Helle Nice: The forgotten story
Paris 1984: The sad old lady made her painful way up the steep stairs to her tiny, squalid apartment. Although it was the summer, she was cold; she was always cold.
She doubted that she had long for this world, she'd been born with the century.
Everything she owned, mostly mementos from the past, was kept in a battered tin trunk. She lived on charity now but once she had been wealthy and the most famous woman in France. Now, no-one knew her name.
Oh, the fabulous parties she'd attended. The acclaim. The newspaper reports and the trophies outlining her success. The celebrities she'd mingled with. Her beautiful homes and furniture, fabulous cars, furs and jewels, her yacht.
Oh, the fascinating lovers, the charming men, the passionate affairs...
Who was Helle Nice?
Helle, born Helene Delangle, was a nude model, dancer, acrobat, accomplished skier and mountain climber, fearless racing driver, champion of women's rights and allegedly, a Gestapo agent.
The demure photographs you see above are hiding her figure under unflattering clothes but to see her in the first job she took when she left the rural village of her childhood and moved to Paris, . (Warning: Very tasteful but she is wearing only a chiffon scarf).
She was loved for her lithe figure, her flashing smile, her sense of showmanship and her devil-may-care attitude towards life. She was bold and fearless, willing to risk her life to achieve thrills and ultimately became known as 'the fastest woman in the world' due to her speed on the racetrack - this in a time when racing drivers were killed with appalling regularity.
She had no hesitation in taking lovers, not necessarily single men and not necessarily one at a time.
Helle Nice's loves & losses
Helle's lovers varied from the aristocratic Philippe de Rothschild to auto mechanics. She had plenty of opportunity to meet men from society. After her nude modelling and exotic dancing days, she soon became known as a more serious dancer (it's thought that she studied ballet at some time during her early years in Paris) and toured Europe becoming more well known, more in demand and more wealthy.
When her dancing career ended due to a skiing injury she blithely moved on to auto racing. She toured America performing daredevil driving stunts on the often-lethal dirt tracks and wooden speed bowls.
She saw many of her colleagues die on the track but her own tragedies were yet to come.
In 1936, Helle travelled with her lover, mechanic Arnaldo Binelli, to Brazil to take part in the Grand Prix at Sao Paulo.
The huge crowd was rooting for their Brazilian hero and on the final lap of the race, he was in second place with Helle catching him quickly. Second place was in sight as she turned the final corner.
It's still not known precisely what happened but Binelli, who was recording the race on film, said that a 'protective' hay bale was pushed onto the track by the excited crowd and a policeman tried to retrieve it just as Helle's car appeared round the corner.
You can see the result in the photograph above.
Helle was thrown out of the car right on top of the policeman. The car, driverless, ploughed into the crowd.
Six people were killed and Helle's body was laid out alongside them. But she was still alive. She was taken into hospital in a deep coma and Arnaldo was told that it was unlikely that she would survive.
The Second World War
Despite the extent of her injuries, Helle did survive, although she suffered greatly thinking about the people her car had killed (and over thirty were injured). When she had been thrown out of the car she had landed on top of the policeman. He didn't survive.
She was absolved of blame though and her resilience made her a hero in the eyes of the Brazilian people. The following year, she tried to return to racing but the sport was soon halted by the war.
Helle and Arnaldo - her relationship with him seemed to be exclusive at the time - lived for part of the war in Paris and part in Nice. She was still considered to be a wealthy woman but naturally, her savings began to dwindle.
After the war though, she was determined to rekindle her racing career. She entered the Monte Carlo Rally in 1949.
Enter Louis Chiron: The final blow
Helle was partnering another woman in the rally; the first to take place after the war. Prior to the event, the organisers held a grand reception to honour the best drivers.
As Helle chatted with her co-driver, Anne Itier, a man approached the pair. This was Louis Chiron, a well-known driver and a Monte Carlo native - therefore a local hero.
He denounced Helle to the entire assembly, proclaiming loudly that she had been Gestapo agent during the war. He declared loudly that the rally organisers should have not allowed the 'traitor' to enter.
Helle was dumbfounded. She had no recourse. The only person she could complain to about Chiron's behaviour was the rally organiser, a close friend of Chiron's.
She threatened to sue if she did not receive a written retraction but was simply informed, by letter, that Chiron could not be located as he was visiting England.
But the damage was done.
Was Helle Nice a Gestapo agent?
Chiron produced no evidence and disappeared after his accusation, No-one could provide and evidence, written or circumstantial, to show that his accusations had any basis in fact. Yes, she'd had a couple of German friends (fellow drivers) before the war but so had all her colleagues.
But the accusation had been made publicly in front of various officials, sponsors, drivers and celebrities. Helle was shunned and never raced again.
Another lost love
Her relationship with Binelli had lasted through her accident and through the war. But by the next year, the cracks were beginning to show. He was several years younger than his now fifty year old mistress.
He 'borrowed' the remainder of her savings to go into business with a French businessman. The man, and the money, disappeared.
By this time, money had been the main reason he had been living with Helle - he regularly saw other women - and now that the money was gone, there was no reason to stay.
Helle was left alone and penniless, which was how she remained until her death in 1984.
This book, which I where I learned about Helle, is only available used. It appears to be out of print but I still recommend it highly.The author explains that when she started to look into the driver's life, there was hardly any information available. She recounts her investigations and how she discovered the contents of the tin trunk, the one where Helle kept all her mementoes. This is a fascinating story and you can grab a bargain copy using the buy button.
© 2014 Jackie Jackson