It is about 5 AM on May 12, 1957 along the Viale Rebuffone, a wide street bordering a park in Brescia in northern Italy on which was placed the starting ramp for the Mille Miglia. The last cars to start are waiting in line to ascend the ramp, their race numbers showing their starting times. The Ferrari in this photograph carries number 531 and will be driven by the Spanish Marquis Alfonso de Portago, “Fon” to his friends. He is the man in the center wearing the white helmet with his goggles on it and displaying a rather dour expression. On his left with the multi-colored cloth cap is one of his teammates, the British driver Peter Collins who will pilot a similar Ferrari, number 534. Their Ferraris are the newest and most powerful yet built at Maranello, capable of over 180 mph. Behind and to de Portago’s right is the Amercian actress Louise Cordier, the wife of Peter Collins. This will be the last Mille Miglia.
De Portago was a great sportsman: not only a racing driver but a steeplechase jockey and bobsledder as well. Bob Daley described him, “Portago was tall, with black curly hair worn very long, and almost black eyes. He was unshaven, chain-smoked and dressed all in black. He looked like a pirate, or like one of his famous ancestors, Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a sixteenth century conquistador whose name and title he still bore.” He was to be accompanied by Edmund “Gurner” Nelson who was, in effect, his “batman” whom he had met in New York some years earlier when Nelson was an elevator operator at the Plaza Hotel.
Collins would have the photographer Louis Klemantaski with him as his navigator. Collins led for much of the race at a pace which would have set a new record, but the transaxle of his car failed at Parma, some 80 miles short of the finish in Brescia. De Portago suffered a tire blowout at about 170 mph on a straight section of road near the small village of Guidizzolo, only a few miles from the finish. His Ferrari shot across the road and knocked down a telephone pole then rolled back across the road and killed nine spectators, including a number of children, before ending up in a water-filled ditch. He and Nelson died instantly. A monument stands today at the site of the accident. Although the Mille Miglia had killed a number of drivers over the years, and some spectators as well, this final accident, especially coming after the Le Mans tragedy two years before, was too much to allow it to continue.
After Peter Collins was killed at the German Grand Prix in 1958, Louise Collins returned to America and continued her career as Louise King. She remains a lovely person and lives in Florida today with her memories of another life.
Photo by Louis Klemantaski ©The Klemantaski Collection