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Madame Bob Walter – A Notorious Arranger of Elopements

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By: Ariejan Bos

You may wonder if this title has anything to do with automobile history, but it really does. It appeared as the title to the obituary of Madame Bob Walter in the Auckland Star of April 13, 1907. The name Bob Walter will sound familiar to those of you that have studied early automobile history, because she was prominent enough to be included in the Felix Potin photo collection with other famous early racers. But since then her story seems to have been lost into the mists of time. I will try unravel this a little, based upon some information and photographs I have collected and uncovered just recently.

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  •      As a dancer, 1890s – Garage Owner 1900s – Lion Tamer late 1890s

Mme. Bob Walter was born as Baptistine Dupré in 1853 in Toulouse, France (some sources also mention 1856 in Blidah, Algeria, which was French at the time). She was raised in Paris, but not much is known about her during this period. She earned some fame in the early 1890s when she created and performed a line of pantomimes and luminous dances in several Parisian theaters.

Next she appeared as a lion tamer in the Gaité Theatre and her star soon rose quickly. Soon thereafter she turned in a totally different direction: she became the first woman to open a garage in Paris at No.83 Avenue de la Grande Armée, which was the center of the French automobile scene, and began dealing in automobiles. She also turned this into a successful venture.

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  • Mme. Bob Walter with a Vinot & Deguingand

Soon she proved herself to be an excellent racing driver as well. During the 1902 races in Deauville, she covered the kilometer in 40 seconds (56 m.p.h. or 90 km/h) with a Vinot & Deguingand. It was reported (no proof has been found) that during the Gaillon Hill Climb races of 1902, she was faster than Léon Théry one of the top drivers in the early 1900s.

Most of the photos of her at the time show her behind the wheel of a Vinot & Deguingand, but during the 500m event at Deauville in 1903 she drove a Panhard & Levassor. The last photo in the post below shows her sitting in the passenger seat of a 1902 Mercedes that was probably taken in Deauville in 1902.

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  • Behind the wheel of a Vinot & Deguingand

After all of her earlier pursuits she went on to earn fame with her next enterprise: the arrangement of elopements. Couples who wanted to marry, but had unwilling parents, could hire an automobile from Madame; a very comfortable reddish-brown 1906 Panhard & Levassor 35-hp. berline (having a little Cupid on the doors!) with one of her drivers Frédéric or Vaudoyer. The driver would elope the lady at a convenient moment, pick up her lover and drive somewhere far away to marry.

The parents were happy most of the time, when their daughter returned unharmed, but if this happiness also included the marriage might be doubtful. Her fame soon spread worldwide as she was interviewed about her business in the Los Angeles Herald of June 22, 1906. An American customer described her on one her publicity postcards as very lady-like and affable, qualities which undoubtedly contributed to her fame and success in life.

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  • Mme. Bob Walter in the second car, a 1902 Mercedes

She died in 1907, and was buried at her estate in Algeria and was apparently soon forgotten. Why she never reached the status of Mme du Gast, even though her achievements were certainly equal, is not clear. As a woman she certainly played a role in the early history of the car, although not all people may have appreciated everything she accomplished.

6 responses to “Madame Bob Walter – A Notorious Arranger of Elopements

  1. Congratulations on a fine article, Ariejan. Madame Bob Walter was completely unknown to me so all of your research was new and interesting. A small point; not to demean the good lady in any way, I would take exception your statement that “her achievements were certainly equal” to those of Camille du Gast. As far as racing is concerned, Baptistine’s kilometer runs at Deauville or even her participation in the Gaillon hill climb in no way compare with Camille competing in the Paris-Berlin and Paris-Madrid races. You have correctly emphasized her role as a garage owner, but newspapers don’t sell with headlines about female garage owners. But women racing drivers…….now that’s quite different. Just ask Danica.

    • Maybe her motor racing qualities seem somewhat exaggerated, however in her obituary it was also written that “if she had chosen to qualify for some great speed race there is not much doubt that she would have been a match for Thery, Jenatzy, or Jarrott”. She didn’t, but I doubt if this was out of free will. These early years were hard times for lady drivers. Also Mme. du Gast quit car racing after the Paris-Madrid race and she didn’t do that voluntarily!

  2. Just a couple of afterthoughts. If her ‘dancing’ took place in the 1890’s, she must have been in her forties at the time. A little beyond her nubile prime. Are you absolutely sure that she became a lion tamer? That poster for the Gaite theatre could be interpreted as two quite separate acts, Georges Marck the lion tamer and Bob Walter the dancer.

    • That is indeed correct. She was performing her acts in the cage, while Marck was trying to control their lion César. Still, to the contemporanean press (which regularly described her ventures in the 1890’s) and to the public she was known as ‘the lion tamer’. She was courageous enough: in 1893 she proposed to make for charity a trip in an air balloon together with lion César. It is doubtful if this ever took place …

  3. Enjoyed your article very much, especially since I had never heard of Madame. My next project post retirement, coming July 1, is to work on searching out the exploits of early women automobilists and she sounds a likely candidate. May I ask if her obit is online somewhere?
    Amazing that she did these things in her 40’s; most unusual for a woman of her time. You have piqued my interest.
    Best,
    Elsa

  4. The photo showing her in the Vinot-Deguingamp seems to be in the port of Honfleur in Normandy, a precious jewel of an old french port.

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