According to an internet meme, the first female racing driver was Genevra Delphine Mudge. A petite woman, she has been pictured in overalls and a flying helmet, perched on the seat of an open pre-war car. She is credited with being the first woman to race in 1899, the first woman to have a driving license and sometimes the first woman to have a car accident, knocking over pedestrians during a race.
It all sounds very inspirational, but as ever with memes, all is not as it seems. The attractive racer in the picture is Kay Petre, who was not even born in 1899 and who would not start her own racing career until the mid-1930s, when she took Brooklands by storm.
If the woman in the picture is Kay Petre, who then is (or was) Genevra Delphine Mudge? The answer is hard to find, but yes, there was such a person as Genevra Delphine Mudge. She was born in 1881 in New York and died in 1964. If we want to follow her career, however, the person we need to look for is Eva Mudge, the stage name she used during a long showbusiness career.
Mudge earned fame for her vaudeville performances from an early age and she became particularly known for her “quick change” musical act, in which she would turn herself into a string of comic characters via a series of specially-designed costumes. So far, so good, so quite famous, but what about cars?
The most obvious connection we find is in a syndicated article that appeared in a slew of national newspapers in 1900, which names her father as “Mr RC Mudge, prominent in the Locomobile company of America”.
Mudge was talked about far more for her performances and her frequent charitable donations than her fondness for cars, but references do exist. According to the New-York Tribune in November 1900, she was present at the Madison Square Garden Motor Show “ready to aid those who seek her services either with a ride around the oval or a lucid explanation regarding the alleged virtues of different machines which she handles so well.” A week later, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that she was due to appear at the Grand Central Palace show “in charge of the show carriage”. The same paper interviewed her the next day and she spoke at length.
“I have driven horses, handled yachts and managed an auto, and the easiest of them all is the auto,” she stated confidently.
The following year, a portrait of her appeared in The Boston Post, above a story about how she had raced a mounted policeman on the Fenway, a “vision of young and smartly-gowned loveliness, who, all alone, was directing the auto’s course”. The policeman is not named.
There are plenty of mentions of Mudge's stage performances, but none relating to a motor race or even a car accident
But what of actual racing?
The only suggestion that the intrepid Miss Mudge ever drove competitively in 1900, police chases aside, is ambiguous. She is named in the entry list (which was published in the Brooklyn Courier) for the motor component of the 1900 Tri-State Fair at Guttenberg. The meeting included six events, with entries given for five of them. Eva Mudge appears on a list of owners and drivers of “machines entered in the parade”, so it is unclear what she actually planned to do in her “decorated runabout”. The week after that appearance in print, The New York Times spoke of her being one of two female drivers in the parade.
It is highly likely that even had she entered one of the races, she had already been narrowly beaten to first lady competition honors by the legendary socialite Tessie Oelrichs, who raced an electric car in the Aquidneck Trotter Park races on September 6 that year. She won her heat by a walkover and was second in the final.
By 1899 Mudge was already a famous name. Had she taken part in a race, it would have been reported in the news. There are plenty of mentions of her stage performances, but none relating to a motor race or even a car accident. In a November 1900 interview with The Evening World she said that she had only been driving for “less than six months” and had never had an accident.
The only ready reference to a Mudge race entry comes from the same paper, in January 1901. The publication itself organized a ‘Dawn of the Century’ race between its own building and the Pulitzer Building, a distance of about eight miles across New York City. There were classes for cars, bicycles and runners on foot. The official starter was Eva’s father, RC Mudge. This would be a straightforward dash down asphalt roads today, but at the turn of the 20th century the United States’ roads were bumpy cart tracks made of earth and cobbles, almost as tough to negotiate as today’s rally stages.
The ‘Dawn of the Century’ race was a time trial with entries released at intervals, making it more like a modern rally. She may not have been America’s first female racing driver, but Mudge might well be its first woman rally driver. The source of the Mudge legend is almost as perplexing as the story of Mudge herself. Media references to her career start to tail off after 1902, with mentions of her motoring exploits ending before that. The first claims of her being America’s first female racing driver start to surface in the 1970s, usually in promotional material for motor companies.
Tracing the references backwards, the Mudge legend as we know it first appeared in “Famous First Facts” a reference book on US innovators, written by Joseph Nathan Kane in 1933.
Kane, who was a serious non-fiction writer, died in 2002, so we cannot ask him where his version of the story started. A report of a traffic accident involving a car and a horse-drawn carriage which appeared below one of the triumphant motor show appearances in the New-York Tribune may have contributed to a mix-up over the crash, perhaps via the medium of a cracked microfiche or missing archive page. The date confusion is harder to understand.
After her adventures ended, Mudge continued to perform in the US and Europe, and to act, appearing in films as late as 1947. She married twice and had a daughter, Ruth Nelson, also an actress. She married the actor John Cromwell in 1946 and became the stepmother of actor James Cromwell.