What women’s names come to mind when you hear these descriptions? Writer. Feminist. Home décor guru. D.C. socialite. Suffragist. Journalist. Red Cross nurse. World traveler. Oh, one more thing: Titanic survivor. Well, the headline to this post kind of gave away the fact that a single woman fit all these descriptions. She’s Helen Churchill Candee. When I first learned about her, I was intrigued. Then I found out she had a connection to my own city, Norwalk, Connecticut, and her whole story came alive.
Helen was born in New York in 1858, but spent most of her youth in Connecticut. In 1880, she married Edward Candee of Norwalk, Connecticut, and had two children. But Edward was abusive and eventually abandoned his family. From that point on, Helen was on her own. She began supporting herself by writing magazine articles and moved to the Oklahoma Territory where she could more easily obtain a divorce. In 1900 she published How Women May Earn a Living offering advice on how to attain financial independence. A year later she penned An Oklahoma Romance. Her articles on life in Oklahoma became extremely popular and secured her reputation as a writer.
In 1904, Helen and her children moved to Washington, D.C., where she became part of the social and political scene, and a supporter of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Having developed expertise in furniture and decorative styles, she worked as an interior design consultant. One of her clients was Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, her first book on decorative styles was published.
Helen traveled extensively in Europe for pleasure and to do research on art and home décor. While in France, she received word that her son had been injured in an airplane crash—quite an unusual event in 1912—so she booked passage on the first available ship: the White Star Line’s brand new liner Titanic. In his classic book on the sinking, A Night to Remember, Walter Lord notes that Mrs. Candee “must have been attractive indeed,” because after the ship struck the iceberg “just about everybody wanted to protect her.” Several of her gentlemen friends helped escort her to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, upon stepping in, Helen’s ankle got caught and twisted, causing a fracture. Nonetheless, she helped pull an oar along with Mrs. Margaret Brown, later known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown.”
After landing in New York on the rescue ship Carpathia, Helen went to stay with her married daughter, Mrs. H.C. Mathews who lived in a beautiful mansion back in Norwalk, Connecticut. That home, known as the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, is now a National Historic Landmark.
Helen’s adventures were not over, of course. In 1913, she rode a horse along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., as part of a massive suffrage parade. She published another book, this one on Jacobean furniture, and raised money for a variety of charitable causes. When World War I broke out, she volunteered with the Italian Red Cross. She was one of several nurses that tended a wounded eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway who had been driving an ambulance for the American Red Cross.
At war’s end, Helen returned to travel and writing. In the 1920s she produced two more books, one on the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and a second on her journeys through Asia. In her 70s, she began writing articles for National Geographic. Helen Candee died in Maine in the summer of 1949. She was ninety. The photos below were taken at the Lockwood-Mathews exhibit From Corsets to Suffrage: Victorian Women Trailblazers. Several displays feature artifacts and information relating to Mrs. Candee.
I realized, as I finished writing this post, that the title I chose is not apt. Yes, it is the story of one woman. But so many others—men and women—must have been inspired by her life and work. Who picked up her book on women earning a living and said, “I can do this, too”? Who else, besides Hemingway, were comforted and healed by her care in World War I? Who learned about tapestries or home décor because of her books? Who saw her riding a horse down Pennsylvania Avenue and determined to work for women’s rights? Who was encouraged to travel and write and seek adventure because of her example?
Many of Helen Candee’s books and articles are still available. The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, a National Historic Landmark, offers tours and exhibits. Their website is https://www.lockwoodmathewsmansion.com/. Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, is still in print and available in most libraries. I recommend the 50th anniversary edition which features an introduction by Nathanial Philbrick who characterizes the work as a “finely cut gem of a book.”