Helen Churchill Candee was an American author, journalist, travel writer, geographer, interior designer, feminist campaigner and a survivor of the ill-fated Titanic. A true trailblazer, her exceptional life and prolific career spanned two centuries.
She was born Helen Churchill Hungerford in New York City in October 1859 and spent much of her early life in Connecticut. As a young woman she married Edward Candee and had two children, Edith and Harold, but the marriage was far from happy. Following a lengthy separation during which Helen moved from New York to Guthrie in Oklahoma, she was able to obtain a divorce in 1896.
Although from an affluent society family, Helen chose to support herself and her children by writing articles and stories for popular women’s magazines. Initially, she wrote about the subjects most familiar to her design background: the decorative arts and interior decoration. However, her writing soon expanded onto topics such as education, child welfare and women’s rights.
Capitalising on her own expertise and feminist ideals, Helen wrote How Women May Earn a Living, her first book, which was published in January 1900. A ground-breaking and hugely important work in feminist literature, it offered practical advice and information to women on how to achieve an independent life. It became a bestseller and garnered excellent reviews. Her second book and only novel, An Oklahoma Romance, was published a year later. Helen was a keen proponent of the government’s settlement in Oklahoma and this book brought the area to national attention.
With her literary reputation firmly established, Helen moved to Washington DC in 1904. There she not only pursued a hugely successful career in interior design, boasting clients as prestigious as President Theodore Roosevelt, but she also continued to write. She contributed to some of the leading political and literary publications of the time and her third book, Decorative Styles and Periods, was published in 1906.
Whilst in Washington, Helen involved herself in community work and Democratic politics and served on various boards and committees. Most notably, she was a board member of the Washington branch of the National Woman Suffrage Association and, a few years later in 1913, she would lead the Votes for Women parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on horseback the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President.
In the spring of 1912, Helen was in Paris researching her latest book when she received word that her son had been injured in an automobile accident. She booked her passage home on the luxury new liner, RMS Titanic. Luckily, she survived that infamous shipwreck and, despite badly fracturing her ankle whilst escaping the ship, Helen helped row lifeboat no. 6 to safety. She was to walk with a cane for a year after the disaster. Later, she wrote about her experiences on board the ship for The Washington Herald and Collier’s Weekly.
Her fourth book, The Tapestry Book, was published that year and proved an extremely successful work. It became a definitive text on the subject and was re-issued several times. During the First World War Helen travelled back to Europe where she served in Rome and Milan as a nurse. She was decorated by The Royal Italian Red Cross for her brave service.
After the war Helen was the Paris editor for Arts & Decoration between 1920 and 1921. She then left Europe to travel around China, Japan, Indonesia and Cambodia. Her experiences in Asia provided the subject for two of her most acclaimed works, Angkor the Magnificent, published in 1924, and New Journeys in Old Asia, published in 1927. The former was the first major study of the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat to have been published in English; until its publication, the temple had been largely unknown to those in the West. The tremendous success of these books meant that Helen became a popular lecturer on the Far East.
Sadly, Helen’s beloved son, Harold, died in 1925 aged just 38. Nevertheless, she did not allow her grief to slow her work and in that same year she became one of the founder members of The Society of Woman Geographers and was an active member in a number of new charities. Her eighth and final book, a return to her passion for tapestries and textiles, Weaves and Draperies: Classic & Modern, was published in 1930.
During the late 1930s, though well into her 70s, Helen was still working as a journalist and travelled abroad to write articles for the National Geographic Magazine. Pithy, funny and full of detail, these later articles included accounts of life in rural England, the Normandy coast and the Italian Riviera.
Eventually, in her eighties and with failing health, Helen returned to live permanently in New York with her daughter. In the summer of 1949, she was staying in the New England holiday cottage she had owned for half a century. There, at the age of ninety, Helen’s extraordinary life finally drew to its end.