Story and Photos by Mary Ann Dickinson
A small but remarkable achievement…
On Saturday, September 4, 2010, under a beautiful sunny sky in the small village of Sainte-Mesme outside Paris, over 200 people gathered from three different countries to honor and commemorate the life of 1930s Grand Prix race driver Hellé Nice.
In 1984, Hellé Nice, a pioneering female race driver, holder of 14 speed records at Montlhéry and 8 world speed records, died in obscurity and extreme poverty and was interred in an unmarked grave. The story of her life, and her descent into undeserved defamation, was researched and documented in the book Bugatti Queen, published in 2004 by author Miranda Seymour.
Documenting her life and finding her final resting place was an enormous undertaking for Miranda. Over her lifetime, the woman born Mariette Hélène Delangle went through various names, making later tracing difficult. To make matters worse, there were even four different villages in France named Sainte-Mesme. But upon finally finding Hellé Nice’s actual grave, Seymour discovered to her surprise that it was unmarked. She was shocked, and in the book she stated that she wished to bring “some kind of justice to one of the boldest and most attractive women of the last century…she deserves to be remembered, and more than that, celebrated.”Something needed to be done. The effort to correct this oversight was spearheaded by the Hellé Nice Foundation, the organization founded by Greene in 2008. Inspired by Seymour’s book, Greene established the Foundation in part to raise money for the purchase of the missing gravestone or marker for Nice. (read “A Death Forgotten”) The task seemed insurmountable; even French car enthusiasts were heretofore unaware that such a remarkable individual was buried in this tiny French village. (It is worth noting that Bugatti Queen has never been published in France, thus explaining why many French enthusiasts, including Hellé Nice’s remaining family, were unaware of her full story.)
A breakthrough came in January 2010, when Seymour sent an email to Greene that began, “A living relative of Hellé Nice just surfaced …” Suddenly, contact with the family of Hellé Nice seemed feasible. Hopefully they would be interested in Greene’s efforts to provide a permanent marker for Hellé. Greene met with the family members and local historians at the site of the unmarked grave in Sainte-Mesme; the Delangle family as well as local officials all were helpful and very interested in the project. Fundraising began in earnest to create and place a marker on the racer’s grave. Once the marker was ready to be placed, a ceremony would be scheduled which would be open to the family members, Bugatti enthusiasts, locals and the press. Read Friends and Family Pay Homage to Hellé Nice.
In the next few months, the Foundation raised money for the graveside marker from a wide assortment of donors, including the Mullin Automobile Museum, the American Bugatti Club, Alfa Romeo enthusiasts, VeloceToday and anonymous donors. Local officials and historians, especially Louis Dejean and Bruno Perrin, contributed both hundreds of hours as well as local funds to the event. Artists donated artwork for auction. Saturday, September 4th, 2010 was chosen for the formal dedication.
The program for the day included, as expected, moving speeches. Louis Dejean, founder of the local “Association Souvenir Hellé Nice” was master of ceremonies and overall coordinator of the event. Paul Desmettre, Mayor of Sainte-Mesme, welcomed everyone. Seymour spoke in French about the history of discovering Hellé Nice and how she brought the story of this remarkable woman to the world via her book Bugatti Queen. Dr. Patricia Yongue discussed Hellé Nice’s place in women’s motorsports history. Sheryl Greene gave a moving tribute to Hellé Nice’s spirit. Annie Soisbault, herself a famous rally driver and racer from the 1950’s, gave a personal tribute. Robert Delangle, grand-nephew of Hellé Nice, presented his personal recollections of his famous aunt.
Warner Dailey was there too. Dailey was the person who, in 1994, found the Helle Nice scrapbook of pictures at a local antique sale in southern France and set the wheels in motion that would eventually result in the book Bugatti Queen.
A special surprise was a video from the first talking newsreel in France, which happened to feature Hellé Nice breaking the women’s speed record at Montlhéry in 1929. It was an eerie experience seeing her face and smile on film, and actually hearing her voice. This early film even featured a camera-mounted lap of the track …arguably one of the first such instances of filming a speed lap with the roar of the engine fully included in the sound track…and this at a time when silent films were still the norm. (Click here to view short film clip from French TV.)
After the dedication speeches, the marker was unveiled at graveside. Flowers were placed by the Hellé Nice Foundation, Les Femmes Pilotes (The French Women’s Drivers Association), the British Women’s Motorsports Association, the Sainte-Mesme townspeople, and the Delangle family.
Clearly this is the beginning of something much bigger. The energy, devotion, and interest generated by this event will not wither; too many people left the event intrigued and enthused. Judging from the many inscriptions written in the Day’s Guest Book, it is clear that the dedication event has now galvanized unforgettable interest in Hellé Nice and the women’s motorsports history she helped create.