There have been many remarkable people scattered throughout the history of humankind… but not many can claim to have taken on just about every challenge you can imagine and come through the other side as one of the most decorated women in history. Cycling the Tour de France? Marie Marvingt did that. Swum the length of the Seine and became France’s champion precision shooter. Flew in a Voodoo jet on her birthday. The first woman to fly combat missions during a time of war… won dozens and dozens of awards for swimming, cycling, mountain climbing, winter sports, ballooning, flying, riding, gymnastics, athletics, rifle shooting and fencing. The first woman to climb the peaks of the French and Swiss Alps. A record-breaking aviator. Oh, and she was also a qualified surgical nurse, the world’s first. She even established the very first air ambulance. Oh, and she was also a movie star. How the hell can one woman be known for so many things? She excelled at whatever she set her heart on and became known as the fiancée of danger. Not many will have heard of Marie, but for those who have, she’s remembered as one of the most brilliantly mad people who has ever lived. How did she accomplish all these feats plus many more? And why is she not a household name? Just how did her story start and how did it end? This is the remarkable journey of Marie…
Marie Félicie Élisabeth Marvingt (ma-ree / mar-vahnt) was born on February 20th, 1875, at 6:30 in the evening. This was Aurillac, the prefecture of the French department of Cantal. Marie’s father was Félix Constant (great middle name, that), who was, even more brilliantly, a senior postmaster – his wife was one Élisabeth Brusquin. Their early marriage was marred with tragedy, losing three sons in infancy. But along came Marie and then a little brother, Eugène. They had a happy 14 years together but when Marie was just 14, Élisabeth died. This left Marie as the woman of the house and she had to take on far more than any 14-year-old girl should have to take on…
The family moved to Nancy, where Marie would remain for the rest of her life. Her mother might have been gone, but her father was a huge inspiration for Marie. He was quite the superhero. A local billiards and swimming champion, a fan of just about every sport and damn good at most of them – Marie would watch on from the side-lines, a smile etched across her face. Why did Félix grow so close to Marie in a time when boys and fathers were inseparable? Sadly, Eugène was desperately ill and bedridden. So Félix spent his time with his daughter and they became best friends. Marie took on the sports her father loved and he encouraged her every step of the way. And Marie was already a remarkable young woman.
By the age of four, she could swim 2.5 miles or 4k, and by the time she reached teenagehood, she was rather good at fencing, too. She loved these things but also mountaineering, riflery, gymnastics, horseback riding, tennis, skiing, luging, ice skating, boxing, martial arts, golf, hockey and football… she mastered these sports before she was even 18. In 1890, at the age of 15, she canoed 250 miles or 400k from Nancy to Koblenz in Germany. She’d also mastered several circus skills and got her driving licence by 1899. She’s almost too amazing to be real, isn’t she?
I can keep going with the unbelievability, if you want me to. Along with everything else, other things she mastered before her 18th birthday included water polo and cooking. Singing. Dancing. Drawing. Painting. Oh, and sculpting. She enjoyed them ALL. Add to that list astrology, palmistry and hypnotism. And I’m not making that up! She loved so many things and she took to them remarkably well. She loved spending her spare time learning new things and every minute, she changed her mind about the road she wanted to take in life. Rope balancing and juggling took her fancy for a while, before she got bored of it and decided to learn English as well as her native French and German.
Oh, she also learnt Esperanto and learned to play the horn. I must say, I am falling for Marie…
The Talented Mademoiselle Marvingt
Marie knew she was good at many things but she set her sights on breaking a few records. She wanted to show the world just what she could do. In 1905, she became the first woman to swim the full length of the Seine, earning her nickname, ‘l’amphibie rouge’… The Red Amphibian. The colour of her swimming costume. But even with this, she was not content… she soon mastered winter sports and started winning prizes in ski-jumping, speed-skating and bobsleigh. Marie was 30 but she craved pushing herself to ever greater extremes, taking on mountain climbing and cycling challenges – on one occasion, she cycled from Nancy to Naples to watch the eruption of Vesuvius. That’s 807 miles or 1,300k. Yup. Marie was nuts.
In 1908, her love of cycling drew her to the Tour de France, but she was denied entry because… erm. Well, yes. Not a man. So, when the race ended, and before the roads re-opened, she snuck onto the course and rode it anyway. Ha. She finished it, too. That year, only 36 of the 114 riders managed to finish and if you include Marie, 37… the only woman. But she was restless. She never stopped. Shortly after the Tour, she found time to win an international military shooting competition with a French Army carbine and by 1910, she’d won multiple prizes for ballooning as well as many accolades… including, in 1910, becoming the first woman to cross the Channel by balloon. In that year, the Académie des Sports recognised Marie’s remarkable achievements by awarding her a gold medal in, rather brilliantly, ‘all sports’. ALL OF THEM.
As the years ticked by, Marie grew an intense love of getting licences… her driving licence and her ballooning licence and so she decided to get herself a flying licence. 1910 was a busy year for young Marie… by the time it ended, she had her pilot’s licence, becoming France’s third qualified female pilot. She did so in the Antoinette monoplane, widely regarded as one of the most difficult planes to fly… EVER. Between 1910 and 1914, flying really took hold of Marie’s heart. She flew more than 900 times and never suffered any kind of accident, completely unheard of at the time.
And she wasn’t done with 1910, yet. In this year, she hit upon an idea, an idea nobody had thought of before. An airplane ambulance. It was genius! But, she was a woman so no-one listened to her. Oh, God. She carried on with her flying, regardless, winning the Coupe Femina in Turin in 1912 and in the same year, she ordered an ‘airplane ambulance’ from the Deperdussin company, right on the eve of World War I. In a busy life with many accomplishments, perhaps, she thought, this would be her greatest achievement.
