Hazel's Place

Hazel's Place
Picture modified by Pete C (W650 rider)

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Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Bugatti Queen

"The thing I like best in the world is adventure" - Helle Nice

I bought this book on Amazon following a recommendation on the Real Classic message board and I am very glad I did.

The Bugatti Queen is the true and utterly engrossing story of Helle Nice (born Helene Delangle) who rose from a poor background to become a successful racing driver in the 1930s, via a colourful career as a dancer, stripper and even a circus performer.

Born in 1900 in a small, shabby home in a tiny village forty miles from Paris, Helene Delangle was beautiful, adventurous, talented and promiscuous. She became very successful modelling, dancing and stripping in 1920s Paris. In 1929 she suffered a knee injury in a skiing accident and this put paid to her dancing career. By then, she already knew that she had skill as a competitive driver. The car-makers wanted glamour to sell their machines, all she had to do was prove herself as a driver and this she did by winning the 1929 Grand Prix Feminin at Montelhery driving an Omega Six.

The book chronicles her successful driving career collecting glittering prizes and enjoying a glamorous lifestyle driving Bugattis and other exotica. It is clear that the author has fallen a little in love with her heroine whose spirit and charm made her irresistible to so many people.

After all her achievements, her downward turn of her life seems tragically unfair.  She was disinherited by her family, her elder sister seeming bitterly resentful of her successful sibling (to the extent she omits her name from the family gravestone), her long term lover abandons and robs her and the famous driver Louis Chiron publically accuses her of collaboration with the Gestapo during the occupation (a charge which was never proved). In 1984 she dies in obscurity and poverty, having been dependent upon the care of a French charity whose purpose was to provide help and support for anyone in the theatrical world whose career had suffered a downturn in fortune.

The author, Miranda Seymour, does not confine the biography to a factual narration but includes emotive reconstruction in her story telling, filling out characters and events in a way that reaches to the emotions of the reader. By the time the book reaches the time of Helle’s fall from grace the events that unfold seem heartbreakingly sad.

The author mentions early in the book that she was disappointed with the lack of convincing descriptions of how it actually felt to be part of the racing scene in the 1920s & ‘30s. The descriptions in this book are beautifully evocative, whether told from the point of view of a spectator or a driver. The descriptions of the inevitable crashes and deaths are shocking and make the achievements and determination of the drivers even more remarkable.

A fascinating book about an extraordinary woman who deserves to be remembered.

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