Hélène Dutrieu: on two wheels or in the air, still a pioneer

Every Saturday with RetroNews, the BNF press site, a look back at a sport history as told by the press of the time.

From cycling to aviation, via moped stunts or comedy theater, Hélène Dutrieu is one of those reckless sportswomen who manage to break down barriers regardless of the discipline, without history, always recognizing them. Born in 1877 in Tournai, the Belgian was passionate about cycling as a child. Towards the end of the XIXe century, a women’s movement then chased two-wheeled records. Hélène Dutrieu wants to be part of it. Having become professional, she thus beats the women’s hour record in 1895: 30 kilometers.

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We find the trace of Hélène Dutrieu for the first time in the press the previous year. In the pages of Bike, “Daily velocipedia journal”, the “Valiant cyclist from Lille” challenge “All the ladies cyclists of France” : run 10 kilometers in one hour at the Lille velodrome. “This challenge is to be taken up within eight days”, adds Dutrieu.

Her name will be found more regularly in the newspapers of the time from 1898: that year she won an unofficial world speed championship in Ostend, Belgium, then the English competition “The 12 Days Race” and , finally, begins a season on the Berlin velodromes. July 15, 1898, the bike reports the victory of Hélène Dutrieu over the German cyclist Paul Mündner. Party with a handicap of 3000 meters “Offered free of charge to its little competitor”, comment the bike in a rather paternalistic tone, he would not have won them back before the finish line, after a 30-kilometer race on the Friedenau velodrome.

At the turn of the twentiethe century, Hélène Dutrieu abandons her career as a professional cyclist. She first opened a fashion house in her hometown of Tournai. Without success. She then turns to the music hall, notably performing aerobatics on a bicycle or moped.

“The human arrow”

His debut on stage at the Dejazet theater, in Paris, in the play Mossieu the Mayor are commented in the bike of January 27, 1903: “The gracious artist has achieved real success in the role of Hélène, well done for her, since she arrived on stage … by bicycle, with the mastery that velodrome enthusiasts know her.” The journalist collects his impressions when leaving the stage: “I’m very happy, I didn’t have the jitters. I didn’t ask for more. I will now work seriously. And I hope to shine in the front row soon. ”

During those years, attracted to the air, she became a stunt performer. She performs a 15-meter-long jump on a bicycle, notably at the Olympia in Paris. This number will give it a nickname: “The human arrow”. Dutrieu does loops, by bicycle, moped, then by automobile. Before an accident during one of these stunts, in Berlin in 1904, sent him eight months to the hospital. She resumed her acting career for a few years in Paris, at the Théâtre des Capucines, des Mathurins or Porte Saint-Martin, before setting out again for other intrepid adventures.

“Sensational” aviator

In 1908, the Clément-Bayart company brought out a little cuckoo called Young lady and is looking for a valiant pilot to perform tests. Hélène Dutrieu introduces herself: ultra-light, she also has the advantage of not being afraid of anything. She has proven it in the past. The following year, she therefore took flying lessons with aviation pioneer Maurice Farman in Mourmelon, in the Marne.

The Figaro of November 2, 1909 announces the reconversion of Hélène Dutrieu: «Mlle Hélène Dutrieu, who excelled in exercises of unprecedented intrepidity, will pursue aviation. ” Further on, he predicts: “Brave, resolute, skilful, she will have a sensational career in aviation.”

The newspaper l’Auto the poster in photo in its edition of December 31, 1909, indicating in caption that“Yesterday she made her debut as a student pilot at the Issy-les-Moulineaux airfield”.

In 1910, Hélène Dutrieu became the first woman in the world to fly a plane with a passenger. As reported Echo of Paris September 3: “Beautiful feat of a Belgian aviator. Mlle Hélène Dutrieu rose this morning, around 6 a.m., in Blakenberghe, with a passenger, and went around the belfry of Bruges, ten kilometers away, flying at a height of about 500 meters. Mlle Hélène Dutrieu thus conquered as a pilot the record for duration, altitude, flight with passenger and cross-country… ”

The following month, we find her in an interview in the magazine Femina, 1is October 1910. “I’m risking my life, obviously. But if I don’t come back, too bad! “ : All the assurance of Hélène Dutrieu is there.

In December, she won the Femina Cup of the Aero-Club de France. This trophy is awarded to the aviator who completed the longest flight through the countryside during the year, as described in the newspaper The radical of December 6, 1910. It is thanks to her return flight Etampes-Orléans, 60.8 km in 1:09, that she succeeds Marie Marvingt. «Mlle Hélène Dutrieu is a very skilful pilot, indicates the log. She also had all the qualities required to make an excellent aviator, having been once a star of “looping the loop” and other “death jumps” which require, one can easily imagine, a certain dose of composure. “.

The following year, Hélène Dutrieu beat 14 male drivers to win the Coppa del Re in Florence, Italy. After many other victories in the United States in particular, we find her in 1912 at the helm of the first seaplane. She is the first woman to pilot such a machine. As stated Gallic of July 3 in a laudatory article, «Mlle Hélène Dutrieu preaches feminism in her own way, and this way is so brave, and so graceful at the same time, that it would be a bad grace not to be persuaded. ” She then demonstrated her hydro-airplane in Enghien-les-Bains.

The press does not mention it but she was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor on January 9, 1913 by the French government for her performances on French planes. In Belgium, the governor grants him the honorary title of officer of Leopold.

Paramedic then journalist

Her career as an aviator ended with the start of the First World War: she enlisted as an ambulance attendant with the Red Cross. Her fame was such at this period that she was asked by General Gallieni to give propaganda conferences in the United States. Returning to France in 1917, she took charge of the Val-de-Grâce field hospital.

In 1922, at 45, she married the mayor of Coulommiers, Pierre Mortier, at the same time obtaining French nationality. New turning point in an already busy career: Mortier is the editor of the newspaper Gil Blas, which he has been trying to revive since 1921 after its publication ceased during the war. He entrusted his wife with the management of numerous magazines. Hélène Dutrieu therefore becomes a journalist, even if we find in 1914 her signature at the bottom of articles of Gil Blas. As on April 16 of that year: it tells in two columns the Grande Quinzaine de Monaco, an air rally bringing together several European pilots.

After the death of her husband in 1946, she remained a passionate promoter of aviation, notably becoming vice-president of the women’s section of the Aero-club de France. She also created the Hélène Dutrieu-Mortier Cup in 1956, a long distance competition reserved for French and Belgian pilots. After a life of records and exploits, Hélène Dutrieu died in Paris on June 26, 1961, at the age of 84.

Contextual source: Champions, they conquered gold, silver, bronze (2016) by Lorraine Kaltenbach and Clémentine Portier-Kaltenbach.

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