Meet Lucy Schell, the Pioneering Rally Driver Who Beat the Nazis
I love history. I’ve spent a fair share of the past two decades chronicling the stories of people from the past. Typically they are narratives of extraordinary achievement or inspiration, whether the architect aiming to build the tallest skyscraper in the world, the first runner to break the four-minute mile, or saboteurs attempting to stop Hitler from obtaining the bomb.
Profiles from history have their own resonance, and I can’t help myself but to continue to explore them. A dozen times a year or so, I’ll turn back the clock to such times past and offer a HistoryCraft post. A few will come from my books, but others will spring from new investigations.
Today I’ve sent you a profile of Lucy Schell from FASTER, my pre-WWII narrative about one of the most momentous David vs. Goliath stories in sports history (check the end of this post for a special offer on a signed edition). Although scarcely known, Lucy was the first—and only woman still—to launch, finance, and run her own Grand Prix motor racing team. She was also a fearless, path-breaking driver on her own.
This is an edited excerpt from my opening chapter featuring her. If you ever wondered what it was like to participate in the famed Monte Carlo Rally, here you go. This was her workcraft. Hope you enjoy!
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“What if their car went into the ditch four times?” Lucy Schell, an American heiress and rally driver, boomed in English over the crowded Parisian restaurant. “Is that a good reason to forfeit?”
Thirty-five years old, thin, ruddy-faced, blue-eyed, with bobbed auburn hair, Lucy commanded the room. In fact, she commanded any room she occupied, all five feet, four inches of her, whether she was dressed in haute couture in a city restaurant or oil-stained overalls in a garage. Her husband, Laury, to whom she had addressed her remark, did not protest. Laury was Lucy’s opposite in every way — as reserved and quiet as she was lively and attractive.
At that moment, Lucy spotted the Le Journal reporter, Jacques Marsillac, across the restaurant. Her bright smile widened as she approached him, and in flawless French, she said, “At last! There you are. Come, I’ll introduce you. We were talking about the Rally.” Once seated at the table, Marsillac got an earful about what lay ahead for him in the 1932 Monte Carlo Rally. A distinguished war correspondent, he had been sent by his popular Parisian daily to accompany Lucy on her next adventure.
Launched in 1911, the Rally was a supreme test of endurance for its participants and their automobiles. As one journalist wrote, “There comes a moment when respectable drivers of unblemished reputation see imaginary elephants in pink pajamas wandering on French main roads where no elephants should be. That is the crux of the run.” Each winter run brought a new wrinkle in how to push both cars and drivers to their limits. For the 1932 Rally, competitors would start from their choice of nineteen far-flung places, including Stavanger, Norway; Gibraltar off southern Spain; Athens, Greece; and Palermo, Sicily. As always, the finish line was in Monte Carlo.
The greater the distance traveled, the greater the challenge and the higher the number of points to be earned by the drivers. Drivers needed to reach control stations during a specific window of time to prove that they were maintaining an average speed of at least 25 mph. At first blush, this seemed slow to Marsillac, but Lucy explained how difficult it was to meet even that pace given that no allowances would be made for sleep, food, refueling, repairs, poor navigation, or accidents.
The Schells planned to tackle the second-longest route, starting in Umeå, Sweden, 100 miles from the Arctic Circle and some 2,300 miles from Monte Carlo. The almost nonstop journey would take four days and three nights. When the teams arrived in Monaco, they would have to undertake a convoluted series of tests of their driving skills to determine the ultimate winner. Although he was no delicate flower, Marsillac was cowed by such an adventure, particularly when he learned about the icy road conditions. That the pilot was a woman made him even more uneasy. Fortunately for him, he kept that fear to himself — nor did he ask why a mother of two adolescent boys was taking part in such a treacherous competition. Had he done so, he would have had to find another ride.
A week after the lunch, at five in the morning, the Schells arrived at the Le Journal’s offices to collect Marsillac for their journey to Sweden where their rally would begin. The couple appeared ready for a polar expedition. Lucy wore a long waterproof jacket, wool trousers, and tawny leather boots that reached her knees. When they had met for lunch, Laury had looked to Marillac like a sallow mortician. Now, in his heavy, fur-lined coat and boots, he seemed a vigorous giant.
Their black Bugatti, a midsized tourer with filleted lines of silver and red down its body, was similarly well fitted out, with mud fenders, spare tires lashed to its sides, and three headlights perched on a bar at the front. Inside, there was enough gear to mount a siege: food stores, mechanic’s tools, picks, shovels, rope, tire chains, and a block-and-tackle set that could lift the car out of a ditch. There was so much stuff that Marsillac had to burrow himself a space on the back seat underneath a pile of luggage, blankets, and camera equipment.
