The strange story of Helle Nice.
Helle Nice: The forgotten story.
By 1984 Helle Nice was an old lady. She lived in a rather squalid room in Paris. She knew that she hadn’t got long to live. She’d been born in at the same time as the century. She had her memories and not much more. She kept her mementoes in an old tin trunk under her shabby bed. Nowadays, she survived thanks to charity. But it didn’t seem too long ago that she was the most famous and wealthy woman in France.
She had enjoyed wonderful affairs with the most handsome men. She’d been the toast of the town. She’d enjoyed her wealth to the full with luxurious homes, couture fashions, fabulous furs, wonderful jewellery – even her own yacht.
Yet now, in her old age, she was virtually a down and out. How did that happen?
Who was Helle Nice?
She was born as Helene Delangle. In her time she worked as a dancer, an acrobat and a nude model. She was an advocate of women’s right, a mountain climber, skier and racing driver and …. some said …. a Gestapo agent during the Second World War.
Don’t you love the photograph on the right? This was the sort of work that she first did when she left her home in rural France and moved to Paris. She was an adventurous girl and Paris, she felt, would suit her far better than the tiny village in which she spent her childhood.
Needless to say, as an attractive girl who had no problems being seen in the sort of pose you see here, she had no problems finding work. She became popular dancer – in addition to her obvious attractions, she had a wonderful sense of showmanship and a zest for life and adventure.
This led to her career as a Grand Prix racing driver and she became known as ‘the fastest woman in France’. Motor racing is still dangerous but when Helle was enjoying her racing career it was much more so.
And Helle did enjoy herself – she made the most of her young life by taking lovers. If they were married, she didn’t worry about it. If a man was attractive and appealed to her, that was the main thing.
Famously she had an affair with Philippe de Rothschild but she wasn’t just attracted to the aristocratic and wealthy even though she began to move in their society circles. She left her nude modelling days behind her, studied ballet (or so it’s believed) and became a more serious dancer being in demand all over Europe. She became even more well known and her fame – and her wealth – grew.
But her dancing career came to an end when she had an accident when skiing. Undeterred and ready for a new challenge she decided to find her thrills on the stunt circuits and wooden speedways that were cropping up. Her stunt driving and motor racing skills led to a tour of America.
But it was a dangerous business. She saw several colleagues killed on the tracks but was undeterred. In 1933 she raced in the Monza Grand Prix, a support race of the Italian Grand Prix, in which three drivers were killed.
By 1936, her lover was also her mechanic, a man called Arnaldo Binelli. Together they went to Brazil so that she could take part in the Grand Prix in Sao Paulo. The crowd favourite was local hero, Manuel de Teffé. As the final lap of the race began, he was in second place but Helle was catching him quickly. The finish line was just twenty yards away.
Arnaldo was filming the race and later said that a hay bale, the only real ‘protection’ that the crowds had from the cars, was pushed forwards onto the track. A policeman tried to retrieve it – just as Helle’s car came thundering to the scene.
She swerved the car to avoid the man. The car ploughed into the spectators and Helle was thrown out. Many were injured and six people lost their lives. Helle’s lifeless body was laid amongst them. She was thought to be dead. However, she was in a coma and taken to hospital. The distraught Arnaldo was told that she wouldn’t survive.
But Helle was a survivor and a fighter. She received terrible injuries but recovered after a lengthy hospital stay. No-one blamed her for the tragedy- it was unavoidable – and in fact, the strength she had shown it surviving her injuries meant that she was even more popular with the people of Brazil.
The Second World War soon put a stop to motor racing though.
Helle had returned to France,although during the war years it was occupied by the Germans. With Arnaldo, she lived mostly in Paris but sometimes ventured to her home in Nice. Needless to say,she was still wealthy but the war years cut into her savings enormously. Once the war was over, she resumed her career but it was dealt a blow in 1949.
That year, she entered the Monte Carlo Rally. Before the event took place, a huge reception took place in honour of the finest drivers of the day. Helle was invited, naturally. She had entered the rally with a female co-driver, a woman named Anne Itier,when a man approached them. His name was Louis Chiron. Like Helle, he was a well known driver and he was on his home turf, Monte Carlo was where he lived.
Loudly, and to the entire crowd, he berated Helle. He claimed that she had been an agent for the Gestapo during the war. He publicly announced that the organisers should ban her from the event for this traitorous behaviour. There was nothing Helle could do. There was only one person who she could appeal to and that was the chief organiser of the rally- himself a Monte Carlo resident and a longtime, close friend of Louis Chiron’s.
She wrote to Chiron asking him to apologise for his remarks – or to prove them, which he couldn’t, of course – but her letter was answered by a stranger saying that Chiron was abroad and couldn’t be contacted.
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.
But this put an end to her career. She was branded as a traitor to her country in front of her fellow drivers, local dignitaries, celebrities and sponsors. Word soon spread and rumours persisted that she had betrayed her country. Who knows what Chiron’s motives were? Maybe, like many men of the day, he was jealous of Helle because of her success and fame. Maybe he resented it. Or perhaps he was mistaking her for another French female Grand Prix driver, Violette Morris, who was a Gestapo agent.
More bad luck was to befall Helle. By now she was approaching fifty years old. Her lover, Arnaldo, had been with her for fifteen or so years. But he was younger than her and started to look for pastures new. He had relationships with other women and Helle had been useful to him when she’d been rich but now that wealth had dwindled. He told her that he wanted to go into business and needed to borrow funds. Helle gave him what was left of her savings. It will come as no surprise to you to know that he disappeared – with her money.
Helle was left alone and penniless, which was how she remained until her death in poverty in 1984.