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Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend

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BY CARLO WOLFF

Helene Delangle lived fast and died old and penniless, the target of an unproven accusation that she was a Nazi collaborator. Delangle, better known as a race car driver who used the name Helle Nice (try “Hell on Ice” or “Elle est Nice” for association), expired while stewing in her fading memories as the toast of several continents and the person who made Bugatti cars famous in the 1920s. In several ways, she evokes her contemporary Josephine Baker, another “bad girl” who made good, against the odds, in a glamorous world.

Delangle is the complicated, sad heroine of Bugatti Queen, Miranda Seymour’s probe of a fast life and faster times. Seymour’s “creative reconstruction” of a shadowy existence, this biography aims to cast light on a woman who once was “the champion of the world” and is a fitting subject for the biographer of Robert Graves, Henry James and Ottoline Morrell, the Bloomsbury doyenne.

Born in rural France into a dysfunctional petit-bourgeois family, Delangle fled to Paris in her teens, eagerly embracing the postwar demimonde and making a name for herself as a beauty ready to plaster her image (and body) onto postcards (and lovers). Before she became a race car driver, she was a dancer. In the mid-’20s, Delangle joined Robert Lizet in dance performances that showcased her looks and his taste:

“Lizet had chosen his program with care, blending art with titillation. The music — a Chopin nocturne, a Brahms waltz, a dark and moody composition by Massenet followed by a frothy operetta song — was just original enough to make the audience feel clever for recognizing it. The numbers, all with a classical theme, were based upon celebrated dance models. The costumes, although scanty, were rich with texture, scraps of velvet and gauze which sparkled with bright beads of colored glass. Nudity, as Lizet explained to his new dancing partner, was vulgar only if one went in for the fruit-and-feather look, like the capering La Baker and her banana skirt; nakedness, at the upper end of the market which they aimed to please, was softly lit and always in the best of taste.”

More than just a flapper, Delangle was a bohemian. Joyously promiscuous, unremittingly sensual, she was an early feminist whose beauty made her a natural for dancing and whose fearlessness made her a natural for car racing. It was only in later life, when she began to lose her attractiveness and commercial clout, that the self-loathing that also drove her came to the fore.

But pleasure, more than sorrow, dominates this celebration of velocity in lifestyle and on the track. For most of her life, Delangle personified adrenaline and intoxication, living on the edge and reveling in audacity. This was one tough cookie: Not only did she survive several accidents — one in Sao Paulo in 1936 nearly killed her — Delangle came back stronger, even more eager to prove herself in a dangerous, male-dominated world.

Delangle did cut it close. Here, Seymour reconstructs a night in 1929, just before she was to compete in the Grand Prix Feminin behind the wheel of an Omega Six:

“Publicly, her confidence was unassailable; alone, she was scared. What if she failed? Late at night, in the quiet hours, she sat on a kitchen chair, cold cream smeared on her cheeks and neck, a cigarette clenched between her teeth. She narrowed her eyes until she could see the circuit, brace her body against each jolt of broken surface under the tires, tighten her fists and wrench the wheel until her shoulders ached, hold it here, hard, until she was safely around the bend, moving along the straight. Take rest, her friends told her; it’s not doing you good. And then she’d weaken and go drinking and come back with a handsome boy and she’d forget the irritation of his snuffles and snores as she lay wide-eyed in the darkness before dawn, listening for the rising whine of an engine, waiting for the wind to thump a fist against her face.”

Delangle won that race. She continued to win races through the 1930s and didn’t quit until 1951, when she dropped out of one in Nice, where she and her last lover, the handsome wastrel Arnaldo Binelli (yet another mechanic Delangle took to her bed), lived during the Nazi occupation.

Delangle never could dispel or disprove the accusation of Louis Chiron, a Monte Carlo race car driver, that she had been a Nazi collaborator. Nevertheless, Seymour suggests, defending a subject she clearly loves, the charge stemmed from Chiron’s jealousy: Delangle upstaged him at various ’30s races, both in beauty and prowess. Hammered by Chiron’s allegation, poleaxed by Binelli’s abandonment, she spent her final years in Nice in a cheerless apartment, where she died in September 1984.

Delangle’s life would have gone undocumented were it not for the purchase of a sports clipping album by Warner Bailey, an English eccentric, at a car-trunk sale in France in 1994. Bailey told his friend, Miranda Seymour, that Delangle’s story needed telling. Intrigued, Seymour followed the Delangle trail and, gifted at reporting and wonderfully imaginative, turned a long-forgotten publicity cache into history. Delangle drove like a dream. Bugatti Queen reads like one.

This review was published in the Chicago Sun-Times Dec. 19, 2004.

   

   

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