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Dorothy Levitt, "The Goddess in the Car"

Continuing my "Badass Women" series today with Dorothy Levitt, or "The Goddess in the Car". I first heard of Levitt from Futility Closet's blog here.

Dorothy Levitt (1882-1922) was born into a prosperous British family in the Victorian era. It seems that she had a love for speed from an early age and was an experienced horse rider who participated in steeplechases.

At age 20, she got a job working for an engineering company, Napier and Son, as a secretary. Three years previously, the company had expanded to start manufacturing automobiles. With the automobile industry still in its infancy, people were equally fascinated by and nervous about motorcars, with races especially getting people riled up (both positively and negatively).

In order to maximize publicity, Selwyn Edge (a famous British race car driver who drove all Napier's cars in their races) thought it would be a good idea to find a lady racer. Not only would it compound the idea of glamour and excitement, but it would also imply that cars were safe and easy to drive, if "even women could do it".

Edge noticed Levitt in the office one day and found her to be so beautiful that he firstly promoted her to being his own personal assistant, and secondly began training her to become Napier's newest racer.

While it is widely presumed that she became Edge's mistress, Napier and Son worked with the papers to invent a romantic (and more respectable) backstory: Levitt had lived in the country with her parents, only to run away to London to escape an unhappy upcoming marriage her parents had arranged for her. Now free of a tiresome fiance, Levitt pursued an exciting career of her own. Cars and cities are the future! The country and arranged marriages are the past!

In 1903, she took part in her first-ever race, and was in fact the first-ever British woman to do so (that we know of). She didn't place, but got a taste for the competition, and was determined to do better next time.

True to her word, that same year, she became the first woman driver to win an automobile race.

And it wasn't just cars. Dorothy was into everything with a motor, and everything you could race. Also in 1903, she took up powerboating and won Britain's first international powerboat race (her top speed being a whopping 19.53 mph--very fast for the time).

In 1905, she drove from London to Liverpool and back, covering 205 miles in just 11 hours. This set a women's distance record. She took three things with her on her journey: an official observer (to make sure she didn't cheat and to accurately mark the time), her pet Pomeranian, Dodo, and a revolver, just in case of trouble.

She broke another record in 1906 (the ladies' land speed record), becoming the "fastest girl on earth" at the impressive 90.88 mph.

Please keep in mind that these are only a very few select excerpts from her many, many races and trials and feats.

Having conquered both land and water, in 1909 she began flight training in France. Before she could qualify for her pilot's license, her life took a strange turn. In 1910, Dorothy disappeared entirely from the public eye. Her life from 1910, until her death, is totally undocumented.

She was found dead in her apartment 12 years later in 1922, and her cause of death is just as complicated and mysterious as her life. The official cause of death was threefold: "the cause of death was morphine poisoning while suffering from heart disease and an attack of measles. The inquest recorded a verdict of misadventure." So, in short, she had a long-term and a short-term illness, both of them serious, but died from taking too much morphine (or her illnesses gave her a bad reaction to the morphine), and it was all a tragic accident.

No one knows what really happened, and it was never recorded why she became reclusive from the public eye.