On the Road with the Heiress Who Dominated Early Motorsports
Neal Bascomb on the Life and Times of Lucy Schell
Jacques Marsillac, a reporter for the popular Parisian daily Le Journal, arrived at a stylish Parisian restaurant ready for lunch. A distinguished correspondent who had covered insurrections in Ireland and North Africa, Marsillac, for his next assignment, would accompany American heiress and rally driver Lucy O’Reilly Schell on her next adventure. Trench coat draped over his arm, he surveyed the lunchtime crowd.
A woman’s voice rang out over the hubbub. “So what if their car went into the ditch four times?” it boomed, in English. “Was that really a good reason to forfeit?” Thirty-five years old, thin, ruddy-faced, blue-eyed, with bobbed auburn hair, Lucy Schell 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 in 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.
Lucy spotted the Le Journal reporter 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 in his role as “ballast” for the Schells’ car in the upcoming 1932 Monte Carlo Rally.
The Schells planned to tackle the second-longest route (of nineteen available), 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—and the reliability of their cars—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 offices to collect Marsillac. They 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 the week before, Laury had looked to Marsillac like a sallow mortician. Now, in his heavy, fur-lined coat and boots, he seemed a vigorous giant.
Their black Bugatti T44, 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.A race official announced to number 57, the Schells’ Bugatti, “Two minutes, gentlemen.” Lucy ignored the “gentlemen.”
Lucy drove as much as her husband. She was every bit as resilient—and a bit faster too. After five days and nights, they were on the last leg of their journey to Umeå. A number of competitors had already turned back, giving up even before the start of the race. One rallyer never had even that chance. While swerving to avoid an approaching horse-drawn sledge, 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.” The only child of wealthy parents, Lucy had received every advantage, to the point of being spoiled. What Lucy wanted, Lucy got, but this doting instilled in her a confidence to pursue her ambitions rather than settling her into indolence.
Her father, Francis Patrick O’Reilly, was 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 factories in Reading, PA. At forty-six, he was rich and ready for his life’s next chapter: traveling the world. In January 1896, he married Henriette Celestine Roudet in her hometown of Brunoy, south of Paris. A quick nine months later, in a Parisian hospital, Lucy Marie Jeanne 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.
Her Grand Tour came to an untimely halt with the start of World War I in 1914, but her jaunt had not been without consequence. While traveling, she met Selim Lawrence “Laury” Schell, an American diplomat’s son. Laury 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 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 births of her children—Harry in 1921, and Philippe five years later—failed to settle her down. Instead, becoming a mother had the effect of revving her up.
Laury and Lucy were both drawn to the motor racing scene, first as spectators, then as drivers. Thanks to Lucy’s family’s money, she could afford to buy the latest, and best, cars. And she could compete in those cars as well—if and when she was allowed. Lucy followed in the footsteps of other groundbreaking speed queens like “The Godasse de Plomb,” Violette Morris, and “The Bugatti Queen,” Hellé Nice. They proved themselves to be particularly adept at endurance races and long-distance speed records, whether they were racing against the men or only other women.
By the early 1930s, Lucy 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.”
The pop-pop of flashbulbs lit up the early hours of Saturday, January 16, 1932 in Umeå. At intervals, one brand of car after another crossed the starting line: Riley, Sunbeam, Lagonda, Triumph, Ford, Studebaker, Chrysler, and many others. They were cheered on by a few hundred Swedes, most of whom had traveled there on skis or ice skates. 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.
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 sideway 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 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, sledges, and sometimes families out on ice skates, which made the journey all the more maddening. 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.
Almost ninety-six sleepless hours later—and thousands of miles traveled—their Bugatti crossed 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. They finished seventh overall, but their was victory enough in completing the journey. After all, only half the contingent from Sweden had made it.
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 finding a car equal to her desire to be the first woman to win the Monte Carlo Rally.
Not a year later, she found the car from the most unlikely of manufacturers: Delahaye.
The French firm dated back to the earliest days of motoring, but the decades had left their designs stale, unexciting, and stuck in the past, as symbolized by their car’s radiator cap: a helmeted Gaulish warrior. One critic likened a Delahaye to be “the perfect car to drive in a funeral procession.”
But a revolution of late had come to the manufacturer after its chairwoman Marguerite Desmarais decided that the best way to save the company from bankruptcy was to build light and fast cars that could compete in races. In their initial time trials, their first two models, the Delahaye 134 and 138, proved how well they could run, and Lucy Schell was foremost among those who were captivated by the Delahaye presentation. She wasted little time showing up at their Paris factory.
Delahaye’s production chief Charles Weiffenbach was working through some papers in his office when his secretary peeked in through the door to inform him that he had two visitors. They did not have an appointment but had insisted on seeing him nonetheless.
“Their names?” Weiffenbach asked.
“The Schells: Lucy and Laury,” his secretary answered.
Before Weiffenbach could invite them inside, Lucy Schell burst into his office, her husband in tow. Weiffenbach knew them by reputation. Lucy was too big a personality in the Paris automotive scene to go unnoticed.
“You may have heard of us; I am Lucy O’Reilly Schell, and this is my husband Laury.” She did not wait for a reply. “We like the look of your new Super-Luxe and want it for the Rally next season. The 138 is too big, so it will have to be a 134.”
Beside her, Laury smiled sheepishly. He was accustomed to Lucy driving the conversation. She continued, explaining that the 134 would do for now as it was, but they thought that Delahaye should put the straight-six engine of the 138 into the shorter, lighter chassis of the 134 to improve its potential as a sports or rally car.
“Can I ask you,” she said. “Are you considering that, at all?”
“Ah, ça alors,” Weiffenbach said, sensing that he was already in a negotiation. “I’m afraid that would be impossible. My engineers are far too busy to undertake a special project like that. In any case, I thought you drove a Talbot?”
“Talbot is finished, Monsieur Weiffenbach,” she answered, never one to stay long with a single manufacturer. “Everyone knows that. That’s why we came to you.”
He hesitated for a moment, not least because he was bowled over by the sheer force of personality that had come into his office. Laury had not yet managed a single word. “What I can do is to prepare a 134 Super-Luxe rally car for you,” Weiffenbach said. “It may be rather expensive.”
“I’ll pay whatever’s necessary,” Lucy said. They struck a handshake deal. Great ambitions were afoot.
Excerpted from Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best by Neal Bascomb. Copyright ©2020. Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.