Portrait of Hélène de Pourtalès, around 1878.
Portrait of Hélène de Pourtalès, around 1878. Getty Museum / Paul Nadar

The first female Olympic champion

New York-born Hélène de Pourtalès (1868-1945) of Geneva won gold at the 1900 Olympic Games. Largely unknown today, this pioneering yachtswoman paved the way for other women to compete at the Olympics.

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier is a historian and board member of the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte (Swiss Historical Society). He has published a number of articles on 17th and 20th century Swiss history.

Henry Isaac Barbey (1832-1906), originally from the Canton of Vaud, made his fortune in America. He was one of the main investors in the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway. On 12 January 1865 Barbey, who spoke fluent English, married Mary Lorillard (1841-1926), the daughter of an extremely wealthy high-society New York family. Mary was heiress to the Lorillard Tobacco Company (LTC), founded in 1760 by one of her ancestors. The company marketed cigarettes, including the Kent brand. To begin with, the newlyweds moved into 17 West 38th Street in New York. They always spent their summers in Europe – including, of course, in Western Switzerland, where the Barbey family owned a number of properties. Their first child, Hélène, was born in New York on 28 April 1868.
Henry Isaac Barbey, painted by Wilhelm Heinrich Funk, 1904.
Henry Isaac Barbey, painted by Wilhelm Heinrich Funk, 1904. Wikimedia
The young couple’s enormous wealth allowed Henry Barbey to freely indulge his passions, such as boating. The successful businessman is said on one occasion to have brought the little steamboat Minnehaha, named after a Native American princess, to Geneva. There is no record of how the steamer crossed the Atlantic from the Hudson River, but it did in fact arrive on the shores of Lake Geneva, where it was launched in Bellevue. What a sensation! The couple was now at the centre of upper-class Geneva society as well, and rubbed shoulders with the city’s most prominent figures, such as State Councillor Arthur Chenevière and Guillaume Henri Dufour. Their circle of acquaintances also included Baroness Julie von Rothschild, an eccentric lady with a considerable fortune. In 1876 she had the steamer La Gitana built in Bellevue, just a few hundred metres from the Barbeys’ holiday residence. She shared Henry’s passion and her ambition was to break the existing speed records – a feat she ultimately achieved, earning her the title of ‘fastest yachting lady’ of her day.
The Minnehaha on Lake Geneva in the late 19th century.
The Minnehaha on Lake Geneva in the late 19th century. notrehistoire.ch / Mairie Bellevue
The life of the young Hélène Barbey revolved around clothes, formal dinners, balls and handsome cavaliers. She had lived in Bellevue since childhood because, according to her father, the climate at Lake Geneva was better suited for family life than the coal dust-choked metropolis of New York. From an early age Hélène had followed the sporting activities of Baroness von Rothschild on the water. The Baroness was sometimes accompanied by a ‘kindly, amiable’ lady: Empress Elisabeth of Austria. So it was inevitable that Hélène would be interested in boating, especially as it was also the number one topic at the soirées she attended. Instead of steamers, however, she opted for sailing boats.

