On October 3, 1903, Dorothy Levitt became the first English woman to win an automobile race. Over the next half-dozen years, this daughter of London-born Sephardi Jews became a well-known figure both on the racing circuit and in the gossip columns, and in her own writing did as much as anyone to encourage women – including, supposedly, the queen, her driving student – to get behind the wheel.
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Dorothy Elizabeth Levi was born in Hackney, London on January 5, 1882, the second of the three daughters of Jacob Levi and the former Julia Raphael. Jacob was a well-off jeweler and tea importer; Julia was the daughter of a hotelier and retired diamond merchant.
In 1902 or 1903, Dorothy was hired as a secretary to Selwyn Edge, an Australian-born entrepreneur, whose Napier Car Company produced both cars and small motor boats. Edge, a natural showman, apparently saw a kindred spirit in the diminutive Levitt, as she now called herself. As Jean François Bouzanquet wrote in his 2009 book “Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers 1888 to 1970,” Edge, himself an accomplished racer, “spotted Miss Dorothy Levitt amongst his staff, a beautiful secretary with long legs and eyes like pools. In a bid to promote his cars ... Edge decided that she should take part in a race, though first he had to teach her to drive.”
According to the story – and because most of the information that survives about Levitt is drawn from promotional materials, it’s hard to know how much of it is true – Edge sent Levitt, who was apparently also his lover, to Paris for six months to learn everything she could about automobile mechanics from his friend Adolphe Clement-Bayard, who manufactured cars.
Levitt left for France an experienced horsewoman, and returned as a skilled driver who could repair most any problem that cropped up in a car, and began teaching the queen consort and the royal princesses, as well as “plain Americans,” as one newspaper account had it, how to drive.
In April 1903, Levitt participated in some sort of competition, details of which are lost to time, other than this supposed entry from her diary: “First Englishwoman to take part in public motor-car competition. Did not win. Will do better next time.”
She did. After taking part in a nonstop driving run from Glasgow to London the next month, on October 2 she qualified for the finals of the Southport Speed Trials, the next day winning her class and clocking a time of approximately 59 miles an hour.
The following year she participated in the Hereford 1000 Mile Trial, posing after the race with her Pomeranian dog, Dodo, who barked at all the other competitors, all males. In 1905, she completed “the longest drive achieved by a lady driver” in March, and in October hit a speed of 80 MPH at the Brighton Sweepstakes.
Levitt all but disappears from the public record after 1910, but during her seven years in the limelight, she wrote a newspaper column on motoring, which was collected in the 1909 book “The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor.” There she advised her readers who planned “to drive alone in the highways and byways” to carry “a small revolver,” adding that “I have an automatic Colt, and find it very easy to handle.”
The introduction to the book described Levitt as driving 400 miles a week, and having an active social life that included lunch parties, the theater and Ascot racing. They also learned that she was a speedboat racer – in Selwyn Edge’s Napier vessels, of course.
Levitt remained unmarried, and little is known of her life after she stopped racing, other than that she took flying lessons, too. On May 17, 1922 she was found in her bed, dead at the age of 40. An inquest concluded that she died of “misadventure” caused by morphine poisoning while suffering from heart disease and the measles.