NASCAR may now be a virtual byword for the hard-working, God-fearing red-state interior, but auto racing began as very much an upper-crust pastime. Hellé Nice (born Mariette Hélène Delangle in 1900 in a forlorn French village near Chartres) helped to seal its repute with her playgirl élan. But the dancer-stripper-skier-driver eventually succumbed to an obscurity she found much harder to endure than her youthful infamy. Two decades after Hélène’s death in a dingy Nice apartment at age 84, British biographer Miranda Seymour has pieced her story together from discarded scrapbooks. Because of the many holes in the record of Hélène’s life, a good deal of Seymour’s brisk biography belongs to the category of speculative nonfiction recently epitomized by Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. It works here, thanks to Seymour’s steadfast honesty in reconstruction. Still, on the most controversial point of Hélène’s life—her friendly relations with Germans and Italians while comfortably sitting out the Occupation—Seymour gives the racer a pass. But given that Hélène’s career foundered in the wake of a casual accusation of spying, some retrospective sympathy may be in order. Hélène’s promiscuity, competitive zeal, and insatiable vanity are forgivable because they are so human. And they are irresistible for being superhuman—especially considering the long odds against surviving a twenties racing career at all.
By Miranda Seymour.
Random House. $24.95. 352 pages.