Considering she’d also found the time between 1903 and 1910 to climb most of the French and Swiss alps, I fancy her chances. It was during this time when Château de Thierry de Beaumanoir dubbed Marie the ‘fiancée of danger’, which newspapers called Marie for the rest of her life. He was suggesting that she was engaged to danger and considering what we know so far of the life of Marie, I think he might have been on to something…
Le Drogué de l’adrénaline de Nancy
As World War I was breaking out, Marie was in the air, her biggest love her flying… but this was not a good place to fly, especially over Europe in 1914. All this led to Marie’s numerous efforts to make her air ambulance a reality. A fixed-wing aircraft capable of being more an aircraft… an ambulance of the sky. It was Louis Béchereau, an engineer of Deperdussin, who helped Marie realise her dream. She drew up a prototype, the first person to do this for an air ambulance, EVER, in the whole of human history. Well… I mean… it just makes sense, doesn’t it?
Marie raised the money to purchase one for the French military and the Red Cross and put in her order in 1912. But, before it could be delivered, Deperdussin went bust. Its owner was found guilty of embezzling company money. But Marie was now on a mission, a mission to dedicate the rest of her life to the concept of ‘aeromedical evacuation’. She started giving conferences and seminars on the subject, ending up giving more than 3,000 in her life. Across FOUR continents. Which I assume she ballooned to.
Marie was not allowed to help in World War I but she was not a woman you said ‘no’ to so, determined to do her bit for the war… she disguised herself as a man and picked up a gun. With a sympathetic infantry lieutenant by her side, Marie served in World War I on the front line as a Soldier, 2nd Class in the 42nd Battalion of Foot Soldiers until her subterfuge was discovered by higher authorities and she was sent home. Predictably, Marie wasn’t happy about this so she joined the Italian army and accompanied Italian troops on the Dolomite front, allegedly at the direct request of Marshal Foch, because the Italians didn’t care if you were a man or a woman, if you could fight, you were in. She served in the 3rd Regiment of Alpine Troops. In 1915, she became the first woman in the world to fly a combat mission when she volunteered for bombing missions over German-held territory, to which she was awarded the Military Cross. Curiously, she was ordered to bomb Metz. The very town where her parents married. It would be another 83 years before women were allowed to fly in the American military and 84 years before France had another female combat pilot. That’s how much of a trailblazer Marie was.
As the war rumbled on, Marie also served as a surgical nurse. Between the wars, she worked as a war correspondent in North Africa and it’s where she devised the idea of metal skis for her air ambulances. If you’re wondering, ‘That’s a bit odd – skis in Africa!’ No. Not for Marie. She taught skiing on the sand dunes. With another war looming, Marie established The Flying Ambulance Corps, operated entirely by female pilots and staffed by doctors and trained nurses, intended to rescue the wounded on the battlefield using aircraft landing at designated ground stations with crews of nurses, stretcher-bearers and effective medical aid. It does beg the question why had nobody thought of this before Marie. She had dedicated nearly 30 years of her life to her air ambulances. The governments of America and France were taking an interest. And there was a development, unexpected for Marie.
She became a role model for young girls across the world. By the time World War II broke out, 500 nurses with at least 10 hours flying experience joined the new corps of flying nurses, with most claiming Marie was the reason they joined. Just think about that. Marie, a modest woman, inspired all those nurses to take to the skies in the air ambulance corps SHE created. How many of those nurses saved our grandparents on the battlefield, going on to have our fathers and our mothers? Marie wasn’t just saving lives. She was helping to guarantee the very existence of many of us alive today. For Marie, the awards started rolling in but she always said she never did it for the acclaim. And you know what?
I believe her.
As she grew older, Marie remained committed to her endeavours. She kept at it – she developed a new type of surgical suture, allowing open wounds to be quickly and easily closed to reduce infection on the battlefield. She was certain to leave behind one hell of a legacy. On January 30th, 1955, Marie received an award from the Federation National d’Aeronautique for her work in aviation medicine. And also in 1955, she learned to fly a jet helicopter, although for this, she never got her licence.
This was her 80th birthday, and as a present, the US Air Force give Marie a ride in a USAF F-101 Voodoo jet fighter, going supersonic over Nancy. For her 86th birthday, she cycled 176 miles or 283k to Paris… because she could. But this remarkable woman could not live forever. She died on December 14th, 1963 at the incredible age of 88, meaning we’ve just passed the 56th anniversary of her death. She was buried at the Cimetière de Préville, Nancy, France, a beautiful place for this beautiful soul to rest.
When she died, Marie had some 34 medals and decorations to her name. Countless streets, gymnasiums, schools, flying clubs and buildings are named after her. She was admitted to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1987. Wow. I am genuinely lost for words. What an incredible person. I genuinely love her so much. Just… what a mad, wonderful, brilliantly beautiful life she led. You just don’t know where to start. All the sports she mastered, fighting in World War I disguised as a man, all the records she broke and her biggest achievement… setting up the air ambulance. It’s not just a life well-lived, but a life of endless impossibility made possible because of the most impossible woman who’s ever lived. Why isn’t she a household name? I don’t know, but she should be. She was utterly outstanding. She stands on her own two feet as a reminder of the amazing feats human beings can accomplish. I really don’t think there’ll ever be another Marie.
This new sport is comparable to no other. It is, in my opinion, one of the most intoxicating forms of sport, and will, I am sure, become one of the most popular. Many of us will perish before then, but that prospect will not dismay the braver spirits. … It is so delicious to fly like a bird!
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Editorial: Thanks to Rosalie Maggio for additional information and corrections. For further reading on the exciting life of Marie Marvingt, please check out Rosalie's website for her excellent book all about Marie: http://www.rosaliemaggio.com