Helene van Zuylen of two worlds
Helene van Zuylen came from one of the richest families on Earth. But she was a woman and she only had enough power that her family gave her.
So she took that power to give herself a life that was worth living, from making a name for herself as one of the few women who raced, to being a writer, and to loving a woman.
This is her story.
Helene van Zuylen: A privileged life
Born in Paris, France on 21 August 1863, Helene Betty Louise Caroline de Rothschild was daughter of Baron Salomon James de Rothschild and Adele von Rothschild, from the line of the prominent banking family.
Helene had a privileged life. This was not surprising, given that she was raised in a hotel, the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild in Paris.
But while she grew up to be a socialite, she was also a fierce, independent thinker. Her father died in 1864 and she was raised by her mother, who was quite strict.
When Helene married Baron Etienne van Zuylen de Nyevelt on 16 August 1887, Adele disinherited her because the man Helene married was a Roman Catholic.
Fortunately, Helene still had her own money and she rebuilt the Kastel de Haar, which belonged to the van Zuylen family, in neo-Gothic style to turn it into one of the foremost Gothic Revival castles in the Netherlands.
Helene van Zuylen: Blazing her path
Helene had two sons with her husband: one son became a diplomat and businessman, while the other died at the age of 24 in 1912.
Given that Etienne was one of the founders of the Automobile Club de France and was its first president, Helene also became involved in motoring.
Racing under the name ‘Snail,’ she participated in the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam trial/ race and was the first woman to take part in a motor race.
Together with Camille du Gast and Duchesse d’Uzès, Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart, they formed the French female motoring pioneers with the equivalent of driving licences in 1897.
She competed again in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race but her car suffered a technical failure on the first day.
Helene van Zuylen: Writing as a woman
While Helene and her husband led separate lives, she met Renee Vivien (real name Pauline Mary Tarn) in 1901 and they had a deep– though secret– relationship such that Renee considered herself married to Helene.
This is where it gets murky. Some say that Helene and Renee collaborated to write poetry and prose under the name Paule Riversdale. Others believed that it was only Renee who wrote them– including Helene’s own work.
Moreover, Helene continued to write poetry and prose up to 1914.
The two stayed together from 1902 to 1907, when Helene left Renee for another woman. However, it should be noted that neither of the two were faithful to each other.
Renee, who had destructive habits, died two years later. In 1935, Helene established and financed the Renee Vivien Prize, an annual French literary prize awarded to beginning poets.
Helene died in Lisbon, Portugal on 17 October 1947 at the age of 84.