Carpathian on the morning of April 15, 1912.
We can start with what she's most famous for: surviving the wreck of the Titanic. She helped row away from the ship, despite having broken her ankle boarding Lifeboat 6. Also manning the oars was fellow first-class passenger Margaret Brown, better known to the world as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Candee was already a well established author in 1912; her partially fictionalized account of the disaster was rushed into publication as the cover story of Collier's Weekly, one the widest circulation magazines of the day, on May 4, 1912. It was her only published account of the legendary disaster, though an extended version was published posthumously.
What can one whose profession is to amuse do in a time of tragedy? They, too, have a part in the great play of courage. Over the crowds, quiet, inactive, anguished, there flowed a flood of music, such music as was never before heard a gay march, a two-step, light operatic airs, all freighted with a burden of love, that love which lays down its life for a friend. The ship's orchestra was sending out courage from man to man in its peculiar expression, cheering others while itself faced death. ... The ship orchestra was sending out courage from man to man in its peculiar expression, cheering others while itself faced death.
Men of courage and resource who had been loading and lowering boats from the very first came at last to a stop. ... And over them trembled the last strains of the orchestra’s message; ‘Autumn’ first, and then ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee.’
‘And so began an acquaintance that seemed more interesting than the usual meetings,’ she was to write later, tantalisingly. It was with Woolner that she made her secret visits to the bow. But one morning she went on her own and wrote of the thrill. ‘She [Titanic] impressed on me her personality, as I stood at the bow alone and absorbed her spirit. She was a monarch of the seas as her bow cut into the waves, throwing tons of water to right and to left as though in lighthearted playful intent. Her indifference to mankind was significant in its utter self absorption. How grand she was, how titanic.’No bags were allowed in the lifeboats, so Helen gave two precious items, a cameo miniature of her mother and a small flask of brandy, to a male friend who had pockets, later retrieved from his drowned corpse. They sold at auction in 2006 for £58,000 and £30,000 respectively.
In 1880, at 22, she married Edward Candee, a prosperous businessman of Norwalk, CT. He turned out to be a abusive drunk, who ultimately abandoned his family entirely.
During their 15-year marriage, the Candees vacationed in the Adirondacks, traveled the world on luxury cruises, and entertained elite friends and business associates. While the outward appearance of the marriage may have reflected harmonious bliss, marital strife arose only a few years after their 1880 wedding.It would be decades until Las Vegas became a divorce destination. In the 1890s, Oklahoma was the place to go.
In 1895, while still living in New York City, Helen Churchill Candee filed for a divorce based on her husband’s “immoral acts” after having him trailed by detectives in New York City and Denver. New York courts denied the divorce request, choosing to give no credence to the evidence of paid detectives. Not a woman to be easily thwarted, Candee quickly came up with a new plan.
Helen and her two children traveled to Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, where divorce seekers could obtain a decree after establishing a ninety-day residency. F. B. Lillie, the first registered territorial pharmacist, and his wife opened their Guthrie home to Helen Candee. While staying in Guthrie, Candee gathered ideas for her novel, An Oklahoma Romance (1901). Probably the first novel written about Oklahoma Territory, it tells the story of a land claim dispute, after the Land Run of 1889, between a young doctor and a politically established man. Several Guthrie citizens recognized themselves as characters in her novel.Her sojourn in Guthrie led her to be an proponent of Oklahoma statehood, and she is recognized to the present day for her contributions to that effort and outspoken advocacy for the people and ways of Oklahoma. It earned her an assignment for Forum Magazine to cover the ceremonies for Oklahoma's inauguration as America's 46th state in 1907.
Before the divorce, the Candees had been separated for some time. Forced by circumstance to provide for her two children, she took up writing, at first for Ladies Home Journal and Scribner's, but expanding her horizons over time.
Helen moved her two children to Washington, DC in 1904. She had a townhouse built near DuPont Circle the next year for the then-princely sum of $20,000. She was an A-list hostess, including ambassadors and First Lady Taft as friends and guests. And she took up a new vocation.
Having become an established literary figure, Candee moved to Washington in 1904 where she established herself as one of the first professional interior decoratorsAmongst her top tier clients was Theodore Roosevelt, for the 1909 expansion of White House's West Wing.
