13 September 2010
Annie Soisbault, French rally champion, Sheryl and Robert Delangle,3rd cousin of Hellé Nice
She was hard to deny in life, and her spirit is just as hard to deny in death. How else can you explain the draw this woman has, who was defamed over 60 years ago, and buried in a way that assured she would be forgotten, only to find that 26 years later there is a ceremony to celebrate her life and achievements, and to acknowledge her life publicly so that she will never be forgotten again?
Today ends the first, and possibly most important chapter in my part of the story of how Hellé Nice found me –
Several years ago, I found a hardcover book on a sale table. The now famous photograph of a smiling woman atop a race car was intriguing. I turned it over and read the reviews... interesting, I thought. Five dollars? What have I got to lose? Little did I know how much I had to gain when I picked up that book!
As I read the words, I was captured, thrilled, saddened, and ultimately angry. I could not understand how this could happen to a woman so bold and strong!
The last paragraph of “The Bugatti Queen “ reads - “My wish, above all, is that her extraordinary life should not be forgotten. A heroine who rose from obscurity, and who now lies in an unmarked grave, deserves to be honored and recalled as she was once described, as a champion of the world”. These heartfelt words by Miranda Seymour were read by many. Most readers agreed with Miranda, saying “yes, she’s right; Hellé Nice should not be forgotten.”
Hellé Nice made sure I understood those words that so touched my heart and they became my call to action. The actions that have followed up to this point have been serendipitous, a path planned all along for me to walk.
As I put the book down, I went to my computer, and Googled Miranda Seymour. I sent her an email to tell her how much I had enjoyed the book. In my first email to Miranda on March 16, 2008, I began by saying how fortunate I was to be reading the book and that I echo her sentiment in the introduction that “I shall miss her”. I also asked in that email if she knew if there was a foundation in Hellé’s honor. I was not really expecting a reply, even though I asked her that night to “please return email”. How bold that was! Miranda replied the next day to that email, and in October of that year, 5 years after “The Bugatti Queen “ was published, I met Miranda in London face to face…I will add at this point that she was still not sure of my intentions, but met me anyway…. I had promised Hellé – “NO” was not an option. No matter what she thought, Miranda continued to send me names of those to contact to help….
Every instance of contact with people has met with no resistance. I have done internet radio interviews, interviews in print, and sent out countless emails to gather support for this project, all met with favorable replies. My friends here in Sainte Mesme have been contacting many more people throughout Europe. There has been a great outpouring of support, as you can see from the attendance here today!
Hellé has provided me with broad based support. There is an artist here in France, Xavier Lavictoire, who donated 3 prints of Hellé Nice he created to auction . Another artist from Portugal did 2 original pieces of art, and sent them as well. Funds continue to be raised to help pay for the marker and ceremony.
I have met some of the most wonderful people imaginable, many of which are here today – Miranda, Dr. Patricia Lee Yongue, who is a supporter, and has given countless hours on the phone to answer all my questions on Hellé Nice and numerous other women racers, Louis Dejean and his wife Elisabeth, Bruno Perrin and his wife Valerie and those involved with the Souvenir Hellé Nice, members of the Delangle family, and Mary Ann Dickinson, from California, who was so moved by the story of Hellé Nice, she became a supporter, and flew in for only a few days to be here at this ceremony, as well as many, many new friends today. These people have helped bring the memory of Hellé Nice back into the open. All here today share a passion for doing what is right, to finally honor this beautiful, talented and courageous woman for her achievements . Achievements she found important to pursue in a man’s world. She stands beside me today as an inspiration, to do what I feel is important and to make every day an adventure!
I thank you for being here, for bringing all these wonderful automobiles and flowers, and for keeping the memory of Hellé Nice alive in your hearts and minds for all these years! It is a fitting tribute and honor to a woman who shall now stand as a heroine and a pioneer in women’s motorsports.
May she here now rest in peace -
From Patricia Lee Yongue, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English,
Mr. Demettre, members of the Delangle family, ladies and gentlemen: I am extremely proud to represent the
We come together to honor Hellé Nice in death not only by restoring her identity here in Ste Mesme, but also by celebrating her life. We celebrate especially her racing life, which she proudly carried out for the honor of
As a professor of literature, for whom reading, writing, and talking are the primary motions, I would seem to have no natural connection to the daring young woman who raced Bugattis and Alfas. But it so happens that I found a soul mate in Hellé Nice—for some happy and some sad shared experiences. I started out life as a dancer (but not a cabaret dancer!), and I always loved cars, fast cars. My father loaned me cars, but I never had enough money to race, which is a very expensive sport. I also loved literature, a much less expensive pursuit, and because of the influence of beloved teachers and some family discord, I decided to become a literature professor far away from home.
