Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend
Born at the turn of the 20th century, Helle Nice, nee Helene
Delangle, was a woman who lost friends and gained enemies, a woman
you either loved or despised. There was not much middle ground with
her. Between her less-than-impressive beginnings and her lackluster
end, Helle Nice had one wild ride of a lifetime. Her thirst for
daredevilry led her into a host of risky pursuits: mountain
climbing in the Alps, skiing, horseback riding --- and car racing.
Whatever involved speed gave her joy.
Racy in more ways than one, Helle surrounded herself with men ---
many of them great men. She dallied with the likes of a married
count, a famous wine baron, well-known actors and popular drivers.
Maybe they were a means to an end, or perhaps they simply amused
her. Whatever the case, she could rarely be seen without one. While
women admired her courage, they figured sparsely into her
The audacious racer’s beauty and guile did not go unnoticed,
along with her easy way with the cameras. She never hesitated to
pose shamelessly for the press. But she made many enemies along the
way. By their very nature, racers thrive on adulation. And egos
recklessly crushed are likely to fight back. By the time
Helle’s career waned, she had accumulated a large contingent
of those who disliked her. Forty years after Helle’s death,
an aging rival still remembered her unkindly: “I don’t
believe she ever thought about anything but sex and showing
off.” Two things she seems to have done plenty of.
One finds it hard to believe that seeing her first race at age
three could have paved the way for her, but it most certainly did
not scare her off. Nor did the loss of many of her racing
companions. Nearly every year saw another one dead. The cars did
not hold up as well as the machines of today. Spectators perished
along with their heroes. No one seemed to care about the safety;
the sheer thrill of speed --- watching it or driving it --- was
Helle Nice’s appetites ran toward the outlandishly daring.
Even when she embarked on a campaign to become a great dancer, she
hungered for the biggest spotlight, using nudity as her draw. Then,
when her dancing career came to an end, she renewed her interest in
her greatest love --- racing --- a career that was interrupted by
the Second World War. It was an interruption that proved
The reader gets to rub shoulders with auto pioneers like Renault,
Ferrari and, as the title suggests, Bugatti, while being
transported to some of France’s loveliest countryside.
Following Helle’s career takes us to scores of exotic places,
like Monte Carlo, Rio and Casablanca, and to some of the
world’s most famous racetracks. But after decades of
excitement and adventure, Helle Nice fell into obscurity. Having
once lived in a fashionable residence in Paris boasting an enviable
view, she died broken and penniless. Her last address was the top
floor of an attic apartment, looking out onto a seedy part of Nice.
Did her alliances during the War have anything to do with it, or
did her compatriots simply turn their backs on a woman they viewed
as selfish, ruthless and past her prime?
Miranda Seymour does an admirable job of presenting a huge amount
of information in a way that is fascinating and highly
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on December 23, 2010