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Hellé Nice Marker Unveiled at Sainte-Mesme, France

by pete on September 8, 2010

Beautiful and permanent tribute to the Bugatti Queen, who also drove an Alfa Romeo. Both are included in the marker.

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.

Sheryl Greene, founder of the Helle Nice Foundation.

It was the culmination of a three year long effort organized by Sheryl Greene, a sports car enthusiast from Atlanta, Georgia.

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.”

President of the Association Historique et Archéologique de Sainte-Mesme, M. Louis Dejean.

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.

An attractive display of Nice's life was placed in the adjacent church for the ceremony.

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.

Members of the Delangle family in the front row of an appreciative audience.


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 Lee Yongue spoke about Nice's place in the history of motorsports.

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.)

Miranda Seymour, left, with Warner Dailey and his wife....and the scrapbook photo that launched the book 'Bugatti Queen'.

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.

The Bugatti Queen's name is now on the gravestone.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Linsky September 8, 2010 at 10:44 am

What a wonderful end to this adventure. Congratulations to Ms. Seymour and Mr. Dailey for pursuing the story and helping provide the the recognition this lady so richly deserves.

Keith Crandall September 8, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Truly a remarkable woman. I have read “Bugatti Queen” and it is an amazing story of a woman involved in motorsports when most would have thought it unthinkable. The pictures are priceless and it is so well written that I could not put it down. And now finally a tribute has been shown that she so richly deserved. Kudos to all involved and may her memory live on forever for future generations to discover! Well done!

KC

Fernando Miguel September 9, 2010 at 4:00 am

It feel good to know that finally something has been done and very properly, the way she deserve, with Honor and dignity.
I’m sure, wherever she is now there is a smile on her face.
it is remarkable all the effort and dedication of those involved in this respectable cause have done, my congratulations to all of you.
F. Miguel

Lyn St. James September 9, 2010 at 5:59 am

This is a beautiful story about an extraordinary woman. Congratulations to Miranda Seymour and Sheryl Greene! When I read “The Bugatti Queen” it inspired me to do more research on women in racing which resulted in a traveling exhibit on the history of women in racing, and Helle Nice is featured in this exhibit. I will do everything I can to continue to share her story, including this tremendous effort, and bring attention to her legacy.
Lyn St. James

Joanne McGurk September 9, 2010 at 7:13 am

Congratulations Sheryl,

What a success. You too are a truly remarkable woman.

Joanne & Elial Smyrna, Georgia

Allen Bishop September 9, 2010 at 7:46 am

I read the entire book cover to cover over the ‘04 Monterey weekend, and was captivated by this fascinating woman. It is gratifying to see her posthumously raised from obscurity into belated fame. Kudos to all those involved. I hope the Mullin Museum can install some sort off permanent tribute to her – what better place here in the USA! Hopefully, more research will emerge on women in motorsport in the coming years.

Bruno Perrin September 9, 2010 at 1:53 pm

We were all moved by the dignity and the peacefulness of the reunion. Hellé Nice has such nice friends ! Thanks to all who were there or who helped to make it happen.
Still, we keep on wondering how it happens that there is no french language edition of Miranda Seymour’s book. A french proverb says that nobody can be a prophet in his/her own country, but it seems the collective memory here in France is very selective when it comes to remembering women’s achievements.

Rick & Rachel Miller September 9, 2010 at 10:25 pm

I first met Sheryl Greene, founder of the Helle Nice Foundation when we were both employed in Atlanta for the same company. This would lead to a very close and long lasting friendship where we learned of Sheryl’s love for these cars and people who stood out and were sometimes forgetten, we can understand what an asset she was for this project. Great Job Sheryl.

Rick & Rachel
Campton, N.H.

Rick & Rachel September 9, 2010 at 10:45 pm

We have had the pleasure of knowing Sheryl Greene, founder of the Helle Nice Foundation for the last 10 yrs or longer now, Sheryl and I {Rachel } had the pleasure of working together in Atlanta Georgia,USA
I am so glad I recieved this story from Sheryl and got to read of a Remarkable women Hellé Nice in a predominitley mans sport, That of Auto racing. Very phew people knew Hellé Nice ever existed and had such a remarkable passion for Racing and Life in General. This is the type of story the world needs to read and the Lady Hellé Nice needs to be enterd into Racings Hall of Fame. Thank you Sheryl for another Job well done .Rachel & Rick

Rachel & Rick September 9, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Rick & I have had the pleasure of Knowing Sheryl for over 10 yrs now, I was lucky enough to have had the Pleasure of working with her here in Atlanta, Ga.USA for a very long time. Now to be able to read of a remarkable women named Helle Nice was truly a treasure. We had never even heard of the “The Bugatti Queen” , Now we would have that chance. Thank you so very much Shery. stay in touch.
Rachel & Rick
now living back in Campton,New Hampshire.

