Hélène van Zuylen

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Hélène van Zuylen
Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt de Haar 1908.jpg
Nouvelle Revue internationale illustrée, December 1908
Born(1863-08-21)21 August 1863
Died17 October 1947(1947-10-17) (aged 84)
Other namesLa Brioche,
Paule Riversdale
OccupationRothschild, author
Known forPoetry, plays and stories
First woman to compete in an international motor race
Parent(s)Salomon James de Rothschild (father)
Adèle von Rothschild (mother)

Baroness Hélène van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar or Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt de Haar, née de Rothschild (21 August 1863 – 17 October 1947), was a French socialite, author, a sporting figure in Parisian life and a member of the prominent Rothschild banking family of France.[1][2]

Her main creative writing period was from 1902 through 1907 when she collaborated on stories and poems with her lesbian partner Renée Vivien.[2]

Together with Camille du Gast and Duchesse d'Uzès Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart,[Note 1] Baroness Hélène van Zuylen was one of a trio of French female motoring pioneers of the Belle Epoque. She entered the 1898 Paris–Amsterdam–Paris Trail using the pseudonym Snail, thus becoming the first woman to compete in an international motor race.[3]

An only child, the daughter of Salomon James de Rothschild, she was disinherited for marrying a Catholic, Baron Etienne van Zuylen [fr; nl; ru] of the old Dutch noble family Van Zuylen van Nievelt. Thus, her childhood home, the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, was bequeathed to the French government by her mother. Her extensive refurbishments to the van Zuylen ancestral home Kasteel de Haar near Utrecht turned it into one of the foremost Gothic Revival castles in the Netherlands.[4][5]

She was nicknamed La Brioche, and used the pseudonym Snail for motor racing whilst her husband, Baron Etienne van Zuylen, competed as Escargot (French for snail).[6] In collaborations with Renée Vivien she used the nom de plume Paule Riversdale.

Personal life[edit]

Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, the childhood home of Hélène de Rothschild.

Hélène Betty Louise Caroline de Rothschild was the daughter of Baron Salomon James de Rothschild and Adèle von Rothschild [de] (the daughter of Salomon's German cousin Mayer Carl von Rothschild).[1] She was raised at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild at 11. rue Berryer in the 8th arrondissement in the heart of Paris, near the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Her mother bequeathed the property to the French government fine arts administration rather than to her only child, because Hélène was disinherited for marrying a Roman Catholic.


On 16 August 1887 Hélène married the Roman Catholic Baron Etienne van Zuylen (1860–1934) of the House of Van Zuylen van Nievelt. They had two sons. Her son Baron Egmont van Zuylen van Nyevelt (1890–1960) was a diplomat and businessman and the father of Parisian socialite Marie-Hélène de Rothschild (born Baroness Marie-Hélène Naila Stephanie Josina van Zuylen van Nyevelt).[1]

In 1901 Zuylen, a lesbian, met Renée Vivien to whom she provided much-needed emotional support and stability. Zuylen's social position did not allow for a public relationship, but she and Vivien often traveled together and continued a discreet affair for a number of years. Vivien's letters to her confidant, the French journalist and Classical scholar Jean Charles-Brun, reveal that she considered herself married to the Baroness. She may have published poetry and prose in collaboration with Zuylen under the nom de plume Paule Riversdale. The true attribution of these works is uncertain, however; some scholars believe they were written solely by Vivien. Even certain books published under Zuylen's name may be, in fact, Vivien's work. Most of Vivien's work is dedicated to "H.L.C.B.," the initials of Zuylen's first names.[1][2][7] In 1905 it was Adela Carmen Rothschild who brought a girl to the world, but it is not known whether he was the first.

