Helen Churchill Candee
Oct. 5, 1858- Aug. 23, 1949
Helen Churchill Candee’s 90 years of life spanned three major wars, saw the start of the Industrial Revolution, and encompassed many of the household inventions that we, today, take for granted, such as the telephone, indoor plumbing, and electricity.
Perhaps, it was having the genetic disposition of perseverance, as did her great-great-grandfather, William Brewster, one of the original pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock, which drove Mrs. Candee to such a life of vast adventure or maybe her own drive to persevere amid crisis.
After being left a single mother of two young children by her abusive husband, Helen supported her family by writing. Her articles at first were lighthearted editorials on etiquette, and home decorating but later turned to issues of women’s rights, and education. Late in the nineteenth century, she and her children moved to Oklahoma where she penned the novel, Romance in Oklahoma, a fictitious account of a white couple’s meeting, and ensuring romance during the settlement of the new territory. It was, in reality, a reflection of the land rush taking place in what would become the state of Oklahoma and the crimes against the Native American’s occurring within.
As her writing evolved, her journalism caught the attention of those in Washing, D.C. Moving her family to the district, she took up the niche occupation of Interior Decorator, a job that didn’t exist at the time. Among her clients, she counted President and FIrst Lady Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of War, Stimson, and President Taft. In 1909, she worked with Nathan Wyeth to redesign the White House’s West Wing. During her time in D.C., she gained great popularity and connections with government officials and foreign dignitaries, as well as becoming an expert in home design, writing a number of books on the subject, including Textiles, which became an industry standard.
Receiving a message while on research in Europe for her tome, Textiles, that her son had been injured, she gained passage on the Titanic to return home. She is one of the few survivors of that catastrophe, escaping aboard lifeboat number six, the same vessel that held, Margaret Brown (the Unsinkable Molly Brown). The two women are said to have rowed the lifeboat together.
She handed two items; a cameo of her mother and a silver flask, to a male passenger in the assumption that his odds of surviving were greater than hers. The two items were found near the man’s body and eventually returned to her.
After the horrific event, she wrote a cover story for Collier’s and sat for a number of interviews about the disaster. Her novels and articles about her time aboard the Titanic were used in James Cameron’s film about the ship. The most famous scene between the characters, Jack and Rose, at the ship’s bow during sunset, came from Ms. Candee’s own manuscripts, describing an event she had experienced there.
She served on the boards of multiple arts organizations and also on the National Women’s Suffrage Association and would march down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913 during the famous Women’s Suffrage March. A photo exists of her from that day walking front and center with a cane which she used from injuries sustained from the Titanic sinking.
Later, at the outbreak of World War I, she served as a nurse for the Italian Red Cross and was awarded decoration for her service there. Among her patients, in Milan, was Ernest Hemmingway.
From Italy, she traveled, after the war’s end, to Asia, using her experiences in China, Japan, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as the basis for her novel, Angkor the Magnificent. Set in Cambodia, the novel was the first of its kind to open European and American eyes to the Far East and is said to have initiated tourism there. In addition to it being a best seller, the novel made her an instant expert on Far East studies and awarded her further honor from the King of Cambodia and the French government. She even was asked to read it to King George and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace.
Near the time of her death, in 1949, Helen Churchill Candee was writing for National Geographic Magazine and had helped form The Society of Women Geographers.
After all she had witnessed and survived during her long life, it is rewarding to know that Mrs. Candee’s passing, in Maine 1949, was peaceful.