Camille du Gast: The Legendary Daredevil of the Belle Epoque

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Camille du Gast: The Legendary Daredevil of the Belle Epoque
“The danger of an accident is always present in my mind, though I am never afraid.” – Camille du Gast, Motor Monthly, Dec. 1903. Camille du Gast was one of the richest and most accomplished women in France. A celebrity of the Belle Époque, she was an accomplished sportswoman: a balloonist, parachutist, fencer, skier and a racer of both motor cars and motor boats. Fear was a stranger to her. Camille du Gast was the second female member of the Automobile Club of France. She was the president of the French society against cruelty to animals and campaigned vehemently against bullfighting. Shockingly named as the Femme du Masque in Henri Gervex’s infamous nude painting, Madame du Gast found herself embroiled in scandal. She devoted herself to the rights of women, yet own daughter colluded to have her murdered. Camille du Gast in a Panhard & Levassor car at the Paris-Berlin 1901, with Prince of Sagan. © Jules Yvon/ Wikimedia Commons She was born in 1868, as Marie Marthe Camille Desinge, but material about Camille du Gast’s early life is scarce. Her father was a confectioner and a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur for his work in the National Guard. Camille grew up as the much younger sister of Alfred and Irma. She was reputed to be an accomplished musician with a lovely soprano voice. In 1889, a romance prompted Camille Desinge to flee her home at 71 Boulevard Strasbourg. Unafraid of social morals of the time, Camille began living with Jules Crespin, the very young and very rich heir to Dufayel, one of the largest department stores in France. According to the Archive de Paris, their only daughter, Diane Marcelle Lucille Crespin, was born out of wedlock on October 1, 1891. Official records show the couple didn’t solemnize their union until October 12, 1894. Just 26, Jules died the following year. During their short time together, they lived in Paris at the still-remarkable 106 rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement. The origin of the added “du Gast” is lost in time. Camille du Gast developed a taste for adventure while Jules was still with her. Avid hot air balloonists – Jules owned two – they frequently launched them to advertise his business. Camille went a step further. A British news report from June 1895 erroneously labels du Gast as an actress, but describes how she ascended over Paris with well-known aeronaut Louis Capazza in his aerostat, a balloon/parachute hybrid. Capazza and du Gast managed a successful 2,000-foot parachute decent over Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Camille du Gast was at loose ends after her husband died. As a young widow, she was equally described as elegantly handsome or stunningly attractive. Blonde and buxom, her figure was compared to the Venus de Milo. Men found her sense of humor and magnetic smile irresistible. Her idealism, independence and ambition led to her being both admired and envied.

Lead photo credit : Camille du Gast, Paris-Madrid Race, 1903. Public Domain

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • Joyce Good
    2022-04-07 07:41:54
    Joyce Good
    On the rue Crespin du Gast in Paris, there is also a little Piaf museum in an apartment. You must call to make a reservation to see it. Across the street is the roof top bar, le Perchoir