In February 1935, National Geographic magazine published “Summering in an English Cottage”. The author, a 76-year-old American woman, Helen Churchill Candee, described her adventures renting a cottage during her trip to Britain. Among her observations about village life, she offered this advice about how to stave off a chill at bedtime:
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….
Hot-water bottles and knitted bootees- and in June for heaven’s sake! Hardly the stuff of adventure. The elderly Mrs. Candee seems a prim and proper dilettante, someone who hasn’t seen much excitement. But a closer look at her extraordinary life reveals that she was anything but prim and proper. It turns out she knew plenty about how to find adventures—or about how to let them find her.
The most harrowing of them all occurred in the early morning of April 15, 1912 in the freezing cold waters of the North Atlantic. Candee had been in Europe when she received a telegram that her son, Henry, had been seriously injured in an accident. Anxious to get home, and fearing the worst, she booked the first trip she could back to New York – on the RMS Titanic.
A fateful decision; a hasty change of plans placed her at the scene of the most famous maritime disaster in history – the sinking of the Titanic. And she is still well known in Titanic lore. Well before she boarded the ill-fated ocean liner, she had made a name for herself, thanks to her charm, her unconventional lifestyle and her well-connected friends. But more on that later.
Candee was a very prominent Washingtonian, “one of the most charming hostesses in the city” according the the society columns of the papers where she was frequently mentioned. But the Washington Post story published on April 19, 1912, it was brief and even a bit cryptic. “Washington Woman Hurt” the title read. It describes how Candee, a “well-known author, [who] has written two books – one on tapestry and one the history of the construction of furniture” was placed on the first lifeboat to leave the sinking Titanic. Upon arrival in port, she was transferred to an ambulance and taken away to be treated for a fractured ankle that she had broken during her leap into the lifeboat.
Given Candee’s prominent social status and her career as a prolific writer, information about her experience on the night the Titanic sank is surprisingly scant. She did not give interviews, she did not write about it herself. What details there are have been a source of romantic conjecture, due, in large part, to a piece Candee published just three weeks later on May 4, 1912 in Collier’s Weekly entitled “Sealed Orders”. It is not a firsthand account, but a third-person story about an unnamed man and an unnamed woman who keep one another company during the voyage until they are parted by tragedy.
Readers have speculated on the identities of the couple. Many believe Candee to be the woman, while some think that the “Sealed Orders” gentleman is an amalgam of Edward Kent and Hugh Woolner. Both men were friends with Candee. Kent was one of the more than 1,500 passengers who died in the disaster. A cameo of Candee’s mother, which Candee apparently gave to Kent for safekeeping when the boat began sinking, was later found on his body. Woolner survived and went on to testify in a Senate hearing about the accident the following year. Some readers of the piece have gone even further, hypothesizing that the characters of Jack and Rose in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, may have been inspired by Candee’s story, although there is little evidence for this theory. Candee does, however, appear as a character in James Cameron’s 2003 documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss.
As with most of Candee’s writing, “Sealed Orders” is carefully observant, but something about it remains tantalizingly, perhaps deliberately, opaque. A brief comment Candee made to the Washington Herald after the accident is more affecting than anything that she attempted to dramatize. “What need can there be of recounting the heroic deeds performed by those men who remained on the Titanic?” she asked. “To dwell upon them only sickens the heart with the realization of how they perished.”
Seventeen years earlier, Candee had been an unhappy wife and mother of two children. Determined to extricate herself from a difficult and abusive marriage, she took it upon herself to obtain a divorce from her husband, Edward Candee. It was 1895, and divorces were difficult to come by; she left New York City and moved to Guthrie, in the Oklahoma Territory, where divorce seekers could acquire a decree after a 90-day residency.
Her time there was productive. While in Oklahoma, Candee found enough inspiration in her surroundings to write the novel, An Oklahoma Romance, which was published in 1901. Several Guthrie residents claimed to recognize themselves as characters. Oklahoma Romance was the only novel she ever published, but Candee made the most of the fiction writer’s adage “write what you know”. And what Candee really knew was art, furniture, and tapestries. Her articles on these subjects appeared in leading publications of the day, such as Scribner’s and the American Homes, Century, and Metropolitan Magazine.
Candee continued to write to support herself. Her other area of hard-won expertise – how to be independent in a society that did not encourage independence in women – was the subject of her book, How Women May Earn a Living. The book, which offers advice on the ins and outs of a number of ladylike professions (“Typewriting and Stenography”, “Care of Hair and Complexion”, and “Parlor Lectures”, to name a few) is a masterpiece of practicality. Candee’s gift for detail is impressive. In her chapter on the “Ideal Boarding-House,” for example, she advises her readers on everything from the best way to arrange the parlor furniture to the type of soap that should grace a roomer’s washstand.
This sensitivity to small, yet crucial, details, along with her social gifts, probably served her well as an interior decorator. After her stint in Oklahoma, Candee moved to Washington, D.C., where she soon made well-to-do and influential friends including William Jennings Bryan, and President Taft and his wife. Among the mansions she helped to decorate was the West Wing of the White House during its 1909 expansion.
As strange as it may seem, surviving the sinking of the Titanic was not the last time Candee would play a bit part in a momentous historical occasion. Less than a year later, she led the “Votes For Women” parade down Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. (Her fellow suffragette, National Geographic Society’s Elsie May Bell Grosvenor, also participated.) A few years later, with World War I underway, Candee traveled to Europe to serve as a nurse in the Royal Italian Red Cross. According to several accounts, while she was in Milan, Candee treated a wounded ambulance driver by the name of Ernest Hemingway.
The war over, and her nursing days behind her, Candee traveled to Cambodia, where her enthusiastic observations became the subject of her most impressive work, Angkor the Magnificent. Candee was mesmerized by the beauty and perils of the jungle landscape. She wrote: “But had I satisfied a tiger, I myself was first feasted on beauty. The stars above the road were such as I had ever seen, the birds; I heard were strangely sweet, the air which flowed around me was balm perfumed by a million flowers high on the forest trees.” A photograph at the beginning of the book shows Candee in a jaunty hat, perched atop an elephant. She was in her sixties and it would be more than ten years before she would write for National Geographic.
In her third and final NGM article, “Normandy – Choice of the Vikings”, which appeared in the May 1936 issue, Candee traveled out from the small town of Caen. When she saw the ship that would be taking her along the canal and into the North Sea, she did have a moment of doubt. “The boat is a small affair,” she wrote. “You wonder timidly if it is really safe for the crossing in the sea to distant Le Havre.”
But she boarded it anyway. She wasn’t so timid, after all. After a full and adventurous life Helen Candee Churchill died in Maine on August 23, 1949 at the age of ninety.