Future husband had to be a yachtsman

With her love for boating, it was obvious that only a man who was also passionate about sailing would be considered as a marriage candidate. That felicitous event was not long in coming: in 1891 Hélène Barbey married Hermann de Pourtalès, thus becoming the stepmother of Guy de Pourtalès, who would go on to become a celebrated author. With her husband, she participated in numerous regattas, not just on Lake Geneva but also around Cannes, where the couple owned a villa. The de Pourtalès family home was at Château des Crénées in Mies. Even then, Hélène was a very experienced sailor, spending every summer on the lake and training in Newport in the off-season. She also attended the America’s Cup, in which yachtsmen had vied for the trophy known as the ‘Auld Mug’ since 1851. She described the regatta of 1887 in detail in her correspondence.
Photograph of Hermann de Pourtalès, 1899.
Photograph of Hermann de Pourtalès, 1899. Fonds Guy de Pourtalès, CLSR, Université de Lausanne
Then came 1900. It had been made known in 1894 that the 1900 Olympic Games, officially known as the ‘Games of the II Olympiad’, were to take place from 14 May to 28 October as part of the World Exposition in Paris. For the first time, women were allowed to compete. This greatly displeased Pierre de Coubertin, and he later wrote: ‘As to the admission of women to the Games, I remain strongly against it. It was against my will that they were admitted to a growing number of competitions.’ Zola, on the other hand, was a great ‘advocate of any physical activity that can contribute to the development of a woman, provided that she does not overdo it.’ To symbolise the opening up of no more than five disciplines for women – golf, tennis, sailing, croquet and equestrianism – the Olympic advertising posters depicted female athletes – including the poster advertising the fencing tournaments, in which women were not, in fact, allowed to compete.
Poster that was subsequently recognized as the official poster of the 1900 Olympic Games.
Poster that was subsequently recognized as the official poster of the 1900 Olympic Games. Wikimedia
After achieving a string of victories in Switzerland, Hélène and Hermann de Pourtalès registered for the Games with their sailboat Lerina, a typical Lake Geneva 20-footer. So it came about that Hélène was among the first 20 female competitors at the Olympic Games. The race started on 20 May in Meulan on the expanse of water maintained by the Cercle de la voile de Paris, the Paris Yacht Club. All boats weighing less than 10 tons had to complete the race in order to be allowed to sail in their respective category in the succeeding days. 65 yachties covered a distance of 11 kilometres. On that day there was only a light breeze, so it all came down to technical skill. The couple, who were accustomed to the capricious weather of Lake Geneva, qualified easily. Their boat was given the starting number 22. Two days later, the 20-foot class lined up at the start. Given the number of participants, the 19-kilometre course that had to be tackled was technically very challenging. Hélène and Hermann won again, and on 22 May Hélène received the gold medal as skipper.
The Lerina, photographed at a regatta in Cannes in spring 1900.
The Lerina, photographed at a regatta in Cannes in spring 1900. Wikimedia
As women had competed for the first time at the 1900 Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee honoured 32-year-old Hélène, alongside Englishwoman Charlotte Reinagle Cooper, who won gold in the tennis, and Americans Marion Jones and Hedwig Rosenbaum, who won bronze in the same discipline, as one of the first female Olympic champions in history. This brought Hélène de Pourtalès fleeting fame in the world of sports and among the Geneva aristocracy, mainly because yachting was much in fashion in the most well-to-do circles at the time. Her stepson, Guy de Pourtalès, was introduced to water sports by both his father and Hélène. But throughout the rest of the world, the Olympic champion received little attention because at the beginning of the century the press largely shared the opinion of Pierre de Coubertin. The couple lived together until 1904 in the Château des Crénées, where Hermann died on 9 July, leaving behind a considerable legacy worth more than six million US dollars. From then on Hélène divided her time between Mies and her Paris residence at 45 Avenue de l’Alma. In 1945 she passed away in Geneva at the age of 77 – in complete anonymity.
Hélène de Pourtalès and her husband Hermann in Cannes, late 19th century.
Hélène de Pourtalès and her husband Hermann in Cannes, late 19th century. Fonds Guy de Pourtalès, CLSR, Université de Lausanne
While Hélène’s sister-in-law Marguerite Isabelle de Pourtalès-Naville (1852-1930) achieved renown for her Egyptological studies at the side of her husband, Edouard Naville, Hélène de Pourtalès never gained wide recognition. In her day the science sector was increasingly opening up to women, while sport remained almost exclusively a masculine domain. In addition, Hélène’s international sporting career was limited to the Olympic Games of 1900. Few journalists and commentators noted that she was one of those who paved the way for women to compete at the Olympic Games, let alone mentioned her gold medal. The strong Protestant ethos of the patrician classes in Geneva and Neuchâtel certainly didn’t help her fame either. The Swiss-American dual citizen spent most of her life at Lake Geneva. However, Hélène de Pourtalès was by no means just a ‘freshwater sailor’, remembered by history for nothing more than a ‘lucky catch’ in the form of a gold medal. She was a pioneer and an Olympic champion – that much is indisputable.

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