In 1907 Zuylen abruptly left Vivien for another woman, which quickly fueled gossip within the lesbian coterie of Paris. Neither had been faithful.[2]

On July 23, 1935,[8] she founded the initial Renée Vivien Prize, an annual French literary prize awarded in honour of the poet she once loved,[9][10] intended to give encouragement to women poets at the beginning of their career, along with a pecuniary endowment.[11][12]


Baroness Hélène van Zuylen died in Lisbon, Portugal, on 17 October 1947.[2]


Hélène van Zuylen was a writer and between 1902 and 1914 she wrote poems, short stories, novels and three plays, many in collaboration with Renée Vivien:

Works published under the name of Paule Riversdale (Renée Vivien & Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt in collaboration):[2]

  • 1903 – Échos et Reflets (Echoes and Reflections) – Poetry. Cover by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer.
  • 1903 – Vers L'Amour (To Love) – Poetry.
  • 1904 – L'Etre Double (The Double Being) – A novel on androgyny. Cover by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer.
  • 1904 – Netsuké – A Japanese-themed novel.

Works published under the name of Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt (attributed at least in part to Renée Vivien):[2]

  • 1904 – Effeuillements (Falling Leaves) – Poetry.
  • 1905 – Copeaux (Chips) – A large volume of prose poems, stories and plays.
  • 1905 – L'Impossible Sincérité (Impossible Sincerity)- A play.
  • 1905 – Comédie dans un Jardin (Comedy in a Garden) – A one-act play performed at the 'Théâtre de l'Automobile Club de France', 11 décembre 1905.
  • 1907 – Le Chemin du Souvenir (The Path of Memory) – A play.
  • 1910 – L'Inoublée (The Unforgotten) – A series of short stories in tribute to Renée Vivien. 'Night's Dream', 'The Image inviolate', 'Public Gardens', 'The Two Irises', 'Someone came', 'The Adventurous', 'The Eternal Siren', 'The Garden of Mr Dubois', 'Confidences of flowers', 'Death in the mirror', 'I will give my eyes to the woman I love'.

Works published under the name of Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt (believed to be her work alone):[2]

  • 1906 – La Mascarade Interrompue (The Interrupted Mascarade) – A play.
  • 1908 – Béryl – A play in 4 acts which furthers the intrigues of 'L'Impossible Sincérité'.
  • 1912 – La Dernière étreinte (The Last Embrace) – A novel.
  • 1914 – L'Enjoleuse (The Coaxer) – A novel.


Baron Etienne van Zuylen, her Dutch husband, was the President of the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.), the main organiser of the 1898 Paris–Amsterdam–Paris Trail. Using the pseudonym Snail, Baroness van Zuylen successfully completed the Trail, thus becoming the first woman to compete in an international motor race.[3] The Trail was run between 7–13 July over 1431 km and won by Fernand Charron driving a Panhard-Levassor in a time of 33:04:34. In retrospect it is sometimes referred to as the III Grand Prix de l'ACF.[13][14]

In 1901 van Zuylen entered the Paris-Berlin race but was stopped by technical failure on the first day. The only other female entrant among the 122 starters was Camille du Gast, who successfully completed the event, climbing from starting last to finishing 33rd.[1]

Kasteel de Haar[edit]

Kasteel de Haar

On her marriage to Baron Etienne van Zuylen the Kasteel de Haar, located near Haarzuilens in the province of Utrecht in the Netherlands, became her official residence.[4][5] Originally belonging to the de Haar family, the castle passed to the van Zuylen family in 1440 when the last male de Haar heir died childless. The castle fell into disrepair and ruin until the baroness used her Rothschild family money to fully rebuild it in neo-Gothic style. The current buildings, except for the chapel, date from 1892 and are the work of Dutch architect P.J.H. Cuypers.[4][5][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Duchesse d'Uzès Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart The first woman, along with Camille du Gast, to hold a driving license in 1897, the first woman to be ticketed for speeding in 1898 (15 km/h instead of 12 km/h), and the first woman 'lieutenant de louveterie' (Wolfcatcher Royal) in 1923.