Gijsbert-Paul Berk September 10, 2010 at 8:44 am

My congratulations to Miranda Seymour for her fascinating book and to Sheryl Greene for her perseverance to give Helen Nice the gravestone she deserved.
I have often wondered why nobody took up this well documented life story of Helen Nice to make a film or TV series out of it. All the elements for a first-class script are there: a beautiful and adventures woman, her competition against male racing drivers, her will to win and to be accepted in the social upper circles. But also love and seduction. With at the background the eccentric ‘Patron’ Ettore Bugatti, his son Jean and their blue racing cars. I have often talked about it with friends who work in TV or the film industry. And with some friends who are also Bugatti fanatics. But nobody seems suficiently interested in this subject. Gijsbert-Paul Berk, Airion, France

miranda seymour September 11, 2010 at 2:01 am

My congratulations to everybody who made this occasion possible: it meant so much too me to see the wonderful Helle Nice honoured as I had felt, ever since the long journey, inspired by Warner Dailey, into uncovering her lost life, than I can ever begin to say. Certainly, the 4 Septembre ceremony was the happiest – and the proudest – of my writing life.
Sheryl Greene has achieved so much. I never dreamed that my book would lead on to the founding of the wonderful Helle Nice Foundation. It is a magnificent concept, and I hope it continues to inspire and bring a spirit of community to all women in sport, everywhere.
Bravo, Sheryl; bravo to everybody at Sainte Mesme who worked with such commitment and imagination and love to make this happen. And bravo to Helene’s family for joining the ceremony and bringing something of her past to this moving and wonderful occasion.
As for the French edition of The Bugatti Queen: thank you so much, those who have commented her and who share my longing for this to happen: the final link in the process of restoring a great woman driver to the honour in her own country that she so deserves. It is my dearest wish. The book is going to the Frankfurt Book Fair this October – so – fingers crossed, please!
Miranda Seymour

Sheryl Greene September 15, 2010 at 11:41 pm

It is done – I would never have believed that it would be completed so quickly. The marker is in place in Ste-Mesme, France, and I have been a part of it. The speeches given, the champagne toasts made, the interviews done with the press. Throughout this process, I have been fortunate enough to meet or correspond via email with many of the “characters” in Miranda Seymour’s book – the celebrated Warner Dailey, who had the foresight to purchase some old scrapbooks out of a car boot, Miranda, Patricia Yongue, Mary Ann Dickinson, and Hellé Nice herself, via a Pathé “talkie” newsclip from January 1930. We were able to hear her speak about her record run at Montlhéry the previous month! The “French Contingent” for this project worked tirelessly to pull this off – Louis Dejean and Bruno Perrin, and their families, as well as the people of the Historical Society of Ste-Mesme and a newly formed group called the Souvenir Hellé Nice. My life is certainly different now because of this. To be associated with these fine people from all over the world has changed my outlook, my thinking, and my goals. The entire group, from top to bottom are an inspiration to me.
Helle’s name has been carved into the side of the crypt, and the plaque will be permanently installed for all who visit to see where our heroine lies. I understand from the Mayor of Aunay-sous-Auneau (the village Hellé was born in), there has been a street named in her honor. I cannot thank all those involved enough for your contributions to this. I am currently working on some other projects to keep Hellé’s name out front, and to bring out into the light more of the forgotten women race drivers in history.
Lastly, a huge “thank you” to Pete Vack here at Veloce Today. By VT jumping on the bandwagon early on, the project has gotten some incredible press, interested parties have found me, and Hellé Nice will be remembered.

Sallie Sompayrac September 24, 2010 at 7:13 am

Wonderful story and so great to see this dream become a reality for Sheryl! Congratulations to Sheryl on her success here.

Sallie
Murphy, NC

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