“When do we sleep?” asked Marsillac.
“When everyone is too tired to drive,” Lucy answered from behind the wheel.
Over the next week, Lucy drove as much as her husband to Umea. She was every bit as resilient — and a bit faster too. They slept inside the Bugatti on the side of the road when they were too tired to go on. While traveling up the length of Sweden, a blizzard struck. Many competitors turned back, giving up even before the start of the race. One rallyer never had that chance. While swerving to avoid an approaching horse-drawn sled, he overturned his car and was killed.
This was not the life her parents had wanted for her, but saying “yes” to Lucy was always a far cry easier than saying “no.”
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The only child of wealthy parents, Lucy had received every advantage, to the point of being spoiled. What Lucy wanted, she got, but this doting instilled in her a confidence to pursue her ambitions rather than settling her into indolence.
Her father, Francis O’Reilly, was raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of Irish immigrants who fled the Great Famine of the 1840s. He made a fortune, first in construction, then by investing the proceeds in real estate and factories in his hometown. At forty-six, he was rich and ready for his life’s next chapter: traveling the world. In January 1896, he married Henriette Roudet outside Paris. A quick nine months later, Lucy O’Reilly sprang into the world.
Lucy spent her youth traveling between the United States and France. She was decidedly nouveau riche and unapologetic about it. A biographer wrote of her blossoming personality: “While she grew up in the United States and absorbed its spirit of independence, she remained unmistakably Irish both in looks and temperament, combining a natural charm and vivacity with headstrong courage, obstinate determination, and a careless outspokenness.” When asked the country to which she swore the most allegiance, she said, “I am American,” but the briskness of her answer betrayed the feeling that she never felt completely at home anywhere. In Paris at least, she felt the sting of the general attitude: “When one is not French, one is a foreigner.”
Her Grand Tour of Europe came to an untimely halt with the start of WWI, but her jaunt had not been without consequence. While traveling, she met Laury Schell.
Although his parents were American diplomats, Laury was French in spirit. He trained as an engineer but was uninterested in work, despite having only a meager inheritance. Lucy’s father tried to convince her not to get serious with him, saying, “His life seems to consist entirely of the pursuit of pleasure,” but Lucy was not one to listen to advice.
In the early part of the war, she labored enough for the two of them. Working as a nurse at a military hospital in Paris, she helped treat soldiers who had suffered every type of horror, particularly injuries from artillery shells: severed limbs, burned flesh, disfigured faces, and bodies riddled with shrapnel. The sight of their wounds — and their suffering — was seared into her mind.
In April 1915, a month after Zeppelin ships began bombing Paris, Lucy and her mother, accompanied by Laury and his brother, left for the United States. When interviewed by a Reading, Pennsylvania, newspaper, Lucy railed against the calamity brought by the German invasion and thanked America for its aid. She also promised that France was not yet defeated. “Even the most dangerously wounded soldiers as they lay on their beds of pain and tossed and moaned in delirium begged and prayed to be allowed to return to the front and fight for their beloved country.”
Two years later, Lucy and Laury came back to France and wed. After the Armistice, they lived in Paris, a place and a time that Ernest Hemingway famously described as “a moveable feast.” It was a grand moment, and Lucy was one of the cadre of rich Americans fueling the party. The birth of her two boys failed to settle her down. Instead, becoming a mother had the effect of revving her up.
A defining characteristic of the Roaring Twenties was a love of speed. Across Europe and the United States, car races of every sort proliferated: hill climbs, circuit contests, and rallies. Laury and Lucy were both drawn to the scene, first as spectators, then as drivers. Thanks to Lucy’s family’s money, she could afford to buy the latest, and best, cars.
Lucy followed in the footsteps of other groundbreaking speed queens like Violette Morris, and Hellé Nice. They proved to be particularly adept at endurance races and long-distance speed records, whether racing against the men or only other women.
In 1927, Lucy signed up for her first race at the inaugural “Ladies Day” at the Montlhéry autodrome outside Paris and caught the bug. By the early 1930s, she was one of the top female drivers in Europe. She was seldom photographed in her race overalls; instead, newspapers and magazines featured her dressed to the nines, wearing high heels, mink scarves, and pearls. The press wanted her to drive fast and to be ready for the runway an hour later. Lucy was game for the show. As for silver-spoon airs or a lack of toughness, she suffered from neither. Before one race, she broke her arm in several places, and her doctor advised her to forfeit. Lucy refused, participating with a thick plaster cast on her arm and nearly winning.
Her favorite event was the Monte Carlo Rally, a challenge that, as one chronicler remarked, appealed to those “looking for trouble.” Year after year, she and her husband flew the Stars and Stripes and ranked as the rally’s highest-placed Americans. Still, they had not won it.
