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MARCH 26, 2004

The Bugatti Queen

The Bugatti Queen

by Miranda Seymour

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 300pp, £15.99

ISBN 0-7432-3146-5

At the end of her book on Mariette Helene Delangle, the mysterious racing driver "Helle Nice", Miranda Seymour explains that "the story will not I am afraid satisfy the experts". And she says that she would like it be become "the ground from which more detailed researches can be undertaken".

The story of how this book was written is in itself fascinating for it began when a friend of the author purchased an album of old newspaper cuttings in a market in the south of France. The dealer remarked that he had seen another and four months later this too came to light. The two were reunited and sold on to the owner of one of the Bugattis that Helle Nice had raced. Seymour learned of the find a few years later and set about putting the story together. She tracked down a Bugatti collector who revealed that he had sold a trunk full of other letters, cuttings and photographs. This turned up in a garage: a treasure trove for a professional writer.

And yet Helle Nice had not left enough to tell the whole story.

The book is but a jigsaw puzzle about the life of this extraordinary woman, who started out as a model and exotic dancer and hooked up with a gang of (by all accounts lusty) racing drivers in the early 1920s. Unable to break into the sport at that time, she pursued her dancing career before finally turning back to racing when she injured a leg while skiing.

What is not disputed is that she used her beauty to get what she wanted in racing. The list of her lovers would fill a Grand Prix grid or two. Her other passion was racing and she raced well, both in Europe and in America, until a terrible accident in Brazil in 1936 when a straw bale somehow appeared in her path on a high speed section of road, as the excited crowd edged forward to watch her attempt to pass the man in front. She survived because when she was thrown from her car, she hit a man standing beside the track. Their heads clashed, killing him but saving her.

While she was still recovering war came and she spent the war years living off the compensation paid after the crash. She wanted to revive her career but then came a mysterious but devastating accusation from Louis Chiron that she had been a collaborator. It was never substantiated but the damage had been done. In the 1950s she was ruined when her longtime lover lost all her money and left her for another woman. For some years she carried a loaded pistol in the hope that she would bump into her old lover.

In her final years she lived in a sordid apartment in Nice, supported by a charity which looked after former theatre performers who had fallen on hard times. She died in poverty in 1984. Her belongings were sold off by the landlord.

Miranda Seymour's task was unenviable and on the whole the book is well researched although on one or two occasions she has unwittingly perpetuated errors made by others in previous publications. The overall effect, however, is a fascinating book about one of the most extraordinary racing drivers there has ever been.

It is just a shame we don't know more.