Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Camille du Gast

Camille, driving solo

Camille du Gast was probably the first internationally-known female racing driver. She was French, and drove in grands epreuves between 1901 and 1904.

Camille was born in 1868. She had a lifelong love of sports; as a child, she was labelled a tomboy. Contrary to prevailing ideas about the role of married women at the time, marriage did not slow her down one bit. Her husband, Jules Crespin, positively encouraged her in ballooning, shooting, equestrianism and a variety of winter sports. When she became the first woman to complete a parachute jump in 1895, he was with her all the way. She jumped from the gondola of a hot air balloon, and her parachute was proudly printed with the logo of Dufayel, a Paris department store of which Jules was a director. She always used her own family name in public, perhaps to avoid the suggestion that her feats of daring and sport were purely publicity stunts for her husband’s business.

Sadly, Jules died at the end of 1895, at the young age of 27. Camille was now a widow, albeit a very wealthy one. Marriage had not slowed her down, and the loss of her husband would not either. Some time between 1895 and 1901, she travelled across Morocco on horseback, alone.

She learned to drive in 1898, and became the second French woman to receive her brevet (license). She owned a Panhard and a Peugeot, one or both of which may have originally belonged to Jules. After watching the start of the 1900 Paris-Lyon race, she became interested in motor racing and was determined to try it herself.

In June, she entered the Paris-Berlin Trail, organised by the ACF. She was the only female starter in the main Trail, although a sister event was held that year, in which Hélène de Zuylen took part. Camille’s car was a Panhard et Levassor with 20hp. It was not a sports racer by any means, being a fairly standard road model. She ran it in the “Heavy Car” class for vehicles over 650kg. Her riding mechanic was Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, the Duke of Sagan. Like Camille, he was a habitué of the Paris social scene. The pair were close friends and possibly lovers.

The trail was a road race of 1105km, run in three stages. Camille and the Panhard ran well, and finishing in 33rd place overall, 29th in the Heavy Car class. There were relatively few dramas on the way.

Motor racing was still quite new in 1901, so the Paris-Berlin was her only event that year. She does not seem to have entered any of the hillclimbs or speed trials that were starting to appear across Europe. Camille’s activities for 1902 are not completely certain; some French sources claim that she entered the Paris-Vienna race, but she does not appear on any entry list I have found. It is possible that she attempted to start, but her entry was not accepted. This was the case with the New York-San Francisco race that was held the same year. The burgeoning motorsport authorities in the States were never keen on female drivers, as Joan Newton Cuneo would find out.

It is sometimes written that Camille spent much of 1902 on an “extended cruise” somewhere, although the destination is not mentioned. What is certain is that she spent some of this year clearing her name in the French courts, after it was claimed that she was the model for a painting by Henri Gervex, “La Femme au Masque”. The 1885 picture, which does look somewhat like Camille, is of a woman naked apart from a Venetian mask. The accusers appear to have been family members, and the case went on for a long time, despite Gervex and the model herself, Marie Renard, giving evidence.

Her next grand epreuve was the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, driving a De Dietrich prepared by the factory. The Paris-Madrid trail was halted at Bordeaux after a string of fatalities to both drivers and spectators. She was doing well in this "Race to Death", and had been running as high as sixth in her 30hp De Dietrich. Unfortunately, a stop to rescue her team-mate Phil Stead after an accident dropped her to 77th. He was trapped under his car, and Camille helped to free him.

Her drive impressed the Benz factory team enough to offer her a seat in a works car, but women were barred from competition by the ACF in 1904, so nothing became of it. The dreadful publicity that came with the Paris-Madrid deaths probably had a part in this; the public outrage over the death of a female driver would be considerable. The ACF had one eye on protecting the future of motorsport, although one eye was clearly on keeping women “in their place”. The reason given for the ban was “feminine nervousness”.

After her four-wheeled career came to its abrupt end, she turned to racing motor boats, mostly around France. Her battling performance in the 1904 Toulon-Algiers boat race, which was abandoned due to atrocious conditions, lived up to her nickname in her native France: l'Amazone.

It is sometimes claimed that Camille made a return to terrestrial motorsport in 1905, taking on Dorothy Levitt in a match race, as part of the Brighton Speed Trials. In the available documentation, there is no mention of Camille taking part, although Dorothy and several other women appear on the entry lists. Any race that they had must have been organised privately. Camille was racing one of her boats at the time, and reporting of the two female protagonists at two separate events may have become confused.

After her enforced retirement from high-speed activities, she trained horses, gave piano recitals and founded the French equivalent of the RSPCA, as well as a charity that provided healthcare to disadvantaged women and children, both in France and North Africa. She retained an affinity with the region, and travelled there extensively, sometimes writing about her experiences. Her concern for other women did not just extend to poorer women needing medical assistance; she was a member of, and contributor to, the early French feminist movement, campaigning for the vote and equal rights.

This new, socially-conscious Camille still enjoyed action and danger, however. In 1930, she organised a protest against a bullfight at Melun, in which a group, co-ordinated by Camille, jumped into the bullring, blew whistles and set off smoke bombs.

Earlier, in 1910, she had been involved in action and danger of a less welcome kind, when her own daughter tried to have her murdered, for financial gain. She survived unscathed.

It is the charitable part of her life that is most remembered in France, although her sporting activities are still recognised.

She died in 1942.  

(Image source unknown)

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