The pop-pop of flashbulbs lit up the early hours of Saturday, January 16, 1932, as photographers captured a smiling Louis Chiron before the famed Grand Prix driver sped away in his Bugatti from Umeå, at 3:34 a.m. At intervals, one brand of car after another followed him over the starting line: Riley, Triumph, Ford, Studebaker, Chrysler, and many others. A race official announced to number 57, the Schells’ Bugatti, “Two minutes, gentlemen.”
Lucy ignored the “gentlemen.” She waited at the wheel for the signal to go. Once they were off, she drove steadily and slowly, very differently from the others, who had all torn away at full throttle. The road was coated with a foot of ice, its surface glistening. One could barely stand, let alone drive, on it without spikes or military-grade tires. An indelicate turn of the wheel would guarantee a pirouette into the ditch. Indeed, Marsillac noted, to crash would have been as easy as to “drink a Vermouth or a cup of tea.”
A Talbot swooped past them. Before it disappeared around a bend, its headlights danced left, then right. There was a sharp swish, almost like the sound of a boat breaking through a swell, and the lights were extinguished. Moments later, Lucy pulled up alongside the car, which was stuck deep in a hollow beside the road. Its team waved at them—all okay—and Lucy drove on. Save for injury, regulations forbade drivers to help other competitors.
Despite several sideways lurches of their own into ditches, the Schells’ car reached Sundsvall fifteen minutes before the cutoff time. At the control, located inside the town’s fanciest hotel, they dashed off their signatures, devoured some ham sandwiches, and started toward Stockholm, 230 miles away. A mix of rain, snow, sleet, and fog met them — and this on narrow roads through the ravine-ridden countryside. From the back seat, Marsillac likened the jolting, back-and-forth movement across the road to being stuck inside a cocktail shaker. Even his brain hurt.
They shared the road with local traffic: motorbuses, sleds, and sometimes families out on ice skates, which made the journey even more maddening. The use of the brakes guaranteed an uncontrollable slide, but both Schells handled the Bugatti with consummate skill. They rarely slowed, allowing the wheels to glide across the ice to carry them around turns. Marsillac was particularly struck by how Lucy’s smile widened the tougher conditions became.
At 1:50 a.m. on Sunday, they arrived in Stockholm and took a brief break to stretch their legs and refuel at the depot. Over a dozen teams had already retired from the race. Then they were off again, cutting southwest across Sweden’s pine forests on their way to catch a ferry to Denmark. They were exhausted but drove onward through a blinding snowstorm. Every so often they passed a car stuck hood-deep in a ditch, its team trying to wrest themselves free.
Hour after hour of navigating these roads, only able to see a few yards ahead, wore down the drivers. Nerves deadened. Concentration waned. Errors multiplied. The carnage beside the road was evidence enough of that. The Schells’ Bugatti spun out of control three times in as many hours; fortunately, the only consequences were some dings to their coachwork and thrown tire chains.
At 6:00 a.m., a few hours before the Nordic sunrise, they decided to rest for a short spell. They parked the car by a barn and dozed off quickly, leaning against each other in the front seat. Marsillac squirmed about until he found a comfortable position in the back. Then —
“It’s seven! Quick, back to it,” Lucy announced, clapping her hands.
Soon after, their headlight mount sheared off. They could not continue in the dark. Summoning help was no simple matter: even if they could find the nearest town in the dark, it was Sunday, everything was closed for the weekend, and none of them spoke Swedish. After some cursing, the Schells finally jerry-rigged the mount back in place with some wire and hope. The repairs took time—too much time. By their maps, they had over 150 miles to go to the ferry port at Helsingborg, where they needed to arrive before the last ferry departed at 1:45 p.m.
“We are not stopping again,” Lucy declared. It was already past 9:00 a.m. Hell-bent, she whizzed at 40 mph along the axle-deep rutted roads that would have best been navigated at a crawl. Fortunately, they now had the light of day by which to travel. The miles passed in a blur, as did the massive forest alongside them. As they neared the coast, Laury took over the wheel while Lucy continually checked her watch. One hour until the ferry left.
Forty-five minutes. Thirty minutes. Fifteen. Ten.
She sighted Øresund Strait, then the ferry. Laury whipped down the road. Their surviving competitors were already loaded onboard. Plumes of black smoke pumped from the ferry’s stacks. Marsillac checked his watch. He felt like Phileas Fogg risking everything to travel around the world in eighty days, only to almost fail because of a measly ferry schedule.
The Bugatti came to a jarring halt by the gangplank, and Lucy leaped from her seat, shouting, “Wait, Captain! Stop!”
They had made it.
