Friday, June 01, 2007

The Last Amazon

A new book has been published in France charting the life of Marie Marthe Camille Designe du Gast (1868-1942), the first woman driver to compete on equal terms with men, details here.

Camille's exploits are legendary: the parachute jump from a hot-air balloon in 1895; a 33rd place out of 122 starters in an underpowered 20hp Peugeot in the Berlin-Paris race of 1901 - she had been required to start last; the attempted duel fought on her behalf by the Prince de Sagan when the lawyer Barboux suggested that Camille was the model for a Gervex nude.

The ill-fated Paris-Madrid race of 1903 saw Madame du Gast among the leaders before she stopped to help the injured Englishman Stead, by the time the authorities had forced the abandonment of the race at Bordeaux she was still 45th out of 275 starters. Camille's reward, L'ACF banned women from competing in 1904!

Camille turned to the new sport of powerboat racing and was victorious in the ambitious Algiers-Toulon race of 1905. Not that she finished, her boat was closest to Toulon when she came to grief - the entire entry having been sunk by unseasonal storms.

A campaigner against bullfighting, her activities led in 1930 to the Minister of the Interior banning the "sport" in the department of Seine-et-Marne. Several thousand citizens marched through the town of Melun in protest, carrying an effigy of Mme. Du Gast accompanied by a cow and picadors riding asses. The effigy was burnt outside the prefecture to cries of Death! Now not many racing drivers can claim to have been burnt in effigy, not even Schumacher.

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