  1. ^ a b c d e Université Paris X Nanterre, LES FEMMES ET L’AUTOMOBILE A LA BELLE EPOQUE 1898–1922) – A partir de l’hebdomadaire La Vie au Grand Air. Présenté par Céline CAUVIN Sous la direction de Mr Jean-Pierre BLAY. Pages 47–50
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Valkyria. The Renee Vivien Translation Project
  3. ^ a b Université Paris X Nanterre, LES FEMMES ET L’AUTOMOBILE A LA BELLE EPOQUE 1898–1922) – A partir de l’hebdomadaire La Vie au Grand Air. Présenté par Céline CAUVIN Sous la direction de Mr Jean-Pierre Blay. PDF in French Page 48. (Chauffeuse émérite, ... Sous le pseudonyme de SNAIL qu'elle a conservé, elle prit part, il y a trois ans et avec succès, à la course Paris-Amsterdam. (Magazine La Vie Au Grand Air 30 June 1901 p.367)
  4. ^ a b c The Castles of Holland: Famous Netherlands' Sights. by Karen Lac. 22 January 2011.
  5. ^ a b c Gregory 1993, p. 128
  6. ^ Google Books – Mercedes And Auto Racing In The Belle Epoque, 1895–1915 By Robert Dick. Page 34.
  7. ^ GLBTQ – Profile of Renee Vivien
  8. ^ Collective authors (November 12, 1936). "1935 Année Littéraire" [1935 Literary Year]. Almanach Hachette. 1937 (in French). No. 44. Petite encyclopédie populaire de la vie pratique. Paris, F: Librairie Hachette. Retrieved 2016-04-10. Juillet. – 23, Un nouveau prix annuel de poésie " Prix Renée Vivien ", d'une valeur de 10 000 francs, est créé par la baronne de Zuylen.
  9. ^ Collective authors (June 27, 1936). "Le grand prix de poésie Renée-Vivien" [The Renée-Vivien great prize for poetry]. Journal des Débats Politiques et Littéraires (in French) (177): 2. Retrieved 2016-04-10. Le prix Renée-Vivien, d'une valeur de 10.000 francs, dû à la générosité de la baronne de Zuyten de Nyevelt. née de Rothschild, vient d'être attribué à Mme Lucie Detarue-Mardrus. Ce grand prix de la poésie, fondé en souvenir de la grande poétesse Renée Vivien, doit être décerne chaque année à une femme française ou étrangère, pour un recueil de poésies édité ou manuscrit.
  10. ^ Elot, Maryse (1956). "Mes souvenirs d'Anna de Noailles à Renée Vivien" [My memories from Anna de Noailles to Renée Vivien]. Le Bayou. 20e année (printemps 1956) (in French). XIII (65): 57–63. ISSN 0731-647X. OCLC 2923319. Retrieved 2016-05-11. Il y eut annuellement le Prix Renée Vivien, institué en 1935.
  11. ^ Harry, Myriam (1946). Mon amie Lucie Delarue-Mardrus [My friend Lucie Delarue-Mardrus] (in French). Paris, F: Ariane. p. 128. OCLC 1734550. Retrieved 2016-04-10. La baronne de Zuylen de Nyveldt venait de fonder un prix de poésie de dix mille francs, le prix Renée Vivien, destiné à une jeune débutante.
  12. ^ van Casselaer, Catherine (February 27, 1986). Lot's Wife: Lesbian Paris, 1890–1914. Liverpool, UK: Janus Press. p. 147. ISBN 9780950963068. Retrieved 2016-04-10. Helene van Zuylen even came out into the open and supported her efforts by setting up the Prix Renée Vivien, a prize for promising young poets – of the female sex, of course.
  13. ^ 1898 Grand Prix and Paris Races. Retrieved on 7 September 2009.
  14. ^ Graces Guide – British Industrial History. 1903 Motorists
  15. ^ Kasteel de Haar – Official website, History Archived 27 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading[edit]

  • Families of fortune: life in the Gilded Age, Alexis Gregory, (Rizzoli International Publications, 1993), Page 128
  • Natalie Clifford Barney, Adventures of the Mind (New York: New York University Press, 1992)
  • Colette, The Pure and the Impure (New York: Farrar Straus, 1967)
  • Jean-Paul Goujon, Tes Blessures sont plus douces que leurs Caresses: Vie de Renee Vivien (Paris: Cres, 1986)
  • André Germain, Renee Vivien (Paris: Regine Desforges, 1986)
  • Karla Jay, The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renee Vivien (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988)
  • Paul Lorenz, Sapho, 1900: Renee Vivien (Paris: Julliard, 1977)
  • The Castles of Holland: Famous Netherland's Sights by Karen Lac. Kasteel de Haar