Racing legend's story proves absorbing, but frustrating


December 12, 2004|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bugatti Queen: In search of a French Racing Legend

By Miranda Seymour. Random House. 352 pages. $24.95.

In her introduction, the author doesn't show us the photographs.

Later she will, but at first, she simply describes them. One shows a beautiful woman wearing no clothes, holding a white dove as she throws her head back for the camera. Another shows the same woman, in white coveralls and a helmet, her face serious as she sits behind the wheel of an elite Bugatti sportscar. In another the woman is once again on a race track, only this time she's a mere blur, a tiny figure above a cloud of dust, flung from a car spinning out of control.

This is how Miranda Seymour, a deft and elegant storyteller, draws us into her biography of Helle Nice (1900-1984), the daring and alluring French driver who was once the fastest woman in the world. You don't have to know anything about cars, or car racing, or 1930s France to get absorbed in the drama and pathos of this forgotten champion's life.

Here is the story of a woman who transformed herself from nude cabaret dancer to Parisian music hall starlet to the most famous female racer of her day, only to see her legacy tarnished by a rival driver's accusation that she was a Nazi collaborator. She was a fearless, skilled competitor who was often the only woman in her racing events, and an attention-hungry performer known for her glamorous looks and frequent love affairs. She spent much of her life surrounded by wealth, but died impoverished and alone, her ashes relegated to an unmarked grave.

You don't get better material than that, and in many ways, Seymour - an experienced biographer whose previous subjects include Mary Shelley and Henry James - makes the most of it.

Using photographs, letters, and other recently discovered relics, (the author describes her treasure hunt for primary source material in a fascinating afterword), Seymour takes us into Helle Nice's world, a world where Bugatti, Renault and Alfa Romeo were not just brand names, but men. It was a dangerous world - many of her closest friends and romantic partners lost their lives on the track - and in riveting action scenes, Seymour puts the reader behind the wheel, feeling the grit hit Helle's goggles and the wheels jump and skitter as she rounds the track at 120 miles hour, the spectators' faces flashing by like "a ring of startled moons."

What turns out to be the most unsatisfying aspect of this book is foreshadowed in an author's note before the first chapter. Despite her thorough research, Seymour writes, many aspects of her heroine's life are unknown to her. So, "in the interest of creating a narrative that does justice to her remarkable story, there are occasions in the pages that follow where I have had to employ some creative reconstruction."

This reconstruction, rather than enhance the story, often detracts from it. Seymour's speculations about Helle's thoughts and experiences - often signaled with the word "perhaps" or "it is likely" - are distractions that pull the reader out of the narrative. More disturbing are the embellishments buried in footnotes at the back of the book. For example, an early scene where three-year-old Helle witnesses her first road race turns out - according to a footnote - to be mere conjecture, based on the fact that many people in Helle's town went to watch the nearby race.

It's better when Seymour simply admits outright that little or no record of a particular period of Helle's life exists. Among those periods, unfortunately, are the years she spent living in France - sometimes quite comfortably - under German occupation. (Meanwhile, Seymour notes, some of Helle's racing competitors sacrificed their lives for the French resistance). The lack of detail is particularly frustrating, in light of the importance given to the accusation - apparently unfounded, according to the author - that she was a Nazi sympathizer during the war.

A reader caught up in Helle's compelling life can't help but feel somewhat cheated by the missing material, however apologetic the author seems, and with so many gaps in the chronology, it's hard in the end to feel completely satisfied - as if you've taken a thrilling ride to a disappointing destination.

Lisa Pollak, a former Sun features writer, is a producer for the public radio program This American Life.

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