13 September 2010

Speeches from the Hellé Nice Celebration

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 -
Merci beaucoup!

From Patricia Lee Yongue, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of English, University of Houston, USA

President, International Motorsports History Section/Society of Automotive Historians

Mr. Demettre, members of the Delangle family, ladies and gentlemen: I am extremely proud to represent the University of Houston and the International Motorsports History Section of the Society of Automotive Historians at this remarkable event. I thank Mr. Louis De Jean, Mr. Bruno Perrin, and all those who have contributed so much time and energy to its production, and I thank you, the audience, for your acknowledgment of Hellé Nice.

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 France—and for the sake of adventure. It is appropriate to this celebration, therefore, that I and my colleagues tell the stories of how our lives became entwined with Hellé Nice’s and how she became an adventure for all of us.

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 Paris. I kept my enthusiasm for motorsports quiet, for I learned quickly at the University of Houston that fast cars were not appropriate vehicles or interests for lady English professors. Once I got a little older and wiser and braver, however, I began to campaign for a Woman’s Studies program at the university. I determined to reveal and express my passion for auto racing as well. Neither project was at all popular with the university, so I did have to engage in a bit of daring. First, I joined the Society of Automotive Historians and eventually founded the International Motorsports History chapter. In 2000, the Society of Automotive Engineers asked me to present an essay on the history of women in motorsports at the annual SAE World Congress in Detroit, Michigan. At this time, I discovered Parisian Camille du Gast, Czech Elisabeth Junek, and Hellé Nice. I also happily discovered that Mme. Junek and Mlle. Nice fit into the period of literature that I most love, the 1920s and 1930s. But Hellé Nice was the first woman, as far as I could determine, who had to make a living in auto racing without the support of personal wealth such as Elisabeth Junek enjoyed.

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.

Vive la France! Vive l’esprit Hellé Nice!

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.

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