted her.

Her habit of neither explaining nor apologising backfired in 1949. At a party, her erstwhile rival Chiron accused her of having been a Nazi collaborator. No-one has ever worked out why he did this, although love rejection may have played a part. Hellé Nice was never formally charged with any wartime offences, but she never could explain what she actually did during the war years. Records of the time particularly those relating to the principality of Monaco where she may have stayed, have remained closed. Chiron’s most vicious accusation, that she had been a Gestapo agent, is almost certainly untrue. A well-known female celebrity, especially one who lived a controversial lifestyle,  would have been too valuable a prize for Allied agents to give up, as Helle’s 1929 rival Violette Morris found out in 1944. Morris, a butch bisexual woman who had been successful in a number of sports, had been collaborating with the Germans and died in a hail of Allied bullets in 1944.

 What remained of the grand prix boys’ club after the war closed ranks on her, but help was at hand from some of her female racing colleagues. In 1950 and 1951, she teamed up with Anne-Cécile Rose-Itier, another French grand prix veteran, to race and rally a Renault 4CV.

Hellé Nice died aged 83, in 1984. She had been living with the aid of La Roue Tourne, a charity for retired actors in France.

I am going back to race at the Grand Prix of La Baule, where I have had some mechanical trouble with my car. This was a shame, because I had been well-placed to begin with.