Onboard, despite the shuddering din of the ship’s bow breaking through gray ice floes, they curled up and slept for the half-hour voyage. At Odense, Denmark, they gleaned news from the drivers who had started from Stavanger. They too had suffered terrible roads, and only two teams had made it from Norway. One driver’s car was held together with an elaborate bowtie of string and copper wire. Gaunt and hollow-eyed, every last competitor looked like they had been touched by the hand of death.
The Danish roads proved better, and the Schells and Marsillac reached Germany without any issues. At the frontier, they guzzled black coffee before speeding off toward Hamburg. From there, they turned toward Brussels, 375 miles away. Such was their exhaustion that it was a challenge to recall what country they were dashing through at any moment. Over a week had passed since any of them had slept in a proper bed, bathed, or even removed their boots. They were filthy, and their clothes reeked.
Hour after hour, day after night, Lucy and Laury drove. Naps on the back seat barely dented their weariness. At this stage of the rally, the term “endurance trial” had taken on new meaning. Even when Lucy was not piloting, she took care to make sure her husband remained awake at the wheel. She pestered him with questions whenever she feared he might be drifting away.
“Laury, don’t you think it’s a little icy?” she asked on the road to Belgium.
“No,” he answered. “That’s melted snow. It’s not slippery.” She looked at him. “I swear,” he said softly. “But if you want, we’ll take it slow.”
From Brussels, they journeyed 200 miles to the Paris checkpoint, arriving in the afternoon under dark clouds and a persistent drizzle. They needed to reach Monte Carlo the next day, between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Over 600 more miles to go.
The highway south of the French capital was a slippery mess. Lucy and Laury reduced their shifts to an hour each time, yet their reactions at the wheel remained mushy. Their speech slurred; their eyes drooped asleep for tenths of a second before being wrested awake. No amount of fresh wind from an open window, no amount of shaking their heads, no amount of clenching their fists, could alleviate the weariness.
They continued down the poplar-lined road, often through a heavy downpour. Whenever Laury asked Lucy to rest, she would grumble that she was fine but would eventually give over the wheel. There were little mistakes: a bend taken too wide, a drift to the left, a missed turn. These piled up, but none of them resulted in an accident.
Others were less fortunate. A Danish team, while they were fixing a broken headlight at the roadside, was struck and killed by another competitor blinded by the rain.
On Wednesday morning, they crossed over the mountains down into Monaco. Rain pounded the pavement, and fog obscured the beautiful terraces of Monte Carlo. When the Schells emerged from their Bugatti at the finish line, on schedule, they swaggered like conquering heroes. Only half the contingent from Sweden had reached the finish.
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After a short rest came the “flexibility test” to decide the winner. The team who traveled 100 meters in the slowest time with their engine in top gear followed by 100 meters in the quickest time would earn the most additional points. After many hard-fought miles, it was a farcical way to determine the victor, but that was the Rally: never quite fair, and always fraught until the end.
Laury piloted the Bugatti during the test, Lucy by his side. She was so tense that she forgot to start her stopwatch. As the Bugatti puttered at 3 kph in fourth gear across the 100-meter stretch, she urged her husband to give the engine some gas, believing surely that it would stall. But Laury managed to crawl forward without incident. Then he turned in a semicircle, jammed on the gas, and sped back across the same distance. Maurice Vasselle, a fellow starter from Umeå, scored with the best times in his Hotchkiss and claimed first place. The Schells finished seventh.
Caught up in the spirit of the Rally, and awed by Lucy Schell, Marsillac chronicled their adventures for all of Paris to read. He concluded his five-part series: “The dream has ended. Life must resume.” His story shared the front page with news of a Paris train derailment, another shake-up of the cabinet, and a story about the “nationalist leader,” Hitler, who was promising that “only by his own strength” would Germany rise again.
Secured from these troubles by her fortune—for now—Lucy thought only of obtaining a car equal to her ambitions to be the first woman to win the Monte Carlo Rally. Her timing was impeccable.
Postscript: Lucy did find that car, built by a fledgling automaker Delahaye. She participated in several more Monte Carlo Rallys but never did come out on top. Her failure led her to hang up her driving shoes and launch her own Grand Prix team to take on Hitler’s fearsome Silver Arrow racing team. In a specially designed Delahaye, her team captain, Jewish driver Rene Dreyfus, triumphed over the Nazis in one of the greatest, most symbolic upsets in racing history.
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Finally, my newsletter recommendation for this week is DAMN HISTORY by Jack El-Hai. I’ve subscribed for over a year and can’t wait for each new edition. Lots of fun, interesting, and quirky bits of popular history and the craft of writing it. Sign up at https://tinyletter.com/jelhai - it’s delivered monthly, and it’s free.