In addition to advocating for Oklahoma statehood, she was active in the women's suffrage movement, serving on the board of the National Woman Suffrage Association.
In March 1913, the day before the inauguration of President Wilson, she was chosen to ride at the head of the National Woman Suffrage Association's Votes for Women parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing the White House and stopping at the steps of Capitol Hill. On that day, one of the greatest of her life, Helen and six other dignitaries on horseback led over 10,000 fellow women from all over the United States in one of the largest female emancipation demonstrations to date.
I am of course a single woman traveling alone. You would not believe the attention I receive on the ship from the single men on board. ... Men still find it amazing a woman can discuss politics and finances openly and, yes, willingly. When I tell them I have successfully authored not one but several novels, have raised children alone, divorced a horrible brute and support myself, some have turned red. How we so need to make changes.Italy was a favorite place, and her salon circles included high stationed Italians who helped arrange for her to join the Italian Red Cross to help in World War I relief efforts. Amongst her patients in Milan was a young ambulance driver called Ernest Hemingway.
In 1920, at the age of 62, Helen Churchill Candee had already led a truly remarkable life. A bit of an side: Through most of her adult life, her passport showed her as 10 years younger than she actually was. She lied about her age on official documents, under sworn oath!
But she wasn't done yet, expanding her travels and writing topics to Asia in her 60s. She wrote a book, Angor the Magnificent: Wonder City of Ancient Cambodia (1924), about the wondrous antiquities, in which is in print nearly a century later. On top of her many other credits, Candee is credited with helping launch tourism to Cambodia.
The fascinating ruins of Angkor and their Eden-like environs had only been known to Westerners for fifty years, and weren't widely explored or photographed before Candee's ambitious study. Her book, published by Stokes in 1924, was the work Helen was most proud of. It also brought her the most acclaim. She was commanded to give a private reading of Angkor the Magnificent to King George and Queen Mary and was afterwards asked to Their Majesties' annual garden party at Holyroodhouse, being one of only a few Americans invited. Helen was even decorated by the King of Cambodia in a native ceremony.
A decade after [serving the Red Cross in Italy during WWI], she was living in Beijing, where she became involved in the Chinese Civil War on the side of the Nationalists against the Communists, sending periodic dispatches from the front lines to the New York Times.Candee lived to be 90, still publishing well into her 80s. She did slow down, as evidenced by a 1935 article in National Geographic entitled Summering in an English Cottage, with tips suitable to a lady of her advanced years:
A lady’s bed prepared for a June night may properly have two hot-water bottles within it, and laid outside as sleeping apparel, a jaeger gown, a Shetland jacket with swansdown, and a pair of knitted bootees.Another National Geographic article was Life's Pattern on the Italian Riviera (1935). Candee dished out a lot of advice throughout her career, being paid well to do so. This, from an 1897 article in the weekly Outlook, is an excellent example thereof:
The plaint of a young girl first going into society was that she had not sufficient to say. An experienced man whose cachet made or unmade the season's belles said, "Do not let that bother you. There are more people in the world who wish to talk than there are people who wish to hear them." Make yourself a good listener, and your success is assured. It is just as much of an art, and perhaps more of a virtue, to be a good listener than to be a good talker.It was excellent advice from her own remarkable experience. She succeeded well, professionally and socially, against the odds in a time that believed women could not make their own way in the world. Helen Churchill Candee's abundant writings include articles too numerous to mention, or even identify. Here's her book titles:
You can never learn what people really are, unless you have the grace to listen, not with polite patience, but with sympathetic interest, to anything they may tell you. You are at times terribly bored, but that is of slight consequence in view of the fact that your companion is enjoying the conversation, and you are laying the foundation of a friendship which will in time prove its value.
- How Women May Earn A Living (1900)
- An Oklahoma Romance (1901), fiction
- Decorative Styles & Periods in the Home (1906)
- The Tapestry Book (1912)
- Jacobean Furniture (1916)
- Angor the Magnificent: Wonder City of Ancient Cambodia (1924)
- Normandy - Choice of the Vikings (1926)
- New Journeys, Old Asia (1927)
- Weaves & Draperies; Classic & Modern (1930)