My doctoral dissertation was a study of the American novelist and francophile, Willa Cather, and my greater literary specialty is Americans in
Then I discovered Miranda Seymour, whose literary biographies I had already known about. It delighted me that she was writing on Hellé Nice, and I was curious to know how she diverted her interests from literature to racing. After a long exchange of emails, we met finally at a Retromobile, and she began sharing her ideas, her research, and her manuscript with me. When I read the first chapter of Bugatti Queen and learned that the elderly Hellé Nice, after so remarkable career, was left impoverished, abandoned by her family, and forced to give away her beloved cat Minette, I knew I had to make her part of my ongoing study of women as well as of interwar racing.
And then I met Sheryl Greene, who had likewise been inspired by Miranda’s story of Hellé Nice, and so inspired that she established a foundation in the lady’s honor. From the moment I met her, she has been speaking and writing about her plan to create a marker for Hellé Nice’s grave. Now we are all together to witness the fulfillment of that plan, that dream.
Speech by Robert Delangle, 4th September, 2010,
for the inauguration of the memorial headstone for Hellé Nice
(née Mariette Delangle), at her tomb in St Mesme, on the outskirts of Paris.
If today I bear witness to our illustrious ancestor, it’s simply because I am the sole member of the family to have known her. The memory I have of Mariette, as she was known to us in the family, is one of a very elegant lady, wearing a lovely floral patterned dress, as was fashionable in the 1940’s, arriving unexpectedly one day at the family farm, accompanied by her sister Solange – I can’t give an exact date, but it must have been at the end of 1942 or early in 1943. I was busy with my school homework when she came into the living room, and I remember, that she touched my cheek as she asked if Marguerite, my mother, was there. Moved by the presence of such a beautiful lady, I ran to the cowshed where my mother was busy milking the cows, and, out of breath, I said “Quick Mummy, come home, Mariette and Solange are here!”.
When my mother came in, she was embarassed by her own workaday appearance in front of those two Parisian ladies in their Sunday best. Mariette exchanged a few pleasantries with her, and then asked if the farmyard hens had been laying well. They must have been, because my mother immediately wrapped up a dozen fresh eggs in newspaper. After an exchange of family news, our two cousins left, and I can tell you that since that impromptu visit by Mariette to the Delangle family home at Levesville-La-Chenard, we had no further news of her.
The reason I was so excited about Mariette’s visit to our home was that I knew that she was a great champion of motor car racing, although I was unaware of the details of her exploits. It has to be said that, in the 30’s and 40’s, in our small village, we received little external news. Television didn’t exist, and we didn’t yet have a radio. The regional newspaper provided the only source of information, but, let’s be honest, this was fairly limited. If we learned of Mariette’s successes, it was thanks to our cousin Pierre Lasne, who one day arrived at our home with an automobile racing magazine in which Mariette appeared at the steering wheel of a racing car. I couldn’t tell you where he found this article, which was absolutely extra-ordinary for us.
What is certain is that our family always had good relations with hers, as I distinctly remember the visits for her mother, Estelle, and above all, those of her sister Solange. Now and then her brother Henri arrived at our house in a sports car similar to those that Mariette drove, indeed perhaps one of her former racing cars.
To summarise now how we re-discovered our illustrious cousin’s history, I must mention that it was our cousin Lucie, present here today, who told me that the Mairie of Aunay-sous-Auneau had information concerning her, information that the mayor of this village, birth place of Mariette, kindly passed on to me, and which included a map which showed a street in the village named in her honour. Following this, Sophie, our “Irish” daughter, with whom I had by sheer chance spoken of Mariette’s story, then worked tenaciously on the subject and found very interesting material via the internet. In fact she became the co-ordinator of the different aspects of the research. Our daughter Caroline also contributed to the research and distribution of related information.
That is what I wanted to say in the name of the entire Delangle family, but now I would like to express our special and heartfelt thanks to Madame Miranda Seymour for the enormous amount of work she carried out, extremely difficult research developed over a very long period of time. I would also like to express our gratitude to Madame Sheryl Greene, instigator of the foundation dedicated to recognising the achievement and honouring the name of Hellé Nice, which was her adopted name as a champion racing car driver. And it’s also thanks to Madame Sheryl Greene that we have the pleasure of participating today in this extraordinary celebration. Thank you, Madame, thanks again.
With the inauguration of this plaque, today represents a magnificent and indisputable recognition of Mariette-Hélène Delangle, Hellé Nice, for all posterity. A thousand thanks, ladies, for everything you have done for the honour and glory of our cousin, the great French champion of automobile racing.
Hellé Nice Marker Unveiled at Sainte-Mesme, France
by PETE on SEPTEMBER 8, 2010
Reposted from VELOCE TODAY
(Let me preface this by saying that others have written about this ceremony much better than I. I was so involved, and so close, that I do not yet have words for what has occured. I will post soon with my take on the events of these few days, I promise - Sheryl)
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.
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.”
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 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.)
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.