One Woman. A Lot of History.

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.

Mrs. Helen Churchill Candee

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.

Helen Churchill Candee book How Women May Earn a Living
A copy of How Women May Earn a Living on display at the Lockwood Mathews Mansion in Norwalk, Connecticut

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.

Titanic classic book A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

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.

Women's suffrage parade in 1913 with Helen Churchill Candee riding a horse
Helen riding at the head of the 10,000-person-strong suffrage parade in 1913

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 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.”

Seniors. Superheroes. Not mutually exclusive.

What if the person acquiring an amazing new ability was not a teenager born on Krypton? Was not a young man bitten by a radioactive spider? What if the person was a sixty-something retiree? A sixty-something female retiree?

Before I began my writing career, I was a teacher. Many of my students loved books about teenagers becoming superheroes, vampires, and mythical characters. Then one day I asked, “What if the person gaining an amazing new ability was old?” And wow, what interesting ideas emerged! Those ideas helped inspire my novel The Better Angels.

Old New York City subway poster encouraging people to offer seats to seniors. The poster reads "Suppose you were old?"
Saw this at an exhibit of old New York City subway posters in Grand Central Terminal.

Every now and then you can find an older protagonist in a comic book or graphic novel, but usually the character acquired superpowers as a young person, then must confront the limits imposed by aging. I was interested in different types of characters: ones who only developed their superpower (in my book it is the ability to time travel) as they grew old.

So instead of a superhero/coming-of-age story, it would be … dramatic pause here … and an abrupt stop. I wasn’t sure what it would be. There really isn’t a name for a narrative form that deals with fictional characters changing as they grow old. Coming-of-age stories follow the move from childhood toward adulthood. What do we call stories about the move from middle-age to old age? Yes, such a story could be a tall tale, or an epic, or a parable, or a fantasy. But those terms do not specifically address the unique issues faced by older characters.

Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City.
Comic-Con at the Javits Center in New York City. I wonder how many attendees were over 50? 60? 70?

Were such stories out there? I hoped so. But I couldn’t find much. I admit that my research was not exhaustive. (Basically, I googled.) I did locate articles about superheroes that had been “allowed” to age and the dilemma faced by comic book writers and illustrators when decades-old characters never developed wrinkles or gray hair. I found almost nothing on characters that didn’t even get their powers until they were over 50, or 60, or 70 …

Poster which reads The Most Important Thing in Life is to Be Yourself - Unless You Can Be Batman. Always Be Batman.
Great poster I saw in a shop. Yes, always be Batman, even if you’re a senior.

Certainly many retirees feel they are beginning a new life when they leave the regular workaday world. And some sixty-somethings face the same issues as twenty-somethings: where to live and who to live with, what to do, who to love, what kind of family or community to create. This seemed like fertile ground for a story—a story about older adults that are diverse individuals, not solely caretakers of grandchildren and compilers of bucket lists.

And so it began. I decided to create and explore a world in which seniors—so often marginalized or subjected to unflattering portrayals—experience the wonder of new ability, the possibility of new love, and the need to face danger and break rules.